The Short Answer: Jim Bouton

Jim
Jim Boutin

Credit: Tony Baker

Former New York Yankee 21-game winner, best-selling author (Ball Four, 1970), ABC and CBS sportscaster, and film actor, Jim Bouton in 2003 wrote Foul Ball, which chronicles the fight to save 113-year-old Wahconah Park, a stadium in Pittsfield, Mass. The update, Foul Ball, Plus Part II, was published in August.

What makes a great ballpark?

It has to have some history, some charm, and some idiosyncrasies. It can't be a cookie-cutter shape. There have to be parts that affect play differently than in other parks. For example, the Polo Grounds in Manhattan had very short right and left field lines, and centerfield ballooned out to about 500 feet. The Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston is another perfect example.

What is special about Wahconah Park?

It is one of the last of the wood ballparks, and baseball has been played there since 1892. It's misshapen due to the Housatonic River. You can hit a 400-foot shot to right-center field and it gets caught, but if you hit a 380-foot shot to straightaway center, it's over the fence. Also, the park faces west. The sun shines in the batters' eyes, and they have to call time out for five to 10 minutes, depending on how fast the sun drops behind the trees. It's called a sun delay, but we call it "Mother Nature's marketing opportunity"—to send people to the stands to buy more beer.

What drove you and your friend Chip Elitzer to try to save Wahconah?

It seemed like an adventure. We were following the progress of this old ballpark and the battle in Pittsfield. We thought we could put together investors, renovate the place, and get our own minor league team. And then, of course, when we got involved, it became more intriguing because we ran into opposition.

Who were the opponents?

The mayor, the city council, the mayor's handpicked parks commissioners, the town's only daily newspaper, its largest bank, and its most powerful law firm. These guys, the power brokers, wanted a new stadium in the center of town on property owned by the newspaper while everybody else—or approximately 94 percent of the people of Pittsfield—wanted their old ballpark.

Why did you write Foul Ball?

When I realized Pittsfield's baseball destiny was in the hands of a guy in Denver named Dean Singleton, who owns MediaNews Group, parent company of the local Berkshire Eagle newspaper, I said I'd better start taking notes here; this is too bizarre. It got even more bizarre as time went on, and the notes became a book.

What happened after the book was published?

In 2004, Chip and I were invited back to save the old ballpark by the new mayor, a new city council, and new parks commissioners. The idea was to raise all of our investment money and renovate the park that summer, so we could be ready for opening day 2005. Once again, the power structure forced us out.

Are your opponents still hoping to build a new downtown ballpark?

They work behind the scenes and aren't forthcoming about their intentions. They just wanted us out.

In the past 10 to 15 years, why have so many old stadiums been razed or fallen into disuse and been replaced by new ones?

There's a lot more money to be made in building new than in renovating. Renovating takes a certain amount of taste and skill and care, and most of these people in favor of new stadiums are of the bulldozer mentality—flatten it and start from scratch.

What are the biggest obstacles to saving these old parks?

The power structure in towns large and small—politicians and businessmen—fights to keep referendums off the ballot because they know the people would never go for them.

In Foul Ball, you favor using private funds to build new parks. Why?

If building or renovating a stadium is a good idea from a business perspective, let the businessmen pay for it. Why should taxpayers have to subsidize a baseball stadium if they don't even go to the games? It's a national outrage, considering that you have schools, hospitals, and fire departments without proper funding.

How about the mostly private-funded plan for a new Yankee Stadium?

George Steinbrenner and the other owners are just custodians. They come and go. I didn't like the renovation they did in the 1970s; it looks like somebody jammed a new stadium into an old one. Now they're going to tear the whole thing down and build across the street. I mean, come on! Who would tear St. Patrick's Cathedral down and build another one across the street with better confessional booths? And why is the city giving them the land and putting in subway stops? Even if the team were struggling—and they're certainly not—the owners should offer those improvements.

Fenway Park has finally been saved. Can you comment on this?

It was an uphill battle, but that's the one good story in the whole country right now.