Jimmy Piersall died last week at the age of eighty-seven. I was no fan of the Boston Red Sox of his era, but Piersall was an exceptional outfielder and a lively counterpoint to the stolid genius of Ted Williams, his most celebrated teammate. He was a kid from Waterbury, Connecticut, a local guy, volatile and troubled, who had the tough job of replacing crowd favorite Dom DiMaggio in centerfield. Dominic DiMaggio was the youngest of the DiMaggios and was largely overshadowed by Williams and his brother, Joe, but was an outstanding center fielder and a solid offensive player as well. Consistent and a great teammate, spectacled DiMaggio, known as the Little Professor, was a quietly effective player. Piersall was a loose cannon, and, although he played for seventeen years, he was an unpredictable and frequently off-putting teammate, both disturbed and disturbing.
With candor, he called himself “crazy” and spent much of his rookie year in a mental hospital where he received electro-convulsive treatment for what was then called manic depression, today known as bipolar disorder. Many contemporary fans, even the most rabid, will likely not remember the part that Piersall played in raising awareness of mental illness at a time in which few celebrities were willing to admit to weaknesses or frailties of any kind.
Despite his bouts of incapacitating illness, Piersall, who came up to the majors with the Red Sox, won a spot on several All Star teams and won Golden Glove awards throughout his career. Casey Stengel, who managed him on the New York Mets, came to consider him the best defensive outfielder he had ever seen, putting him ahead of Joe DiMaggio as a center fielder. Piersall’s ability to anticipate the flight of a baseball was uncanny, and, until he threw his arm out competing against Willie Mays, his ability to read baserunners’ intentions made him doubly dangerous in the field. Nevertheless, Stengel, who championed Piersall at the end of his career, observed, “He’s great, but you have to play him in a cage.”
Piersall acknowledged his struggles, speaking freely about his mother’s mental illness and his own demons. The film, Fear Strikes Out, was an adaptation of the book Piersall had written with Nat Hentoff. Starring Anthony Perkins, whose vibrating nervousness made him the obvious actor to play Norman Bates in Psycho, the film wandered from Piersall’s plainspoken admission of illness to a conventional sob story about an athlete pushed to the edge by an over-demanding father.
Piersall hated the movie and frequently spoke about the cowardice Hollywood had shown in avoiding a real presentation of his disorder. Those who followed the game, however, were reminded on a daily basis that this outfielder played by a different set of rules. He took a bow after making each catch, tipping his hat to the stands. He had a hair-trigger and was quick to fight with opponents and with his own teammates. He battled with umpires and threw his bat at pitchers. After hitting his hundredth home run, Piersall ran the bases backwards.
Poets and lyrical fans evoke the beauty of the game waxing rhapsodic o’er the emerald fields and dusty vermillion base paths; truth tellers move beyond spectacle and metaphor to descriptions of grit and heart, weakness and failure, champions and goats. Baseball is also the stuff of legends, some sparkling and some tawdry, every anecdote documented in the exhaustive historical register that has recorded every at bat, every hit, every run batted in.
And, from time to time, baseball offers the rich panoply of sport (nice phrase!) and characters more vivid than pop out of any other sport, with the possible exception of boxing. What other sport relishes nicknames as baseball does? What other sport has the likes of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, Dennis Oil Can Boyd, Harry Suitcase Simpson, Double Duty Radcliffe, Dizzy Dean, Big Poison and Little Poison Waner, King Kong Keller, Mudcat Grant Satchel Paige, Poosh Em Up Tony Lazzeri, Three Finger Brown, No Neck Williams, Choo-Choo Coleman?
There is a fine line between eccentricity and disorder, and any spectator who saw Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky’s routine on the mound had to wonder if the line had been crossed. He grunted entire conversations to himself, pounding his glove, occasionally spitting, kicking dirt as he circled. Normal? Bill “Spaceman” Lee, another pitcher, was fond of tossing what he called the “Leephus”, a towering low-speed blooper pitch. Rube Waddell pitched his way into the Hall of Fame, but was notorious for leaving the field to chase fire engines and other shiny things. Lest zaniness be ascribed only to pitchers, recently retired outfielder, Manny Ramirez, generally described as “Manny being Manny”, raced to catch a tough fly ball, gave a high-five to a fab in the stands and then completed the play with a throw to the infield.
Billy Martin, a spark plug second baseman and manager was a confirmed carousing fighter, carrying his short fuse into every confrontation, on and off the field. His fight with Piersall was a meeting of the unhinged, but one of his last fights, a bar fight with Ed Whitson, a pitcher nursing a smouldering resentment at what he took to be mistreatment by Martin as Yankee manager was likely one he had tried to avoid. Whitson, all six feet and three inches of fighting fury, kicked Martin in the groin, breaking Martin’s arm by the end of the fracas. Unlike Cobb, Martin was generally well liked, until his temper got the best of him.
Armchair psychiatrists might nominate any number of other notable ballplayers as variants from the norm, some darker variants than others. Ty Cobb, for example, exhibited what could be considered consistent sociopathology throughout his career. He would have said that he played the game hard, the way it should be played, filing his spikes to a razor-sharp edge, throwing himself into a slide into second base spikes high. It was Cobb who jumped into the stands to beat an armless heckler, who assaulted a groundskeeper and choked the man’s wife when she tried to pull him off her husband. Criticized for beating a man with no hands, Cobb replied with some heat, “I don’t care if he has no feet,” a troubling and confusing rejoinder.
Jimmy Piersall was scrappy, eccentric, and unpredictable; he was also brave and honest, living in plain sight. He had it right from the start; in his case, fear struck out.