by Tom DeMichael
The game of baseball recently lost one of the most unique members of its community with the passing of Jimmy Piersall. He was one of baseball’s most skilled outfielders (no less than Hall of Famer Ted Williams called Jimmy the best center fielder he’d ever seen.) Jimmy had connections to Chicago, even though he never played for the Cubs or White Sox.
More than twenty years ago, I had the rare opportunity to spend several days with Jimmy Piersall. I asked him, point-blank, what he thought of the 1957 film about his life, Fear Strikes Out.
“That scene of me climbing the fence? That’s a bunch of malarkey! I never did anything like that,” he insisted. “The folks in Hollywood gave me a good amount of money, so they had some right to dress the story up, I guess.” The ex-major leaguer didn’t appreciate the film’s inaccurate take that his mental problems were due to an overbearing and high-pressure dad.
Piersall also had a very strong opinion of actor Anthony Perkins as an athlete, who played the troubled ball player in the film. However, decorum and respect for those who have passed on prevent me from elaborating on the real outfielder’s pointed and somewhat disappointed observation of Perkins’ portrayal.
But that was Jimmy. He always – always – told it like it was.
As part of the entertaining and volatile broadcast booth team for the White Sox in the late 70s, Jimmy had a pat answer for partner Harry Caray’s claim of, “Jimmy, you’re crazy!” Piersall would brag, “Yeah, and I’ve got the papers to prove it.”
Part of actor Perkins’ unconvincing baseball skills were based on a simple problem: Piersall was a right-hander and the actor was left-handed. Curiously, the film producers brought in former major leaguer (and fellow left-hander) Tommy Holmes to teach Perkins a righty approach (despite Holmes’ left-handedness,) but the results were less than successful – as the film demonstrated.
The 1957 movie was not the first time Piersall’s story was told. His 1952 mental breakdown with the Red Sox was revealed in a 1955 book, co-written by the ball player and writer Al Hirshberg. Later that year, Tab Hunter (pre-Damn Yankees!) played Piersall in a TV version of the story, presented as part of the CBS anthology series, Climax!
In spite of Piersall’s negative feelings about much of the film, he still came to appreciate his own predicament. He once reasoned that, in his words, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall until that happened?”
People certainly heard all about Jimmy Piersall. It’s pretty well documented that Jimmy, after hitting the 100th home run of his career off a Phillies pitcher named Dallas Green, ran around the bases backwards (resulting in an amendment to the game’s official rules, prohibiting base running that makes “a travesty of the game.”)
Lesser known is the time he grabbed the baseball from the pitcher’s mound on his way out to center field and refused to give it back to his own pitcher. Once, when the bullpen cart drove past him in the field, he stuck out his thumb in the hopes of hitching a ride.
One day at Yankee Stadium, two New York fans jumped onto the field with the evil intent of attacking Jimmy. It was a poorly chosen moment for them – Jimmy dropped one with a sock in the mouth and then went after the other, almost kicking him in the posterior.
With pitching great Satchel Paige on the mound for the St. Louis Browns, Jimmy mocked the hurler’s motion – swinging his arms like a chicken and squealing like a pig. The unflappable Paige was apparently flapped and gave up six runs to lose the game.
One day in the minors, Piersall was called out on strikes. He proceeded to pull a water pistol from his back pocket and sprayed home plate, with the hope that the ump could now see it clearly (not amused, the umpire saw fit to eject him.)
Jimmy was diagnosed in the mid-Fifties with what today is called bipolar disorder. Without many of the medications that can help today, Piersall was institutionalized, strapped to a gurney, and subjected to electroshock treatments.
Still, the outfielder played for seventeen seasons with the Angels, Indians, Senators, and Mets, as well as the Red Sox. He was a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, posting several solid seasons with averages of .322, .314, and .293.
Once he retired, Jimmy spent some time in Hollywood. He acted on TV with Lucille Ball and Milton Berle, hosted a popular radio show, and spoke at many public appearances.
He came to Chicago in 1977 to join Harry Caray to broadcast White Sox games. As one might expect, the impact was immediate. Jimmy wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, critical of poor White Sox play on the field.
He called owner Bill Veeck’s wife a “colossal bore.” He grabbed a local sportswriter and choked him for asking players about Piersall. He roughed it up with Veeck’s son. He pissed off nascent manager Tony LaRussa. Despite being a fan favorite, the White Sox finally jettisoned Jimmy after the 1982 season.
Jimmy always considered himself an entertainer and enjoyed clowning. Like many clowns, he once dropped his pants in the studio before hosting a post-game show on Sports Vision. The father of nine left a lasting impression on the crew.
Piersall soon hooked up with the Cubs as an outfield and base running instructor, as well as grabbing a regular spot on The Score radio, WSCR-AM. Having no filter, he heaped praise and brickbats in copious amounts on both Chicago teams.
Jimmy once bragged he never drank and never smoked. But he did admit to chasing “broads.”
In a baseball world of white bread, Jimmy Piersall was tasty toasted pumpernickel.