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The View From Pluto: One Hot Summer and Two Books Paved a Sports Writer’s Path to the Big Leagues

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Jim Bouton's 1970 book "Ball Four" (left) and Terry Pluto's 1978 book about the season he spent with Bouton in the minor leagues

Former Major League Baseball pitcher and author Jim Bouton died last week at age 80. Bouton is most known for his controversial 1970 tell-all book, "Ball Four." It exposed what really happened in the locker room, from players getting drunk to popping amphetamines like candy. It became a best-seller.

WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says the book, and one summer he spent with Bouton, launched his career. 

Ball Four breaks new ground
"I was 15 when the book came out," Pluto said. "Bouton had been a very good pitcher with the New York Yankees in the early 1960s. By the late 60s, his arm is shot, and he's trying to learn a knuckle ball. He was bouncing from team to team, and he decided to keep a diary.

"I remember one line from the book where he said, 'You get pounded on the mound and then the boys go out and pound the Budweiser.' And he would talk about how the guys would get bored in the bullpen, and they're looking up at the women in the stands."

'We both realized we were guys with very big dreams stuck in Savannah, Georgia'

Bowie Kuhn, baseball commissioner at the time, labeled the book as "detrimental to the sport." It went on to sell millions of copies worldwide, and it's among "Time" magazine's 100 greatest nonfiction books of all time.

"The other appeal of the book to me was here was a guy who was good, and now he's not. And he's trying to hang on, and he has fears of being cut. It read very real to me and to a lot of people," Pluto said. 

That summer in Savannah
Bouton retired midway through the 1970 season ended up becoming a TV sports anchor and actor in New York.

"Suddenly he's having this midlife crisis," Pluto said. "He wanted to come back after all these years and go to the big leagues. He finds a kindred spirit in Ted Turner, the owner of the Atlanta Braves." 

Turner assigned Bouton to AA Savannah and he arrives there about the same time as 23-year-old Pluto arrived as a minor league baseball writer with the Savannah Morning News.

"After about a conversation or two, we both realized we were guys with very big dreams stuck in Savannah, Ga.," Pluto said. 

"He starts throwing this knuckle ball, and he starts winning. So they called him up the Atlanta Braves in September. He starts five games for the Braves, and at the end of the year he quit. He always said, 'As a baseball player you start out gripping the baseball and then after a while you find out it was always the other way around. The ball had a grip on you, and you didn't want to let it go."

'In some ways looking back it's somewhat my story too'

Launched into the big leagues of sports writing
Pluto says in spring of 1978 he got a call from the Baltimore Evening Sun.

"They needed a young, cheap baseball writer. But what clinched it for me was that I had this book coming out on Jim Bouton with Prentice Hall. So it got me to the big leagues the following year," he said.

"The Greatest Summer: The Remarkable Story of Jim Bouton 's Comeback to Major League Baseball" was Pluto's first book.

"It's as much about minor league baseball and the guys [Bouton] was there with, the bus rides, the heat," Pluto said. 

Dreams come true
"I look back, and we both got our dream come true," Pluto said. "He got to pitch. I did get out of the minor league journalism. Jim's part of the reason I ended up getting that big league job and ended up being able to come home to Cleveland. My next stop after Baltimore was a baseball writer for The Plain Dealer and then spending all these years here."

"When Jim died I began to page through and read my book, and in some ways looking back it's somewhat my story too," Pluto said.