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Big League Chew Founder Rob Nelson On Friend And 'Ball Four' Author Jim Bouton

July 16, 2019
Jim Bouton, a former MLB pitcher and author of "Ball Four," one of the most famous nonfiction sports books of all time, died July 10 in his home in Great Barrington, Mass., at the age of 80.

Bouton suffered a stroke in 2012 and was later diagnosed with cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a condition that causes vessels in the brain to burst under pressure, and struggled with speech and memory in his final years.

The former right-hander pitched 10 years in the big leagues, earning one All-Star selection in 1963 when his 21 wins helped lead the New York Yankees to a World Series appearance. After his first retirement in 1970, Bouton befriended former minor-league left-hander Rob Nelson, who later gave him the business opportunity of a lifetime: gum.

"I liked the idea of shredding gum and things just happened. ... Jim Bouton said [he] could sell that idea, and true to his word he did. So by January of 1980, Big League Chew was on the shelves," Nelson said on The Bat Around with Stan "The Fan" Charles July 14. "Jim and I became partners on a handshake. He put up about $10,000 for me to make prototypes. ... Jim is the guy who was the original and only investor."

Bouton released "Ball Four," a personal diary of his experiences during the 1969 season, in 1970 with the editorial help of sportswriter Leonard Shecter. Some of the stories told in the book portrayed some of the game's biggest stars in an unfavorable light at times, and Nelson witnessed the backlash Bouton received from the MLB community firsthand.

"There are probably parts of 'Ball Four' that Jim wished he hadn't written, but for the most part, like 95 percent of it was just what a goofy bunch of human beings those guys were," Nelson said. "A lot of old-school guys didn't like the fact that Jim told stories that were less than flattering about people like Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle and guys didn't like that. There are fellas today that just don't think very highly of Jim and I feel badly for them because they missed out on a really great guy."

While the game pushed back on Bouton's book, "Ball Four" is considered one of the most influential sports books ever written for its honest depiction of the life of baseball players at the time, both the good and the bad.

Some athletes mentioned in the book, like Mantle, took offense to Bouton naming names and including negative stories about events thought to be private at the time. The two didn't communicate much after the book's publication until Bouton attempted to rectify their relationship after the death of Mantle's son.

"When Mickey's son, Billy, passed away ... Jim wrote to Mickey and basically said, 'We have more in common than not. We are fathers of sons, we're part of the Yankee alumni, and I'm just reaching out to tell you how badly I feel for your loss and how sorry I am that this has happened,'" Nelson said. "Jim saved the tape [of Mickey's response] ... and Mickey said, 'Jim, I really appreciate your message and it really means a lot to me, and I want you to know I don't have any hard feelings about 'Ball Four.'"

"It was a classy move by both guys," Nelson added.

Bouton wrote four more books after "Ball Four," with "I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally" being released in 1971 as a response to his first publication's backlash. 

Nelson remained close with Bouton throughout the end of his life. He helped Bouton recover after his daughter, Laurie, died in a car accident in 1997 and when his health began to deteriorate. While he didn't go into detail, Nelson hinted that a special edition of Big League Chew is in the works to be released to honor his longtime friend and business partner. 

"A lot of people look at [Jim and I] like Butch and Sundance. I'm honored to have been a part of that whole thing," Nelson said. "I knew that he was not in great shape over the last 5-6 months. I went to see him four or five times and each time I saw him you could see that he was fading. He went from being a very young 70-year-old, then he had a couple of strokes and some brain issues and memory loss. It was tough for me to go see him but he was the greatest guy right until the end. I can't emphasize that enough."

For more from Nelson, listen to the full interview here:

A previous version misspelled  Leonard Shecter's name. PressBox regrets the errors. "Ball Four" being a diary of Bouton's 1969 season was also added.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rob Nelson