So said Jimmy Piersall in his autobiography, Fear Strikes Out, which details his struggles with bipolar disorder and a difficult family life. Piersall is best remembered for his years as a Boston Red Sox outfielder and the movie version of his book which starred Anthony Perkins, later famous for his Norman Bates portrayal in Psycho.
However, Piersall also spent three years with the Indians from 1959-1961.
Red Sox Years
Piersall was a three sport high school legend from Connecticut dubbed the “Waterbury Wizard” who led his team to a New England Championship in basketball on the famed parquet floor of Boston Garden. Unfortunately, his mother was often absent from home due to mental illness and his father, once a semi-pro baseball player, was emotionally withdrawn and demanding.
Piersall debuted with the Red Sox at the end of the 1950 season but remained in the minors the following year. In 1952 he made the team as a shortstop but struggled with his glove and switched to right field where he played alongside Dom DiMaggio and Ted Williams. He compiled a .273 average over the next seven years in Boston, twice made the All Star team and won a Gold Glove.
Despite his prowess as a player, he gained more notoriety for erratic behavior on and off the field. Early in his career he got in a fistfight with Yankee Billy Martin (and joined a long list), fought his own teammates and made barnyard noises when he faced Satchel Paige. Other altercations and a clubhouse spanking of fellow player Vern Stephens’ four year old son led to a demotion to the minors where he continued his penchant for disruption and was ejected four times within three weeks. In the last incident he used a water pistol to spray home plate and the umpire to celebrate a teammate’s home run and then wildly climbed the grandstand roof to heckle the ump from above for throwing him out.
Suspended, Piersall spent almost two months in a mental hospital for ‘mental exhaustion’ and missed the remainder of the season. He described his breakdown as a type of blackout for which he received shock treatments and claimed he retained no memory of the events.
Refocused, he returned to Boston in 1953 and once more showcased his talent by tying an American League record with six hits in a 9 inning game and posting some of the best years of his career. However, his strange behavior continued and he would make curtain bows after each catch and sometimes between innings hid behind the then open center field monuments in Yankee Stadium. Asked to explain, he said he liked to carry on conversations with Babe Ruth and other departed Yankee greats.
Piersall published his autobiography in 1955 and a television broadcast that year starred Tab Hunter (who later played Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees). The movie version with Anthony Perkins in the lead and Karl Malden as his father was released in 1957 but Piersall disliked the film and said it overemphasized the struggles he had with his father.
A Cleveland Indian
The Indians traded Vic Wertz (Willie Mays’ favorite Indian) and Gary Geiger to Boston for Piersall before the 1959 season. He tried to get the Indians to reverse the trade but the Red Sox refused and he spent three eventful years along the Lakefront, including one season in the outfield with Tribe great Rocky Colavito.
AB R H RBI 2B 3B HR SB AVG
317 42 78 30 13 2 4 6 .246 1959 Season
486 70 137 66 12 4 18 18 .282 1960 Season
484 81 156 40 26 7 6 12 .322 1961 Season
Piersall’s public struggle with mental illness made him an easy target for opposing fans, many of whom taunted him unmercifully and some of whom threw firecrackers, flashlights batteries and other objects at him. The outfielder responded with antics of his own and claimed, “I just want to give the fans their money’s worth.”
Teammates and sportswriters described Piersall as bright, friendly and engaging when in a good mood but sullen, withdrawn and hostile when not. He sat by himself in the bullpen rather than join other players in the dugout during games he did not start and used remarks from opposing teams to fuel his competitive fire.
“I think I play better when I’m mad,” he said.
He won a second Gold Glove in 1961 but the strange conduct and ejections continued. He once wore a little league batting helmet in a game against the Tigers, threw a bat at a Yankees pitcher he disliked and was suspended when he zigzagged back and forth in the outfield during in at bat by former teammate Ted Williams. Accosted by two rowdy fans on the field at Yankee Stadium, he punched one and tried to kick the other. See photo at http://nowbatting19.com/images/1961_sep10_PIERSALL_KICK_photo.jpg.
The Indians traded Piersall to the Washington Senators before the 1962 season and a year later the Senators traded him to the New York Mets for Gil Hodges. Piersall batted only .194 for the Mets but did hit his 100th career homer, after which he promptly circled the bases in correct order but trotted backward. Not amused, Manager Casey Stengel released him a few weeks later.
He caught on with the Angels and finished his career in 1967. Later he broadcast White Sox games alongside Harry Caray but the team eventually fired Piersall after he reportedly tried to choke a reporter, frequently criticized management and made slurs about baseball wives.
Piersall was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2010 and lives in Arizona.
— “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Who ever heard of Jimmy Piersall until that happened?”
– Jimmy Piersall
— “He’s great but you have to play him in a cage.”
– Casey Stengel
— “I thought Joe DiMaggio was the greatest defensive outfielder I ever saw. But I have to rate Piersall better.”
– Casey Stengel
stats from baseballreference.com
see also an ESPN Classic article by Mike Puma, http://espn.go.com/classic/biography/s/Piersall_Jim.html