John Paul Stevens & Jim Bouton, R.I.P.

You’re not hallucinating. That is indeed a signed John Paul Stevens baseball card. It was created by David Mitchner who mailed it to Justice Stevens during the 2016 World Series. You know, the Cubs’ first championship since 1908. Justice Stevens returned the signed card and the rest is history. The photo of Stevens in Cubs gear dates from 2005 when he threw out the first pitch at a Cubs-Reds game in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

You’re probably wondering why I paired Justice Stevens and pitcher/author Jim Bouton in a tribute. They’re both people I admired who died recently, that’s why. Besides, I’m notorious for my oddball combinations. Stevens and Bouton were both genial, kindly men who loved baseball. It’s time to uncouple this Odd Couple; one that’s almost worthy of the late Neil Simon.

Let’s take them in order of demise. We’ll use the time-honored Odds & Sods device of the New York Times link thingamabob as subject headers/dividers.

 

I failed to pay proper tribute to Jim Bouton last week because of the Wednesday flood and the approach of Whatever That Was Barry. He had a mediocre career highlighted by two fine seasons with the New York Yankees in 1963 and 1964. He blew out his arm in 1965 and by 1969 was trying to make a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher with the expansion Seattle Pilots. The Pilots lasted one year before being sold and moved to Milwaukee where they ditched the awful uniforms and became the Brewers.

1969 was the dividing line in Jim Bouton’s life. It was the year that he recorded the diary entries that would become the sensation that was Ball Four. Bouton was pilloried by the stuffy, ultra-conservative baseball establishment for admitting that ballplayers were human beings. Mickey Mantle drank and played hungover? A huge shocker in 1970 but no surprise to anyone who actually knew the Mick.

Along with Catch-22, Burr, and Breakfast of Champions, Ball Four was my favorite book of that era. Heller, Vidal, and Vonnegut were pretty lofty company for a washed-up pitcher to keep. But all four books were irreverent and hilarious; influences I try to put to good use as a writer.

Teen-age me was thrilled to learn that someone who played my favorite sport was an anti-war liberal with a wicked sense of humor. Ballplayers pretended to be apolitical paragons in those days. Bouton was a breath of fresh air.

One of the best tributes I’ve read to Bouton is by my friend Vince Filak. He focuses on Bouton’s unique voice and exceptional story-telling ability. It’s a helluva good read.

I’ll give Jim Bouton the last word of the segment:

“A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

Let’s move on from a former Yankees/Pilots/Astros/Braves pitcher to a zealous Cubs fan.

John Paul Stevens always maintained that he was a conservative and that SCOTUS had moved so far to the right that he looked like a liberal in contrast. I think of Stevens as the sort of liberal Republican that is largely extinct in 2019.

He grew up in Chicago, which was a town dominated by a corrupt Democratic political machine. The natural thing for an independent minded lawyer was to become a liberal Republican in the tradition of fellow Supremes Charles Evans Hughes, Harlan Stone, and Earl Warren. Stevens’ appointment was by far and away the best thing that Jerry Ford did during his brief presidency.

As a Supreme, Stevens was an independent force with a fervent belief in the rule of law. I think Jeffrey Rosen best summed up Stevens’ credo as a judge:

In our conversation, three consistent themes in his jurisprudence emerged: his belief in the duty of the government to be neutral; the duty of judges to be transparent; and the need for judges to interpret the Constitution in light of the entire scope of its history, including the post–Civil War amendments, rather than stopping in the founding era.

Those are themes that all judges should aspire to but are sadly lacking among today’s conservative justices who are eager to gut precedents they dislike. That’s what John Paul Stevens meant when he called himself a conservative. He wanted to conserve what was best in the law and reform the worst.

Circling back to our baseball theme. As a young lawyer, Stevens was involved in Congressional hearings that addressed baseball’s anti-trust exemption. There’s a swell piece in the archives of the Atlantic about how Stevens changed baseball.

That concludes this odd couple tribute to two men I admired. Jim Bouton and John Paul Stevens made the world a better and livelier place. They will be missed.

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