Jim “Jimmy” Piersall, who played for the Cleveland Indians from 1959 to 1961, died on Saturday, June 3, after a lengthy illness. He was 87 years old.
Although he was a decent player—he played in the major leagues as an outfielder for 17 years, compiled a batting average of .272, won two Gold Gloves, and played in two All-Star games—Piersall was best known for his unpredictable and often outlandish behavior. Prone to mocking his fellow athletes on the field, Piersall frequently started fights with players from other teams, with umpires, and with his own teammates.
In 1952, while a member of the Boston Red Sox, Piersall was admitted to a mental hospital with a case of what would later be known as bipolar disorder. He returned to the Red Sox in 1953, claiming that he was “sound and healthy.” But while his behavior improved somewhat, Piersall never fully stopped the antics which made him a fan favorite—for instance, when he hit his 100th career home run, as a member of the New York Mets, Piersall ran backwards around the bases in celebration.
Tony Perkins portrayed Piersall in the 1957 film “Fear Strikes Out,” which told the story of Piersall’s early career and his struggle with mental illness. Piersall’s best season with the Indians was in 1961, when he led the team with a batting average of .322. The Indians traded Piersall to the Washington Senators that October for Dick Donovan, Gene Green, and Jim Mahoney.
When his playing days ended in 1967, Piersall found work as a hotel manager, a minor league baseball manager, a major league front office promotions assistant, and as a broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox.
The photos which accompany this story might give some idea what it was like to have had Piersall on the Indians roster. In the photo at the top of this post, taken by a Cleveland Press photographer at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on May 22, 1960, an exuberant Piersall jumps on home plate. He was driven in thanks to a Vic Wertz grand slam which made the score 7-6 in favor of the Baltimore Orioles, who went on to win the rain-shortened game.
In the photo above, taken at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on May 17, 1960, Piersall, holding two bats, is being restrained by Indians pitching coach Red Kress, left, and Tribe manager Joe Gordon after Piersall had traded sharp words from the dugout with New York Yankees catcher Elston Howard. Umpire Joe Paparella is behind Gordon. Howard responded in kind, which sent Piersall out to the field. No one was ejected from the game, which the Indians won, 7-6.
With his matinee idol good looks and his “bad boy” reputation, Piersall had his share of women admirers. In this final photo, taken in June of 1960, Piersall shakes hands with Indians fan Bertha Dudley. Newspaper stories from the era take pains to note that Miss Dudley was no relation to Indians broadcaster Jimmy Dudley (and to note that she was “Miss” Dudley). The fan claimed to have been attending Indians games from a box seat since the mid-1920s, and was a frequent writer of letters to the editor of the sports section of the Plain Dealer.