Sunday, June 4, 2017

Jimmy Piersall, 1929-2017

In one way, Jimmy Piersall was lucky: Had ESPN and social media been around when he was playing baseball, he would have frequently been a big story, for the wrong reasons.

In another way, he was unlucky: Today, we know a lot more about mental illness, and treat both the condition and the people with it a lot better.

James Anthony Piersall was born on November 14, 1929 in Waterbury, New Haven County, Connecticut. His 1st notable sport was basketball: In 1947, he led Waterbury's Leavenworth High School to the New England Championship, scoring 29 points in the final. But, at the time, it was baseball that came the closest to paying big bucks, and when New England's team, the Boston Red Sox, scouted him, he signed with them.

He made his major league debut on September 7, 1950, against the Yankees at Fenway Park. In the bottom of the 5th inning, wearing Number 24, he pinch-ran for Ted Williams, which was a big upgrade in speed. (Ted once said, "If I coulda run like Mickey Mantle, I woulda hit .400 every year.") He was erased on a double play anyway, but, with Walt Dropo hitting 2 home runs, the Red Sox won, 10-8.

He made 6 appearances that season, going 2-for-7. He spent the entire 1951 season in the minor leagues, then was called back up in 1952. He got his batting average up to .313 on May 6, then fell into a slump.

Before the game against the Yankees at Fenway on May 24, he got into a fight with Billy Martin, because Jimmy was teasing Billy about his big nose, about which he was very sensitive. Billy already had a reputation as a player who was a bit nuts, so this was an early sign that "the Waterbury Wizard" may not have been right in the head. Sent to the clubhouse, he got into another fight, this time with a teammate, pitcher Mickey McDermott. There were several more incidents, including 4 that led to his being thrown out of games by umpires, and spanking the 4-year-old son of teammate Vern Stephens in the clubhouse.

On June 28, Sox management finally had enough, and Piersall was sent down to the Birmingham Barons. There were 4 more ejections, including at Rickwood Field in Birmingham on July 16. He was called out on strikes by home plate umpire Neil Strocchia, argued with him, got tossed, and then, somehow, climbed onto the roof, and started heckling Strocchia from there.

He was suspended for 3 days. Officially. Unofficially, he was suspended for the rest of the season, because the Red Sox called him back up, only to have gotten a court order committing him to Westborough State Hospital, the Boston area's main psychiatric facility, essentially New England's "Bellevue Hospital." He was diagnosed with what was then termed "nervous exhaustion," was held there for 7 weeks, and missed the rest of the season.

He returned to the Red Sox for 1953, wearing the Number 37 that he would be best remembered for wearing, and seemed to be better. He played in 151 of the season's 154 games, batted .272, hit 3 home runs, had 52 RBIs, led the American League with 19 sacrifice hits, and finished 9th in the AL Most Valuable Player voting. On June 10, he set a club record that still stands, with 6 hits in a 9-inning game. He got even better (at least, stats-wise) in each of the next 3 seasons, and was named an All-Star in 1954 and '56. He remained a fixture in the Sox' starting lineup through 1958, the 1st year that the Gold Glove Awards were given out in each League (they were given over both Leagues the year before), and he won the AL's award for center field.
Moreover, he was open about his psychological struggle. In 1955, he published a memoir, Fear Strikes Out. In it, he describes his therapy helping him to realize that he was playing baseball to please his father, not for his own pleasure.

Like the 1st James Bond story, Casino Royale, the CBS anthology series Climax! made the 1st movie version of it, airing it in 1955, with Tab Hunter as Piersall. It was made into a feature film in 1957, starring Anthony Perkins. Perhaps this role was why Alfred Hitchcock cast Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho. Karl Malden played his father, and Norma Moore played Jimmy's 1st wife Mary, with whom he eventually had 9 children.

If you're interesting in watching the film because it's a baseball film, don't. It's a film about a man dealing with mental illness, and baseball happens to be his job. Perkins had never played baseball before, and was naturally lefthanded, but played Piersall, correctly, as righthanded.

According to Malden, Perkins was so bad, former Boston Braves star Tommy Holmes was called in to teach him how to at least look like a real ballplayer. According to both Malden and actor-comedian Billy Crystal, who saw the film at age 8 and again many years later, however good Holmes was as a hitter (he once had a 37-game hitting streak), he wasn't much of a teacher.

The real Piersall disavowed the movie, saying it distorted the facts. On the other hand, he later said, "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall until that happened?"

*

After the 1958 season, the Red Sox traded Piersall to the Cleveland Indians for 1st baseman Vic Wertz (the slugger whose acquisition helped make the difference for them in winning the 1954 Pennant, but was then robbed by Willie Mays in the World Series) and outfielder Gary Geiger. The Indians didn't think this one through, because they'd also recently acquired Billy Martin.

But Billy and Jimmy got along okay in 1959, and the Indians fought the Chicago White Sox tooth and nail until mid-September, before the White Sox won the Pennant and the Indians finished 2nd. It was the closest Piersall ever got to playing in a World Series.

But he wasn't cured. In a Memorial Day doubleheader against the White Sox in 1960, he heckled plate umpire Larry Napp from the Indians' bench, and got thrown out. He was eligible to play in the 2nd game, caught the last out, and then threw the ball at Comiskey Park's new fireworks-shooting "exploding scoreboard." There were more incidents over the next month, and, on June 26, the team physician ordered him back into treatment.

He returned on the 4th of July, and collected an RBI in the 2nd game of a doubleheader with the Kansas City Athletics. But on July 23, back at Fenway to face the Red Sox, he began running back and forth in the outfield when Ted Williams was up, and he was ejected from a game for the 6th time that season. The Sox sent him to meet with AL President Joe Cronin. That, and the subsequent firing of Sox manager Joe Gordon, seemed to calm him down, and he batted .322 and won another Gold Glove in 1961.

In 1962, he was traded to the Washington Senators. A year later, he was sent to the Mets. He switched to Number 34, because manager Casey Stengel was wearing 37. Could the famously odd Casey handle him? Apparently not. On June 23, he hit his 100th career home run off Dallas Green of the Philadelphia Phillies, then ran the bases facing backwards. Casey didn't like that, and the Mets soon released him.

He was soon signed by the Los Angeles Angels, and the antics continued. He once stepped up to bat wearing a Beatle wig and playing air guitar on his bat. When they went to New York and played at Yankee Stadium, he talked to the Monuments in center field. Nevertheless, he stayed on the Angels' roster until 1967, until he was invited to take a front office position with them. He finished with a .272 lifetime batting average.

*

He seemed to be a lot happier now that he was no longer playing. He went into broadcasting, first for the Texas Rangers from 1974 to 1976. He then moved to the White Sox from 1977 to 1981, teaming with Harry Caray.

It might shock fans of both Chicago teams to know that Caray, so identified with the Cubs now, to know that he broadcast for the Sox first. But many ChiSox fans still have fond memories of "The Harry and Jimmy Show," especially since it coincided with the second coming of Bill Veeck as the promotions-minded Sox owner.
Apparently, Jimmy and the Comiskey scoreboard had made peace.

When the Sox' broadcast contract, and that of the crosstown Chicago Cubs, ended at the same time, the Tribune Company, new owners of the Cubs, were preparing to turn WGN-Channel 9 into a national cable "superstation," a la Ted Turner's TBS in Atlanta, and use the Cubs' games as their flagship show. They went after Harry, who saw that the White Sox were preparing to re-up with WFLD-Channel 32, and he realized that if he didn't make the move, he'd soon become "Harry Who?"

Jimmy never got that chance: For his rough criticism of new Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, he was not asked to return. He soon wrote a book about his broadcasting career, titled The Truth Hurts. The truth included the fact that he never worked as a broadcaster again. But, as the Cubs did with Harry, they hired Jimmy, as a roving minor-league outfielding coach.

For that reason, he continued to live in the Chicago area for the rest of his life, with his 3rd wife. Specifically, he lived in Wheaton, Illinois, hometown of early football legend Red Grange, astronomer Edwin Hubble, journalism legend Bob Woodward, comedians John and Jim Belushi, horror film director Wes Craven, and actress Gail O'Grady. Among his neighbors were former White Sox outfielder Chet Lemon, former Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas, and former Chicago Blackhawks players Denis Savard and Darren Pang.

Having previously been invited to the White House, along with the rest of the baseball Senators,  by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, he was invited back, along with other former Red Sox stars, by George W. Bush in 2005 to celebrate the team's 2004 World Series win *. (Like Piersall, Bush was born in New Haven County.) And in 2010, the Sox inducted him into their team Hall of Fame.
2010 Red Sox Hall of Fame inductees:
Tommy Harper, Jimmy Piersall, John Valentin and Don Zimmer.
As Harper would say, "'preciate it. Thanks."

Jimmy Piersall developed Parkinson's disease, and died from complications from it yesterday, June 3, 2017, at his home in Wheaton.

From 1969 to 1978, pitcher Bill Lee wore Piersall's old Number 37 for the Red Sox, and for his weird way of thinking, became known as the Spaceman.

Maybe it was the uniform, or the number.

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