Hard to figure how Jimmy Piersall survived through 17 years in Major League baseball with his mental illness that brought unfavorable times
He quietly passed away Sunday at the age of 87
Commentary By Arnie Leshin
Showtime, that was Jimmy Piersall, but that was just one form of entertainment he provided. The other silly, puzzling times were just part of what he brought to the game of baseball, and most were strictly negative, nutty by his standards.
So here it was 1963 and the much-traveled outfielder who was often classified as a “nut case”, was with the hapless New York Mets, a perfect place for showtime and Piersall didn’t disappoint.
I had a Mets’ media pass while covering sports for the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, so I traveled to the ancient Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan that day as if it was just another contest. That’s where the Mets played for their first two years as Shea Stadium was being constructed in the borough of Queens.
I had no thoughts of Piersall until his moment came. In the fifth inning he hit a home run into the left field stands, the shortest in the league. He applauded and ran it out, circling the bases in their proper order, but running backwards.
For Piersall, it was his 100th Major League home run, so why not perform in New York style? But not many who had watched him since he came on the scene in 1952 were surprised. This was a carbon copy of his antics.
For the 87-year-old Piersall who was born in Connecticut, he passed away Sunday after his struggles with manic depression, which is now known as bipolar disease.
His personality was abrupt. He was arrogant, often agitated, fearing he would fail. Even after he retired in the eventful year of 1969, he encountered trouble with his bosses via his outspoken comments as a broadcaster and an instructor.
The problem was, it never bothered Piersall. He always saw a positive side.
“Heck,” he said when his playing days were over, “the best thing that happened to me was going nuts. It brought people out to the ballpark to get a look at me.”
After starring in football and baseball in high school, he was signed to a minor league contract by the Red Sox organization in 1948, the year of the presidential upset when Harry S. Truman defeated favored Thomas Dewey.
But Piersall was mainly upset by Boston when he was brought up to the majors in 1952 and was switched from the outfield to shortstop. While his fears had worsened, he played well enough there and entertained the fans with stunts that included his harassment of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, who was then with the St. Louis Browns, and with wild gestures on the base paths.
But this did not gain any popularity from his teammates. He antagonized all of them with his antics, his tirades against umpires and his showing up the great Joe DiMaggio by imitating his distinctive stride. He fought with Billy Martin and others, and actually cried in the dugout when Cleveland Indians’ manager Lou Boudreau wouldn’t put him into a game.
In ‘ 69, the season of the Amazin’ Mets winning the World Series and grabbing the headlines, Piersall was with the California Angels, and when they played the Mets in an exhibition game, he put on quite a show of his own.
In the pre-game practice, he caught balls without wearing a glove, he ran into the stands to address the faithful New York fans with a barrage of uncalled for remarks. When he was called upon to pinch-hit, he stood at home plate and cheered.
These were his moments, his nasty times, his show times, his times of being just what he was, a man with a disruptive behavior.
His battle with bipolar disorder, which is characterized by extreme emotional highs and lows, and for which he was treated with lithium, was spent with each team he played for, the Red Sox, the Indians, the Washington Senators, the Mets, and Los Angeles and California Angels.
Along the way, he spent some time in a Massachusetts mental hospital, undergoing shock treatments for a nervous breakdown. He also underwent psychiatric treatment. At the same time, he was making news on TV and in the movies.
There was a television program in 1955 that dramatized him, there was a CBS series “Climax”, there was a two-part article in the Saturday Evening Post entitled “They Called Me Crazy – And I Was.” This was the forerunner of his memoirs Fear Strikes Out in 1957. And in the Hollywood movie two years later, Karl Malden played his father, who had encouraged him to pursue sports.
These tumultuous times continued when Piersall became a Chicago White Sox broadcaster, teaming with Harry Carey. He roughed up a sportswriter for a suburban Chicago newspaper, insulted the White Sox owner, Bill Veeck, and did not hesitate to criticize the White Sox players.
Later, as a minor league outfield instructor with the Chicago Cubs, he was fired in 1999 after making comments that appeared to be critical of the team’s management.
On the playing field, he compiled a .272 batting average. He was an All-Star in 1954 and 1955, and a Golden Glove Award winner in 1958 and 1961 as an outfielder.
More than a half century after his breakdown, he was still working in sports with a radio program in Chicago, “I’m the gooney bird that walked to the bank,” he said at the time, and I’m doing better than most of those guys who said I was crazy.”
In 1981, a dozen years after he retired, I was covering the New York Yankees for the Paterson News-Dispatch in New Jersey and there was Piersall exiting the Yankee clubhouse. I asked if I could get in a few words from him. He shrugged his shoulders and just kept walking out of the clubhouse.
RIP James Anthony Piersall. I don’t know what you did for our National Pastime, but you did play much longer than anyone expected despite your rocky roller coaster ride through these 17 years.