Jimmy Piersall—When Stigma Struck Out
Who cares if the Red Sox win the World Series? The story of Jimmy Piersall is an even better drama.
Piersall was one of the best outfielders of the 1950s and 60s—that was the opinion of the late great Ted Williams. He started playing professional ball at age 18 and reached the majors at 20, one of the youngest players in the game.
He played 17 seasons, most notably with the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and New York Mets. He won two Golden Glove awards and twice was selected for major league baseball’s All-Star Team. His career statistics include a batting average of .272, 104 home runs, 591 runs batted in, and a fielding average of .997.
He is retired now, living outside Chicago. He isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he is included on NAMI’s “Famous People” poster, which honors “people whose mental illnesses have enriched our lives.”
“Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts,” he says. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall until that happened?”
His mental illness—bipolar disorder—played out publicly at a time when mental illness was usually kept hidden.
Born in 1929, he was popular growing up, but “high-strung” as a child and a “worrier” in his teens, who suffered severe headaches. His mother lived with depression and was hospitalized many times. He had a temper and an underlying insecurity.
The Red Sox signed him as an outfielder, but in 1952, when they raised him from their farm team, the Birmingham Barons, he learned only from a newspaper—not team management—that they intended to play him at shortstop.
In his memoir, Fear Strikes Out, Piersall recalled thinking: “It’s impossible. I’m not a shortstop. I’m a center fielder. [This shift] might ruin me. Wait a minute. I’ll bet that’s just what they want to do.”
Fear of failure came at a time when he had been married only a few years, with two young children and a third on its way—while also providing full financial support for his parents.
In May 1952, his temper resulted in a brawl with Yankee Billy Martin, who over time also would become legend for his temper. In the same game, Piersall fought with his own teammates, then broke down crying after he was benched.
Piersall’s behavior grew increasingly bizarre, which ironically endeared him to fans, who enjoyed the spectacle. He spread his arms like an airplane while running bases and mimicked other players. In a game with the St. Louis Browns, he taunted pitcher Satchel Paige, calling out “oink, oink,” from first base.
“That boy is sick,” Paige said. He was one of the few people who recognized what was happening.
The Red Sox sent Piersall back to Birmingham in the hope it would “straighten him out.”
Instead, he was thrown out of four games and suspended.
On July 20, newspapers reported he would “take a rest” on the advice of his physician.
Two weeks later, Piersall woke up in Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts. He had received electroshock therapy and did not remember much of the previous year. He underwent psychotherapy.
The Red Sox rallied to his support—in a way that is unusual even today. His teammates visited him in the hospital. He thought his career was over, but the Red Sox brought him back for the 1953 season. They paid the expenses for his recovery, including recuperation and coaching in Florida.
“They helped rebuild my confidence,” Piersall said in an interview with NAMI.
In 1954, Piersall told his story on a local television show in Chicago, through the encouragement of a mental health group called “Fight Against Fear.” It was an act courage—and liberation. “I did it to get it off my chest,” he says. “It was one of the best things I did to get better.”
He received an outpouring of praise and support, particularly from people who had endured similar experiences. The response was not unlike that occurs today when celebrities “come out,” but it was an unprecedented phenomenon in the 1950s.
Piersall expanded his disclosure to a two-part story in the Saturday Evening Post, entitled “They Called Me Crazy—and I Was.” That led to publication of Fear Strikes Out in 1955, followed years later, by a movie with the same title, starring Anthony Perkins and Karl Malden.
“Mental illness is no different from any kind of illness,” the doctor in the film declared. The magazine series, book and movie delivered a powerful anti-stigma message on a national scale—one that was ahead of its time.
Today, the movie is a Turner Classic and available on Netflix, which keeps Piersall’s story in circulation. In the style of the 1950s, it is rather melodramatic, but still inspiring. For his part, Piersall dislikes the movie, because of Perkins’ performance, and because it unfairly cast his father as a major cause of his illness—through overambitious pushing of his son to become a star player.
As part of recovery, Piersall laughed at his illness.
He cultivated a persona that turned bizarre behavior into zany antics that continued to endear him to fans—not unlike football player Terry Bradshaw and actor Joe Pantaliano in their careers many years later.
“I still have bizarre behavior today,” he notes.
In 1959, Piersall was traded to the Cleveland Indians. Once, he pulled out a water pistol and squirted an umpire. Another time, his teammates had to rescue him after he challenged Yankee fans to a fight.
He didn’t hesitate to confront hecklers who made jokes about men in white coats coming to take him away.
In 1963, Piersall hit his 100th home run while playing for the New York Mets. He celebrated by running the bases facing backwards.
Piersall retired from his playing career in 1967 with the Los Angeles Angels.
At one point, he made a guest television appearance on “The Lucy Show,” playing himself when Lucy and Little Ricky traveled to California and took in a baseball game on “Jimmy Piersall Day.”
He later became a broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox, but was fired for criticizing the team’s management. He wrote a second memoir The Truth Hurts (1985), which provided additional details about his illness.
Turbulence has marked his career. He has been hospitalized several times for “exhaustion.” He has taken lithium for 30 years, but emphasizes self-help in managing an illness.
“It can’t come from anyone but you.”
Mental illness means fighting run by run, out by out, inning by inning, game by game, season by season over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes up. Sometimes down. The important thing is to keep fighting.
For those who fight mental illness, Piersall is a hero. He was a damn good ball player. He continues to be a legend.
This article is based on an interview with Jimmy Piersall, his memoir, Fear Strikes Out, and reporting by Dom Amore, “Quite The Character,” Hartford Courant (APSE Writing Competition 1999); Bob Dolgan, “One of a Kind,” Baseball Digest (December 1, 2001); Mike Puma, “A Hall of Fame Personality,” ESPN.com (May 24, 2004) and Jeff Merron, “Mystery Man,” 108 Magazine (Summer 2007). Thanks also to the Red Sox.