Jim Piersall – Fear Strikes Out
July 21, 2009
by William Szczepanek
How would you like Tony Perkins of “Psycho” movie fame to have the lead role in a movie about your life, particularly if you spent time in a hospital for a mental condition? Perkins did a great job portraying crazy people. Well, that was the situation for Jimmy Piersall, one of the best centerfielders in the game of baseball who played from 1950 to 1967.
On May 24, 1952, before a game against the Yankees, Piersall engaged in a fistfight with Yankee, Billy Martin, not the smartest thing to do, since Martin was pretty good with his fists. Within a few days other brawling incidents occurred, and after the spanking of teammate Vern Stephens’ son he was sent to the minors. While on the Birmingham Barons Piersall was ejected four times, the last time climbing onto the grandstand roof to heckle the home plate umpire.
Piersall was suspended and entered treatment in a hospital in Massachusetts. He would miss the rest of the season. Piersall blamed his problems at the time on the pressure his father put on him to succeed as a baseball player.
Piersall returned in 1953, and finished ninth in voting for the MVP Award. The next year he took over for Dom DiMaggio in center field and was a fixture there for Boston until he was traded to Cleveland in the late fifties.
He was a weird character who seemed to try anything for attention, like wearing a Beatles wig while at bat, cheering in the outfield and visiting the monuments in Yankee Stadium to talk to Babe Ruth. His temper continued to get him ejected from games and he again received medical attention. He is also remembered for running around the bases backward after hitting his 100th homer.
Piersall obviously had problems, but was still a great ballplayer. He was also skillful in instructing kids on how to play center field. He typically played a very shallow center field and his ability to read the pitch and the direction of the ball off the bat allowed him to get a great jump on the ball. He was fantastic at going back to the wall and rarely had balls hit over his head, though he was criticized for his style of play. I remember him in an old-timers game on a ball hit into short-center field, running full speed toward the infield and making an easy catch of a line drive.
Piersall worked as a broadcaster with Harry Caray for the White Sox, and I enjoyed listening to him because he was quick to criticize what he thought was wrong. His comments always seemed very accurate to me. He was eventually fired for his remarks.
He subsequently wrote is own book “Fear Strikes Out” where he describes the inaccuracies of the film, especially the aspect that his father was to blame for his condition. He also wrote a book “The Truth Hurts” where he describes the incidents while a broadcaster for the White Sox.
Now, as crazy as Piersall seemed to be and overlooking the fact that he was a hotdog even before Pete Rose, he also was a very good ballplayer. In 1956 he led the league in doubles, and in 1961 he was third in batting with a .322 average. He was an All Star in 1954 and 1956. He was the first Red Sox to get six hits in a game, which is quite something for a guy who spent many years playing alongside Ted Williams.
I always liked Jim Piersall, maybe because he played while battling those demons and I just wanted him to see him succeed. In my mind, he did.
You can check out Piersall's stats at Baseball-Reference.com.