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The Message

Chin music: Author Jim Bouton isn't averse to pitching inside.

When ex-pitcher Jim Bouton appeared on the November 28 edition of Bill Moyers's signature PBS program, NOW With Bill Moyers, he thought he was simply promoting his latest book, Foul Ball. But afterward, he and Moyers were beaned by complaints from pretty much every entity Bouton portrays as villains in his tome -- among them General Electric, a publishing company called PublicAffairs and Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, owner of the Denver Post.

In the case of MediaNews, its lawyers sent Moyers a letter on December 5 demanding a "full and complete retraction" with regard to "blatant and demonstrable falsehoods" contained in the Bouton chat and an online essay Moyers wrote about Foul Ball. Moyers reacted by pulling the Bouton transcript from the www.pbs.org Web site and putting in its place the MediaNews missive along with other complaints, his written replies and the text of a partial mea culpa he delivered in his December 12 Now broadcast. Critics like MediaNews "object to my saying that Jim Bouton...was 'back, telling the truth again,'" Moyers told his audience. "Well, what I should have said is that he was telling the truth as he saw it."

These remarks and others fall short of a "full and complete retraction" in Singleton's mind, but combined with the material placed on the Web site, they provided some satisfaction. "He just barely got there," Singleton says. Still, he considers Moyers's thoughts about truth to represent "kind of a cop-out. He's saying the truth is whatever somebody thinks is the truth, and that's not right. Facts are facts, and he got a lot of them wrong."

To that, Bouton submits a straightforward rejoinder: "Everything I said in the Moyers interview and the book is true."

The NOW appearance raised the profile of a man who was once among the most controversial figures in sports thanks to the 1970 bestseller Ball Four, an entertaining account of his experiences pitching for the Houston Astros and the expansion Seattle Pilots, plus memories of his days with the New York Yankees. His revelation that Mickey Mantle often showed up at games hung over led to Bouton's being banned from Yankees old-timers events until after the Mick died in 1995 -- of liver cancer, by the way. Bouton cashed in on the book's success with a role in director Robert Altman's 1973 detective flick The Long Goodbye and a short-lived Ball Four TV series in 1976; afterward, he helped invent Big League Chew, a still-popular brand of shredded bubble gum packaged in tobacco-like pouches. Yet despite writing several other books over the intervening span, he's only occasionally been in the public eye outside his home state of Massachusetts.

There, in 2001, Bouton and partner Chip Elitzer came up with a plan to rehabilitate Wahconah Park, a Pittsfield stadium that dates back to 1892. The old grandeur lingered, but the stadium was deteriorating, and its parking lot was prone to flooding. Such problems helped motivate the owner of a Class A franchise based there to move his team to Troy, New York, and representatives of the New York-Penn League, which is affiliated with Major League Baseball, proved unwilling to shift another squad into the facility. Even so, Bouton was convinced that an unaffiliated team could give Pittsfield a high-quality baseball fix even as it provided a rationale for saving a landmark.

Countering this proposal was one supported by Pittsfield's only newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, whose ownership by MediaNews gave Moyers the opportunity to touch upon one of his pet peeves: media consolidation. The idea was to build a new stadium that met New York-Penn League standards on land near the Eagle headquarters. A portion of the parcel was owned by MediaNews, which offered it to the cause along with a promised donation of $2 million; likewise, Honeywell CEO Larry Bossidy, a Pittsfield native, pledged to buy a New York-Penn League team to play there.

On the surface, this notion seems appealing, but a sizable portion of the Pittsfield electorate hated it, and not only because it probably would have doomed Wahconah Park. Many voters didn't want to spend $18.5 million of combined private and public money on a stadium when other needs were more pressing, and they were reluctant to create a civic authority that could demolish homes and businesses using the power of eminent domain. A referendum to sanction the authority was soundly defeated, thereby opening the door for Bouton. Too bad another suitor, Jonathan Fleisig, turned up -- and unlike Bouton, he owned an unaffiliated team, the Berkshire Black Bears, that could take the field at an unrenovated Wahconah Park in 2002.

Ultimately, the local parks commission rejected Bouton's approach, and Fleisig stepped to the plate -- but as Bouton predicted in Foul Ball, he didn't stick around long. In November, MSNBC.com reported that Fleisig would herd the Bears out of Pittsfield, citing "criticism of him and the team as a main reason."

 

Foul Ball blames much of Bouton's defeat on the Eagle, which he accuses of conspiring with city and business interests like GE, as well as delivering slanted coverage. Predictably, the Eagle contends otherwise in "Baseless Story, Worse Journalism," a December 5 editorial that takes Bouton and Moyers to task. Left unaddressed is what Bouton calls a "smoking gun" -- a January 12, 2001, document from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection showing, as Bouton writes in Foul Ball, "that the property owned by the Berkshire Eagle...is contaminated with a 'release of oil' sufficient to qualify it as a 'disposal site,' according to a DEP letter acknowledging receipt of the form."

That this information wasn't made public until the June publication of Foul Ball leads to conjecture by Bouton that the property might be infused with dangerous levels of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, a cancer-causing chemical found all over Pittsfield in recent years. The source of the toxins was a GE plant that polluted the nearby Housatonic River and numerous area homes whose owners were given PCB-laden Fullers Earth, a material used on industrial spills, to place in their yards and gardens. In 1999, the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency announced that GE would spend over $250 million to put the situation right, and Tim Gray, executive director of the Housatonic River Institute (HRI), a Pittsfield environmental organization, guesses that the current figure could be more than twice as high.

The pollution angle is a tangent in Foul Ball, but it was highlighted in the Moyers interview; Bouton said he'd guessed early on that there was "toxic waste" on the site and that a stadium might serve as "a Band-Aid over a tumor." Moyers picked up on this theme in his essay, writing that "the new stadium was a way of passing off the liability to the public even while enhancing the value of the newspaper's property." To Colorado environmental activist Adrienne Anderson, who issued a press release after the first NOW broadcast, this suggests a pattern of behavior by MediaNews, since the Denver Post was among 166 business and government agencies identified as contributing to pollution at the Lowry Landfill Superfund site. In the release, Anderson accuses Singleton's Post of "advancing its own interests against those of their readers to keep the lid on an unfolding scandal" in much the same way that Bouton alleges the Eagle behaved.

The link Anderson sees may be less perceptible to others. The Post is grouped with small, or de minimis, settlors at Lowry ("A Matter of Trust," April 19, 2001), and because the landfill received Superfund designation in 1984, the paper's share of the pollution almost certainly predated Singleton's ownership; he purchased the Post in 1987. The oil on the Pittsfield site, meanwhile, most likely came from an old car dealership and was dealt with pretty easily. Minute traces of PCBs were also detected, but they were well within Massachusetts safety standards. HRI's Gray wishes more extensive study had been done, since some plots in Pittsfield that initially tested fine were later found to be laden with PCBs. Nonetheless, the state gave the site a thumbs-up, and a pharmacy is presently being built on it.

Singleton says these details demonstrate that he wasn't trying to unload liability on Pittsfield: "It's 'No good deed goes unpunished.'" Regarding the rejection of the referendum, he says he's "not resentful at all," because he "saved $2 million. If the voters didn't want the stadium, I certainly could find a place to use $2 million."

When first contacted by Westword, Singleton hadn't seen Foul Ball, but he announced his intention to sue Bouton anyhow. After perusing the book, which he found to be "kind of boring," Singleton changed his mind. "Our problem isn't really with the author," he says. "I've now read it, and our attorneys have read it, and the kind of allegations that came across in the Bill Moyers commentary aren't in it."

About this, Bouton says, "Damn. I could have used a good lawsuit" -- and he may get his wish. A December 1 letter to Moyers from PublicAffairs' Peter Osnos declares that the company is suing Bouton "to recover what he owes us under a cancellation agreement." Bouton, in turn, hints that GE may have killed his deal with PublicAffairs, forcing him to self-publish Foul Ball. GE spokesman Gary Sheffer, whose letter to Moyers is also on the PBS Web site, contradicts this: "We can say categorically that it never happened."

Singleton spotted errors, too, including one assertion that he "tried to buy the Oakland Athletics" -- he didn't -- and another that he unsuccessfully bid for naming rights to Invesco Field at Mile High. "You know how preposterous that is," Singleton notes. "The Denver Post editorialized against selling naming rights from day one and didn't recognize the name for a year."

 

There's also a dubious section focusing upon Post reporter Theo Stein, who previously reported about PCBs for the Eagle. Bouton likens him to a local Woodward and Bernstein, which Stein calls "flattering," but he has the reporter working at the Eagle during the wrong decade (the '80s) and uses a Gray quote to insinuate that Stein's departure for a fellowship at Stanford and, later, the Post job was suspiciously timed because it weakened the Eagle's GE coverage at a key stage. "The allegation that I was removed for the purposes of blunting the Eagle's coverage is false," Stein says. Singleton adds that Stein was a big moneymaker for the Eagle; GE bought over thirty full-page advertisements intended to refute his findings.

Of course, Bouton doesn't state directly that Stein was removed as a favor to GE, relying instead on the same sort of inferences he employs in respect to pollution possibilities. "I was speculating in the book. I say, 'I wonder if that's a toxic waste dump.' GE has been dumping PCBs since the late 1930s, so it's certainly done enough to give rise to questions about PCBs. I'm entitled to speculate, and that's well within the bounds of speculation."

Other attacks on Foul Ball's accuracy leave Bouton unmoved. "They said Ball Four wasn't true, and now it's considered not only true, but prophetic," he points out. "So I'm used to the not-true talk. Usually it lasts for a year, and then it winds down when too many people realize it is true."

Perhaps, but in his December 12 commentary, Moyers backed away from a number of his previous statements. He says he was wrong "to describe the book as an investigative report when indeed it is Jim Bouton's diary," and strikes a description of Foul Ball as being about "greed, corruption and abusive power," acknowledging that it's "a far more complex story than those strong words warrant." However, he expressed regret that Singleton and other critics, none of whom were mentioned by name, declined an opportunity to "come on this broadcast and give us their version," since "equal time seems to me to be fair play."

"I don't think anything else could be accomplished by sparring on the air with him," Singleton responds. "The main thing is that the facts had to be corrected," and because PBS put the letter from his lawyers and other information online, he feels people have the tools they need to determine who's being square. Now he's ready to move on. "These things go by in a hurry," he says. "A week from now, we'll be worrying about something else."

Moyers may have other ideas. In his December 8 letter to Singleton, he floats the prospect of launching an investigative piece about Wahconah Park. And on the December 12 Now, he said, "In this story, there are chapters still being written."

Sneak peak: It's no secret that the Rocky Mountain News is dedicated to fighting the Denver Post on every story, but one effective, if dubious, method the paper used until recently was kept under wraps. Sources at the two papers say the Rocky systematically got early looks at subjects the Post had earmarked for the next day's edition thanks to the assistance of one or more sister publications around the country.

Here's how it worked. The Rocky and the Post are members of the New York Times News Service, which makes articles available to subscriber papers nationwide. Furthermore, e-mails Laurence "Lad" Paul, the service's executive editor, the Post "is one of our thirteen partner news organizations, filing its top stories to our clients to augment the material from the New York Times." Each afternoon, the Post submits a roster of brief story descriptions known as a budget to the service, which then alerts other papers of the articles' impending availability. The Rocky doesn't get the list directly, since it would give the tabloid an unfair advantage over a direct rival; after all, the Post isn't told in advance what's in the Rocky's hopper. So the Rocky, which is owned by E.W. Scripps, had other Scripps papers that subscribe to the news service forward the budget, thereby giving reporters the opportunity to chase stories they weren't already researching.

Numerous Rocky articles had their origins in this approach. Indeed, a source allows that the Rocky once cobbled together an article prompted by a Post budget item that the Post didn't wind up running.

Paul declines to talk about this situation, writing that "we have good business relationships with both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.... These relationships are valuable to us. We intend for them to continue indefinitely." Rocky editor/publisher/ president John Temple is similarly reticent to tackle the topic, saying only that "we don't discuss the inner workings of the newspaper ... But I don't need budgets from anyone to beat the Post on a regular basis. I think that's pretty obvious."

 

Maybe not, since the Rocky apparently went to quite a bit of trouble to preview the Post. These moves displeased Greg Moore, the Post's editor. "I was really upset about it," he confirms, "and I'm glad there's been an end put to it. I feel confident the particular means of our budgets getting over to the Rocky has been stopped." While some might insist that all's fair in a newspaper war, Moore says, "I don't think there's any way to put a positive spin on this. Competition is a good thing, but I don't think you need to do that. It shouldn't have happened."

Clearly, the secret's out.


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