The often outrageous outfielder and broadcaster whose emotional breakdown while a rookie with the Boston Red Sox was portrayed in the 1957 movie “Fear Strikes Out,” a rare glimpse at an athlete’s mental illness, died Saturday.
Jimmy Piersall, the often outrageous outfielder and broadcaster whose emotional breakdown while a rookie with the Boston Red Sox was portrayed in the 1957 movie “Fear Strikes Out,” a rare glimpse at an athlete’s mental illness, died Saturday in Wheaton, Illinois. He was 87.
His death was announced by the Red Sox.
Piersall was an outstanding center fielder, a solid hitter and a two-time All-Star, playing in the major leagues for 17 seasons. But his career nearly ended just when it was getting underway.
Envisioned as the ultimate successor to Red Sox’ star center fielder Dom DiMaggio, Piersall clowned on the field early in his rookie season, 1952; fought with or simply outraged teammates and opposing players; and harangued umpires.
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“I was a funny man, a baseball clown, and where the Red Sox went, the fans flocked to see me,” Piersall said in his 1955 book “Fear Strikes Out,” written with Al Hirshberg. The book was the basis for the movie.
“Almost everybody except the Red Sox and the umpires thought I was a riot. My wife knew I was sick, yet she was helpless to stop my mad rush toward a mental collapse.”
The Red Sox demoted Piersall to the minors in June 1952, hoping he could gain control of his emotions, but his antics continued, and he entered a mental hospital in Massachusetts a month later. He remained hospitalized for six weeks, undergoing shock treatment and counseling for a nervous breakdown.
Piersall returned to the Red Sox in 1953 and seemed to have surmounted his emotional demons. But he often showboated in the summers to come, most memorably in June 1963, playing for the New York Mets, when he circled the bases in their proper order but running backward after hitting his 100th career home run. When his playing days ended, he encountered trouble with his bosses with his outspoken comments as a broadcaster and an instructor.
Notwithstanding all the turmoil, Piersall saw a positive side.
“Probably the best thing that happened to me was going nuts,” he said at the outset of his 1984 memoir “The Truth Hurts,” written with Richard Whittingham. “It brought people out to the ballpark to get a look at me.”
James Anthony Piersall was born on Nov. 14, 1929, in Waterbury, Connecticut, where his father, a house painter, encouraged him to pursue sports but was often harsh and demanding with a quick temper, as Piersall recalled. His mother had intermittent stays in mental hospitals.
After starring in baseball and basketball in high school, Piersall was signed by the Red Sox organization in 1948. During three seasons in the minors, he was often agitated, fearing he would fail.
He played briefly with the Red Sox at the end of the ’50 season, then returned to the minors. By the time he arrived at spring training in 1952, his fears had worsened and he became convinced that the Red Sox hoped he would fail when they switched him to shortstop from the outfield.
He played well enough at short and he entertained the fans with stunts, including his harassment of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, then with the St. Louis Browns, with wild gestures on the basepaths.
But he antagonized virtually all of his teammates with his antics, his tirades against umpires and his showing up DiMaggio by imitating his distinctive stride. He fought with New York Yankees’ Billy Martin and Red Sox pitcher Mickey McDermott and cried in the dugout when manager Lou Boudreau would not put him into a game.
When Piersall’s disruptive behavior continued after he was sent to the Birmingham farm club, he was persuaded by the Red Sox and his wife, Mary, to undergo psychiatric treatment.
Piersall’s illness and recovery were dramatized on television in 1955 when Tab Hunter portrayed him as part of the CBS series “Climax!” and in the Hollywood movie two years later, when Anthony Perkins portrayed him and Karl Malden played his father.
Writing in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called the movie “Fear Strikes Out” a “first-rate psychological film” in describing Piersall’s relationship to a father portrayed as being obsessed with his son’s becoming a major league ballplayer.
“I hated the movie,” Piersall wrote in his 1984 memoir. He praised Perkins’ acting, but said he looked foolish trying to play baseball. He maintained that the movie included events that never happened and said that he never blamed his father for his breakdown.
Piersall had a .272 career batting average with 104 home runs, playing for the Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, Mets and Los Angeles and California Angels. He was an All-Star in 1954 and ’56 and a Gold Glove Award winner in 1958 and ’61.
The tumultuous times continued when Piersall became a Chicago White Sox broadcaster, teaming with Harry Caray. He roughed up a sports writer for a suburban Chicago newspaper, insulted the wife of Bill Veeck when he owned the team, and did not hesitate to criticize White Sox players.
He was later a minor league outfield instructor with the Chicago Cubs’ organization, but was fired in 1999 after comments that seemed to be critical of the team’s management.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
More than a half century after his breakdown, Piersall was still working in sports with a radio program in Chicago.
“I’m the gooney bird that walked to the bank,” he told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2001. “I’m doing better than most of those guys who said I was crazy.”