GREENSBORO — I won’t pretend that I knew Jim Bouton.
Heck, I’m not sure anyone really knew Jim Bouton. Maybe not even Bouton himself.
He was a complicated man, best known as the pitcher-turned-author whose 1970 book “Ball Four” forever changed the way we view pro baseball. The memoir took us inside a big-league clubhouse, telling unvarnished and taboo off-the-field stories.
In those days, writers still turned ballplayers into heroes. Bouton turned those heroes into men, flaws and all.
And many in baseball hated him for rocking the boat.
Bouton died Wednesday at his home in Massachusetts. He had been in hospice care, suffering from a brain disease linked to dementia, a cruel twist of fate for a thinking man. He was 80 years old.
I met him only once, in 2014, spending a Friday in July with him and 13 other old men who played for the Greensboro Yankees from 1958 to 1966. They all traveled to the city for a reunion, some coming from faraway places in Texas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Of that reunion group, only three reached the major leagues: Bouton, right-handed reliever Dooley Womack and outfielder Art Lopez.
There was a car caravan that morning. Reunion organizer Johnny Smith, a batboy for those G-Yanks teams, led the players on a tour of the city they used to know 50-some years ago.
I’ll never forget one stop. Bouton stood on the front porch of a big, white Craftsman-style house on Chestnut Street and rapped hopefully on the glass of the storm door.
He wanted a peek inside, to see how much the old place had changed.
But there were no cars in the driveway that morning, nobody home. So he settled for a picture, posing on the porch, smiling for the camera held by his brother, Bob.
Once upon a time, Bouton slept there, a short walk from where he worked: old World War Memorial Stadium on Yanceyville Street. There, in the summer of 1960, he went 14-8 with a 2.74 ERA as a 20-year-old on his way to the big leagues.
“It was a boarding house, and it cost $1 a night,” Bouton said that day. “You didn’t pay by the week. You paid by the night. Because, in the minor leagues, some of the guys were only in town for a few days.”
Bouton never forgot Greensboro. He returned to the city a number of times over the years, and he lent his support to downtown ballpark naysayers who wanted to keep the city’s South Atlantic League team in Memorial Stadium.
“He really, really tried to get that place restored instead of building a new ballpark,” Bouton’s G-Yanks teammate Ike Futch said. “He was all about old ballparks.”
Bouton never set foot in First National Bank Field, even skipping the game during the reunion when the old G-Yanks were honored by the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
Futch, 78, was an infielder in his youth, a lifetime .310 hitter in the minor leagues whose career ended at 26 when a collision with a runner at second base tore up his knee. He invited Bouton to the Greensboro reunion.
“Jim and I have been friends ever since 1959,” Futch said. “I was the only one who knew his contact information when we got the reunion together. He really liked Greensboro. He got all excited about coming.”
That was out of character, Futch said, because Bouton was stoic more often than not.
“I considered him a good friend, and there weren’t too many in baseball who did,” Futch said. “… Jim really was kind of a loner. But he was real, real smart. He just didn’t have many friends when he was playing. Then when he wrote ‘Ball Four,’ he got so much flak from the commissioner (Bowie Kuhn) and the Yankees basically black-balled him. He went through some hard times, but some of it was brought on by himself. He was who he was, and he wasn’t going to pull any punches.”
And he wasn’t going to miss the chance to come back to Greensboro, even though he was still struggling with aftereffects of two strokes in 2012.
“When he came to the reunion, he and his brother rode a train from Grand Central Station down here. I picked them up and took them to the Marriott,” Smith said. “… That reunion brought back a lot of memories. I lived about two blocks from the ballpark, and Jim stayed right up the street from me.
“He was a nice guy, but he wasn’t real outgoing. He stayed to himself, compared to the other players. I was 12 years old, and I looked up to all those guys. What I do remember was how intelligent he was. Some of those guys, well, they weren’t what I’d call intelligent. But Jim was. And he was the ace of that pitching staff.”
Smith is 71 now, and he cannot remember who Bouton “used to pal around with” away from the ballpark.
Truth is, maybe it was no one. All his life, Bouton was a complicated man. That hadn’t changed on that last visit to Greensboro.
“Jim left that reunion and never told anybody goodbye,” Smith said. “We all met at Pastabilities on a Saturday for lunch, and I noticed he didn’t show up. He had gone home, and nobody knew that he had left. But that’s kind of the way he was.”