This is Chapter Fourteen in a developing series titled “Who Remembers…..” that aims to highlight the careers of colorful and intriguing ball players, who made their mark on the game not only with their impressive stats, but also with the sheer force of their personalities.
In keeping with the developing theme of this series, Jimmy Piersall’s life in and out of baseball is about more than the back of his baseball card. Yes, he played in all or parts of seventeen big league seasons with five different teams collecting more than 1600 hits and ending his career with a respectable.272 batting average……..check to all of that………
But as you might suspect, he is not remembered for any of that. Instead, he is the man who once celebrated hitting his 100th home run by running around the bases backwards. And in days when monuments stood on the field at Yankee Stadium 461 ft. from home plate, he is the man who hid behind them refusing to come out so the game could resume. He is also the man who, on the same playing field, met two would be “fan” attackers coming onto the field toward him with a few kicks in their butts.
Filled with intrigue, disaster, success followed by failure and then success again………the story of Jimmy Piersall goes far beyond the lines of a baseball diamond………
There was a time in America when mental illness was hardly ever diagnosed by doctors much less talked about at the dinner table, newspapers, and other media. Treatment in the form of sophisticated medicine was still in the development stage. If you suffered from this disease, you were likely to be dismissed as “crazy”, ready for the “looney farm”, sent off to what we called a psychiatric “hospital” (so aptly portrayed in the film classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest), or swept under the rug, and held up as a symbol of ridicule and despair. Jimmy Piersall could identify with all of this.
His life began quietly in Waterbury, Connecticut as the son of a house painter who was convinced from day one that Jimmy would be a star in the major leagues. For most of his childhood, his mother battled with mental illness losing time with her family due to off and on stays in a mental hospital.
Jimmy was an intense, hyperactive, talkative, and in many ways a desperate young man when he signed a contract to play for the Boston Red Sox in 1948. Almost immediately, he began to show signs that something was “off” about him although his athletic ability was never in question.
His life was moving at a rapid pace off the field as well. While playing for a Boston minor league affiliate in Scranton, he met Mary Teevan who he would marry and immediately start a family with the first of what would be nine children. In 1950, they bought a house that they would share with Jimmy’s parents. In a portent of what was to come, Jim couldn’t handle all of the pressure and kicked everyone out of the house and sold all of the newly bought furniture.
In spite of all this (or maybe because of it), his baseball career continued to blossom. He was highly thought of by both Lou Boudreaux, the manager of the Red Sox, and Joe Cronin, their general manager. They experimented with him at shortstop as well as in center field. But beneath the surface, there were continuing causes of concern……….
A national story written about Piersall’s shortstop switch in early 1952 referred to the rookie as “high strung,” “spirited,” and “voluble,” and as someone who tended to “press too hard.” Prophetic words, it would turn out. Nonetheless, on Opening Day in Washington, Piersall took his place at shortstop. Piersall was a sensation with the fans—he clowned with them, made goofy gestures, ran in circles, and imitated opposing players. For a while most people laughed.
But the laughter soon turned to greater concern. The behavior first turned problematic on May 24, in a fight with Yankees infielder Billy Martin, at whom Piersall had been screaming insults. Later that same day he scuffled with teammate Mickey McDermott, who had apparently been teasing him about his earlier fight. Piersall battled with umpires constantly, being ejected from games three times early in the season.
Teammates began to view him as a distraction while fans flocked to his side adoring him as a entertainer. But his clowning grew more outrageous. He let opposing infielders know he was bunting by pantomiming bunt attempts. If the bullpen cart drove by him in the outfield he stuck out his thumb to hitch a ride. He laughed with fans, made fun of his own mistakes and those of others. In the ninth inning of a game against the St. Louis Browns, Piersall imitated legendary pitcher Satchel Paige’s every move, finally resorting to flapping his arms like a chicken and squealing like a pig
Finally, on June 28, 1952 Piersall was sent to the minors landing in Birmingham Alabama. Joe Cronin stood by him the whole time, even providing a house for Jim and his family while they were there. The following month, Cronin and Piersall would spend most of a day driving around the city just talking. Eventually, Cronin convinced him to see a psychiatrist.
Not surprisingly, the doctor advised that Piersall check into a private sanitarium for a prolonged rest. “I have this to say and it’s going to be brief,” Cronin told the press before that evening’s game. “After consulting with, and on the advice of, doctors, Piersall is to take a rest. The ballclub is primarily interested in Jim Piersall, not where, how, or what position he is going to play. I think you people will acquiesce in that decision. I’m sorry I can’t elaborate.”
Piersall’s stay was rough and tortuous for everyone involved. But despite numerous “escape” attempts and several electroshock “treatments” (these were common in the middle of the twentieth century), Piersall emerged, with the aid of prescription drugs that he still takes today, as a healthier man. Piersall’s illness was genetic, and not caused by any outside event. His breakdown did not have to happen in 1952, but it almost certainly would have happened sometime.
Remarkably, Jimmy Piersall would return to the playing field to enjoy several more years of professional baseball. There would be numerous bumps and bruises along the way, but nothing as serious as what had occurred before. With the help of sportswriter Al Hirshberg, in 1955 Piersall’s autobiography, Fear Strikes Out, first excerpted in the Saturday Evening Post, was published in the spring. It was a startlingly honest book, for which Piersall received much sympathy and praise. “I was aware that many others had been afflicted like I was,” he said at the time, “or were even now experiencing the same mental sickness and I felt if they learned how I had conquered mine, they would become enheartened in their own efforts at rehabilitation.”
Hollywood would also take his story to the big screen with a movie called “Fear Strikes Out” (as inept a title as could be imagined. Following his playing days, Piersall would launch a successful career as a broadcaster teaming with Harry Caray for the Chicago White Sox who were then owned by another master showman himself, Bill Veeck. Piersall became known for his brutal honesty causing repeated dismissals followed by new hirings. As an example, he once referred to Bill Veeck’s wife with this comment on the air, “Mrs. Veeck is a colossal bore. She ought to stay in the kitchen where she belongs.” In response, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a poll asking if Piersall should be fired. Instead he received overwhelming support and kept his job. Bill Veeck himself, aware of Piersall’s popularity, kept silent.
That Piersall will be remembered most for his nervous breakdown is unfortunate. But for many reasons, Piersall himself considers it the best thing that ever happened to him. Rest assured though, his antics on a baseball field provided a source of entertainment for many years……… And the good news is that Jimmy Piersall is all right, healthy, and (even today) still doing well…….
FOR MORE READING ON MENTAL ILLNESS, SEE MY PIECE FROM NOVEMBER, 2015 TITLED MENTAL ILLNESS AND MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
Special thanks to Mark Amour for his detailed account of Mr. Piersall as it appears in The Society Of Baseball Research (SABR). And to Baseball Reference for the stats and history.