For the 69th game of the season, I will dig into the archives for knuckleball pitcher Jim Bouton's start on August 29, 1969, when he registered a game score of 69---his best start for the Astros. A 69 game score is quite good---but many Astros' pitchers have pitched better games. If it was anyone but Bouton pitching that game score, I wouldn't be writing this article. But Jim Bouton is a unique figure in baseball history, and it's noteworthy that he was also associated with the Astros for 1-1/2 seasons.
For those who don't know, Bouton chronicled his 1969 season, split between the one-year franchise Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, in the book Ball Four. Ball Four was a controversial first of a kind "tell all" baseball book, which changed the shape of sports books. Bouton's humor (sometimes profane and obscene) and story-telling ability made the book a smash hit. The New York Public Library placed Ball Four on its list of "Books of the Century" in 1995---the only sports book on the list. Rob Neyer says," In this writer's opinion, the lasting impact of "Ball Four," more than anything else, is that it's a great book, wildly entertaining and worth reading every two or three years."
Bouton, himself, was a character, and those Astros' teams during the team's first decade seemed to be filled with characters. A one-time hard throwing phenom pitcher for the Yankees who posted both a 21 win season and 2 World Series wins, Bouton injured his arm and could no longer throw hard by the late 1960's. Bouton went to the minor leagues and resurrected himself by throwing the knuckleball, a pitch he picked up in his youth in order to pitch against older kids. He was part of the expansion Pilots' franchise. In August, 1969, he was traded to the Houston Astros, which was in contention for the first time in franchise history. That Astros' team was riding the pitching of hard throwers Larry Dierker, Don Wilson, and Tom Griffin, but acquired Bouton as kind of a utility pitcher to use out of the bullpen or take spot starts. According to Ball Four, Bouton put up his family at the Astroworld Hotel (remember that hotel?).
Bouton's overall performance during his Astros' career was marginally mediocre (ERA+ of 87 and 72 in 1969 and 70), but he had his good moments as a pitcher. And there was something special about having a knuckleballer on that team.
Bouton was given a starting assignment against the Pirates in his second appearance with the Astros on Aug. 29, 1969 at the Astrodome. This wasn't a throw away game either. The Astros' record was 68-62, 5 games out of 1st place; but the team had lost 2 straight. They needed a win in a bad way. The Astros lost this game, but Bouton gave the team a good opportunity to win. The game score of 69 didn't come against a bunch of rag tag hitters: the Pirates' lineup featured Matty Alou, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Al Oliver, Richie Hebner, and Manny Sanguillen.
Bouton pitched 10 innings (!), with 2 ER, 9 hits, 4 BB, 11 Ks, and no HRs. In the top of the 10th, the Pirates scored two unearned runs after a passed ball on a strike out looking. In his later years, Bouton is quoted as saying this is the most satisfying game of his career, partly because he was able to prove a point about his knuckleball.
Bouton pitched another game almost as good in the next year, posting a game score of 67 in a complete game win against the Chicago Cubs on May 4, 1970.
Larry Dierker, Bouton's teammate on those 1969-70 teams, would later become an author too, writing a similarly humorous account about managing the Astros. Dierker is also a good writer, and his book is among the more enjoyable baseball books. How many franchises can boast players on the same team who would become acclaimed authors?
I originally intended to recall some of the most famous passages from Ball Four, but, alas, the funniest stuff is R-rated. So, I'll just mention a few Astros-related topics (see this source):
The Trade: Jim was lying in bed in his Baltimore hotel room on August 26 when his manager called to tell him he'd been traded to the Astros. .... Jim places a quick phone call from his hotel to the Pilots' traveling secretary to arrange a flight to St. Louis to join the Astros - but after spilling his guts, learns that he's just dialed a wrong number and is speaking to a stranger who is with Kimberly Clark. The stranger tells Bouton that what he's just heard is interesting, and that he'll keep it to himself.
Manager Harry Walker: After a September 24 loss to the Braves, who went on to win the division, Harry calls a team meeting. Most of the players are used to these dressing downs, but it's new to Bouton and he almost starts laughing out loud when Walker says "You guys look like Tom Thumb," then goes on to say "You look like you're going downhill on a scooter."
Irony: In 1967, Bouton pitched 25 terrific innings in spring training, perhaps his best spring ever, and thought he was doing great, and Yankees manager, Ralph Houk came up to him and quietly told him that he was having "a better spring than Dooley Womack." Bouton wrote that he just sat there shaking his head at the faint praise. When the Astros traded for Bouton in 1969, they sent Dooley Womack (who else?) to the Pirates in return.
Team Unity: Upon joining the team, Bouton was quickly taught the words to "Proud to be an Astro," the R-rated song that the players sing in the back of the bus. I recall reading that this raunchy song was written by Larry Dierker.