ESPN Network: ESPN.com | NBA.com | NHL.com | WNBA.com | ABCSports | EXPN | INSIDER | FANTASY   

ALSO SEE
More Info on Jimmy Piersall

Jimmy Piersall's career statistics






A Hall of Fame personality
By Mike Puma
Special to ESPN.com


"They tried to put me into a small sanitarium and I ran away. I had just gotten so wound up that I lost all control of my memory," says Jimmy Piersall on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

He won't be voted in to the Hall of Fame as a player, but if Cooperstown ever adds a wing for baseball's most colorful personalities, Jimmy Piersall would be a first-ballot inductee.

From his battles against fans, umpires and scoreboards to his backward trot around the bases on his 100th career homer, perhaps no player in the 1950s and '60s brought as much zaniness to the sport as Piersall. But Piersall often couldn't control himself on and off the field, and this almost led to an early exit from baseball as he was committed to a mental hospital in 1952. His comeback inspired his popular autobiography, "Fear Strikes Out," which later became a movie starring Anthony Perkins.

Later diagnosed with manic depression, Piersall takes lithium for the illness.

What shouldn't be overlooked is Piersall's ability. In his 17-year career, he hit .272 and 104 homers with five teams. But the two-time All-Star was even better defensively, winning two Gold Gloves as a centerfielder and his .990 lifetime fielding percentage ranks among the highest all-time.

"He's great, but you have to play him in a cage," said Casey Stengel, his manager with the New York Mets.

Piersall was born on Nov. 14, 1929 in Waterbury, Conn. He became a local legend at 14, playing and starring in a league featuring men twice his age.

Piersall's mother, Mary, suffered from mental illness. From 1936-46, she was often committed to a sanitarium. "If my father was preparing supper when I got home, it wouldn't be necessary for us to exchange a word," Piersall said. "I knew that meant my mother had gone away again."

Piersall's father, John, was a house painter who took an active interest in his son's athletic endeavors. A semipro baseball player, the elder Piersall was determined to make his son a ballplayer. At Leavenworth High School, Jimmy was a three-sport standout who led the basketball team to three straight New England championship finals. Leavenworth won the title his senior year behind his 29 points in Boston Garden.

After high school, Piersall signed with the Red Sox. In 1948, he played for Boston's Class A affiliate in Scranton, Pa., where he met Mary Teevan, whom he married late in 1949, following his first season at Class AAA Louisville.

In September 1950, Piersall was brought up to the Red Sox, and appeared in six games while collecting his first two major league hits. After another full season in the minors, Piersall got his shot with Boston in 1952. Against his wishes, manager Lou Boudreau moved him from centerfield to shortstop. But after making nine errors in 30 games, he was switched to rightfield, where he played alongside Dom DiMaggio.

It didn't take long for Piersall to establish himself as a sideshow. And he soon displayed the signs of the mental illness that had stricken his mother. An antagonist of fans and umpires alike, he called attention to himself by taking bows after almost every catch.

Before a game on May 24, Piersall goaded Yankees second baseman Billy Martin into a fight and then brawled with teammate Mickey McDermott. Less than three weeks later, he made pig noises at St. Louis Browns pitcher Satchel Paige.

Following other instances of erratic behavior, Piersall was shipped to Triple-A Birmingham on June 28. Three weeks later, he entered Westborough State Hospital for psychiatric treatment; he was released after six weeks.

Piersall later claimed he had no recollection of his rookie season. "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts," he said. "Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall until that happened?"

Resuming his career with Boston in 1953, Piersall played rightfield and hit .272 with 52 RBI. His year was highlighted by a 6-for-6 performance, tying the American League record for hits in a nine-inning game, against the Browns in the opener of a doubleheader on June 10. In the nightcap, Piersall got dusted by Paige.

In 1954, he was moved to centerfield and was selected to the All-Star team. Despite injuring his arm irreparably that season during a throwing contest against Willie Mays, Piersall became a top fielder who made up for his lack of outstanding speed with exceptional anticipation.

"I thought Joe DiMaggio was the greatest defensive outfielder I ever saw," said Stengel, who managed DiMaggio from 1949-51. "But I have to rate Piersall better."

Piersall had his finest offensive season in 1956 (.293, 14 homers, career-high 87 RBI and led the majors with 40 doubles) when he made his second All-Star team.

In 1957, "Fear Strikes Out" hit theaters. Piersall wasn't a fan of the movie, which he says wrongly depicted his father (played by Karl Malden) as putting too much pressure on him. That year, he belted a career-high 19 homers and batted .261. While Piersall won his first Gold Glove in 1958 (the first season the award was split into leagues), his average dropped to .237 and he was traded to Cleveland in December.

With the Indians, Piersall continued to make waves. On one occasion he pulled a water pistol from his pocket and shot water into an umpire's face. He also had to be rescued by teammates after he challenged fans in the Yankee Stadium bleachers to a fight.

In June 1960, Piersall threw a baseball and an orange at Comiskey Park's exploding scoreboard. Later that month, he threw a bat at Jim Coates after the Yankees pitcher thew at Piersall for supposedly timing his warm-up pitches.

Despite finishing third in the American League in batting with a career-high .322 average and winning his second Gold Glove in 1961, Piersall was traded to Washington. He spent 1 seasons with the Senators before being dealt in 1963 to Stengel's Mets for Gil Hodges, who was named Washington's manager.

Piersall's stay in New York is remembered for one incident: running the bases backward after hitting his 100th homer on June 23, 1963.
Jimmy Piersall
Piersall celebrates his 100th homer by circling the bases backwards.
Stengel, not amused by the routine, released the .194-hitting Piersall two days later.

Picked up that season by the Los Angeles (later California) Angels, Piersall stayed with them as a part-time outfielder until he was let go in May 1967. He called these years his best in baseball because of his relationship with general manager Fred Haney, who Piersall said never lied to him.

Piersall served two seasons as general manager of the Roanoke Buckskins, a pro football team. He then returned to baseball as director of group sales and a gofer for Oakland Athletics owner Charley Finley. Piersall also had a stint as a manager in the A's farm system.

In 1975, Piersall was hired by Martin, his former sparring partner who was now the Texas Rangers' manager, as an outfield instructor. Two years later, the Chicago White Sox made Piersall a broadcaster, teaming him with Harry Caray.

In 1980, Piersall, angry that a reporter was questioning White Sox players about the team's decision to remove him as a voluntary outfield coach, choked the writer. That night, he also scuffled with the boss' son, Mike Veeck, because Piersall had called Veeck's stepmother "a colossal bore." Seeking to "rest and recoup," Piersall spent three nights in Illinois Masonic Hospital suffering from exhaustion.

As controversial on the air as he was on the field, Piersall was suspended by the White Sox in 1981 for calling baseball wives "horny broads." In 1983, he was fired for being too critical of the White Sox.

From 1986-99, Piersall was a roving minor-league outfield instructor with the Cubs. He was fired for - what else? - making what the management considered inappropriate comments.

He still hosts a sports-talk show in Chicago, where he continues to freely rant.

"I have not made an awful lot of friends in my lifetime," Piersall said. "But my dad once told me that if you have too many friends you become a follower."





Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories