Kill the Ump?

By Kauffman, Bill | The American Conservative, September/October 2019 | Go to article overview

Kill the Ump?


Kauffman, Bill, The American Conservative


Jim Bouton died on the same July day that the Atlantic League conducted professional baseball's first game-long experiment with robot umpires, the latter an event that might be likened to Richard Pryor's introduction to freebasing cocaine, or John Bolton's first dorm-room game of Risk. Something wicked this way comes.

The free-spirited Bouton, whose Locker Room Confidential memoir Ball Four (1970) remains a sprightly and affecting read, sometimes came across in his writing and public persona as a know-it-all pain in the ass (though a mutual friend assures me he was not). I do admit to cheering when his smugness got blown away by Elliott Gould at the end of Robert Altman's Raymond Chandler pastiche The Long Goodbye (1973).

But he wrote as a brave and honest man, a radical who was also a reactionary, as the best radicals always are. In his self-published Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark (2003), Bouton recounted his unsuccessful effort to persuade the city fathers of Pittsfield, Massachusetts to scrap plans for an $18.5 million taxpayer-subsidized and eminent-domain-enabled stadium and instead permit Bouton and his partners to fix up Pittsfield's historic Wahconah Park, where baseball has been played since 1892.

Pittsfield was losing its team in the Class A New York-Penn League to Troy, New York, where the taxpayers of the aptly (if obscenely) nicknamed Empire State had built Joseph Bruno Stadium, its eponym the convictedbut-later-acquitted-of-corruption Republican State Senate leader.

Bouton's offer? "Pittsfield would get a renovated landmark and a professional baseball team, at no cost to the taxpayers. Wed even sell stock to local investors so no one could ever move the team out of town....We'll spend private dollars to renovate an existing ballpark for a locally owned team."

Some radical, eh?

He explained:

"Beyond the sadness, there's a certain fear involved in tearing down a treasured building. Tearing down is forgetting. If we can forget so easily, who will remember us?"

"... It's comforting to live in a community that cares about its history. I'm one of those who cringed when the Taliban blew up those ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, and I'm not even a Buddhist. Nor do I care about religion. Baseball is my religion and ballparks are the temples."

Bouton never got his team, but neither were Pittsfield's citizens fleeced for a new stadium. …

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