Jimmy Piersall overcame mental illness to become one of the most exciting ballplayers in Red Sox history. His baseball career almost came to a premature end when he was hospitalized during the 1952 season and diagnosed as manic depressive. The story of his battle to overcome mental illness is chronicled in his book, Fear Strikes Out, which he wrote with Al Hirshberg, and the 1957 movie of the same title.
Piersall, who spent 11 years with the Red Sox organization, was named to the American League All-Star team in 1954 and 1956. Known primarily for his outstanding fielding skills, he was honored as an American League Gold Glove outfielder with the Red Sox in 1958.
When Jimmy Piersall was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in September 2010, fellow Red Sox Hall-of-Famer and former teammate, Bill Monbouquette said, “Jimmy was the best centerfielder I ever saw. And I saw Willy Mays, and [Mickey] Mantle, and Mickey Stanley in Detroit.”
Jimmy Piersall played in 17 seasons in the big leagues, and his .991 fielding percentage as a centerfielder ranks 21st in major league history. Commenting on his election to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame, Piersall told me, “To be honest, I actually got the shivers when I heard the news. I grew up in Waterbury, CT, surrounded by Yankee fans, rooting for the Red Sox. I never thought I would be honored that way.”
THE PRIDE OF WATERBURY, CONNECTICUT
James Anthony Piersall was born in Waterbury, CT, a city about 35 miles southwest of Hartford, on November 14, 1929. “I grew up during the depression in a cold-water flat,” he recalls. “My father was a house painter but there wasn’t a lot of work for anyone at that time. I played ball every chance I got and I sold newspapers to help out.”
“Baseball was always my first love,” he says, “and my father and I were rabid Red Sox fans. When Ted Williams came along  he became my favorite player. But I loved to play basketball, and I was a pretty good player.”
Piersall was a good enough basketball player to lead Leavenworth High of Waterbury to the New England schoolboy championship in 1947. In the final game Piersall scored 29 points to lead his team to a 51-44 victory over Durfee High School of Fall River, MA. “I always said basketball helped me to be quicker in baseball and it helped me the night we won the championship. A Red Sox scout [Neil Mahoney] was there and our fans told him that I was even better at baseball.”
FAST-TRACK TO FENWAY
Following high school graduation, Jimmy received offers from five big league teams. The Boston Braves made the best financial offer but Piersall and his father decided to sign with the Red Sox. “They didn’t put any pressure on us,” Jimmy recalls, “and they probably had us when they mentioned an outfield of Williams, DiMaggio and Piersall,” he laughs.
Jimmy Piersall’s professional baseball career got off to a fine start in Class A with Scranton, PA, in 1948, and the following year he was promoted all the way to Louisville, KY, in Triple-A. Two excellent seasons in Louisville earned him a call-up to Boston in September 1950. Piersall still remembers every detail of his first at-bat in the big leagues.
“I was sent up to pinch hit and I was so nervous that when I swung at the first pitch my bat flew out of my hands and into the stands. Billy Goodman [Red Sox infielder 1947-1957] was on deck and he gave me his bat to use. I worked the count to 3-2 and singled between first and second base. I went home and told my family I was batting 1.000.”
The following season Jimmy split his time between Louisville and Birmingham, AL, where he batted .346. Just age 21 at the end of the 1951 season, Piersall looked forward to a chance to break into the Red Sox outfield in 1952. It came as a big surprise when he read in The Sporting News that the Red Sox planned to move him to shortstop.
FEAR STRIKES OUT
The Boston Red Sox considered Piersall to be an outstanding outfield prospect. But recognizing his athleticism and ability to charge ground balls, new manager Lou Boudreau was confident that Jimmy could easily make the transition to shortstop.
Jimmy Piersall had always been high-strung and he had suffered from headaches since his teenage years. The unexpected change in fielding position seemed to be the catalyst that prompted a series of on-field outbursts during the 1952 season. He argued incessantly with umpires, imitated Satchel Paige’s wind-up while on base, and brawled with the Yankees’ Billy Martin. Ironically, he showed promise as a shortstop, appearing in 30 early season games at that position.
In late June the Red Sox optioned Piersall to Birmingham hoping the change in scenery and diminished pressure would be helpful. But his erratic behavior continued and Jimmy was hospitalized with what the media termed “nervous exhaustion.” During an extended stay at WestboroughStateHospital he was given shock treatment and psychotherapy.
Jimmy Piersall acknowledges that with the advances in mental heath treatment, today he would have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and benefited from ongoing aftercare. “But the doctors did the best they could with what they knew and I am grateful for that. And I’m grateful for the support of my family, friends and everyone connected with the Red Sox at the time.
“The Red Sox were wonderful to me and my family. After my hospital stay they sent us to Sarasota, FL, for the winter so I would be ready for spring training. And Red Sox coach George Susce, Sr., did everything he could to help me ease back into everyday life and back into baseball. I’ll always remember him for that.”
COMEBACK FOR THE AGES
Jimmy Piersall’s 1953 season was one of the great baseball comeback stories of all-time. In 1953, the media was less-invasive than they are today, but all eyes were on the 23 year-old Red Sox right fielder. And Piersall passed the test with flying colors, batting a very respectable .272, completing a host of acrobatic catches, and finishing ninth in the American League MVP voting.
In the August 26, 1953, edition of The Sporting News, Boston sportswriter Hy Hurwitz wrote, “Piersall’s play in the rough right field sector of Fenway Park has been phenomenal.” In the same article veteran Red Sox coach Bill McKechnie describes Piersall as the greatest right fielder he had ever seen. “And I’ve seen a lot of them in 50 years,” McKechnie emphasized.
“That season I felt as if everyone was pulling for me,” Jimmy recalls. “My teammates were wonderful and the fans were great. I heard a few crude remarks in the stands on the road, but I expected that.”
During the 1954 season, Jimmy was shifted to centerfield where he had even more opportunity to display his defensive prowess. Former Red Sox infielder Ted Lepcio, who was Piersall’s teammate for two seasons, remembers Jimmy’s shift to centerfield.
“You have to remember that he was replacing Dom DiMaggio, who had been one of the truly great centerfielders. I saw them both and I have to say that Jimmy was Dom’s equal in center.” Lepcio adds, “And that’s saying a lot.”
ALL-STAR AND GOLD GLOVER
In 1954 New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel named Jimmy Piersall to the American League All-Star team. “I came out of my mother’s womb hating the Yankees,” Piersall chuckles, “and I always played well against them. I was really pleased that Casey picked me for the team.”
In 1955 Jimmy started 149 games in centerfield for the Red Sox, and in 1956 he led the American League in games played (155) and doubles (40). That season he was named to his second All-Star team, and the Boston Baseball Writer’s Association voted him the Red Sox MVP. “That was quite an honor,” he says, looking back. “Ted Williams was on that team, and Jackie Jensen and Tom Brewer both had great years.”
In 1957, Jimmy Piersall finished in top 10 in the American League in Games played, runs, hits, doubles and total bases. And in 1958 Piersall was named as an American League Gold Glove outfielder in recognition of his outstanding play in centerfield. If ESPN web gems had existed during Piersall’s career he would have been the star of that series.
Following the 1958 season Jimmy Piersall was traded to the Cleveland Indians for Vic Wertz and Gary Geiger. “That trade was my biggest disappointment in baseball,” Piersall says. “I had grown up a Red Sox fan, spent my whole career with the organization, and made my home in Boston. But I did receive a very nice note from Tom Yawkey and I will always have the memories.”
THE LATER YEARS
Jimmy Piersall played three seasons for the Cleveland Indians. His best season was 1961, when he finished third in batting in the American League with a .322 average and earned his second Gold Glove Award. Following that season he was traded to the Washington Senators. “They were a terrible team,” Piersall recalls, referring to the tenth place 1962 Senators.
In May 1963 the Senators traded Piersall to the New York Mets who were setting their own standard of futility in the National League. Jimmy received national attention with the Mets when he celebrated his 100th major league home run by running backwards around the bases. When the Mets released Piersall two days later, manager Casey Stengel, who had been the most colorful Met until Jimmy’s arrival, told the media, “There’s only room for one clown on this team.”
Jimmy Piersall resurrected his career with the California Angels, where he remained until his release on May 12, 1967. He finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .272, enough circus catches to fill several highlight reels, and one of the most dramatic comebacks in baseball history.
Jimmy Piersall remained in baseball in a variety of assignments following his retirement as an active player. He worked in the front offices of the Angels and in Texas for his old nemesis Billy Martin. For a number of years, in what may have been the most combustible pairing in broadcasting history, Piersall teamed with the legendary Harry Caray to bring White Sox games to Chicago fans. His last baseball assignment was working with the outfielders in the Chicago Cubs minor league system.
JIMMY PIERSALL TODAY
Jimmy Piersall and his wife Jan spend part of the year in Scottsdale, AZ, returning to their home in suburban Chicago when the weather improves and baseball begins. Piersall has nine children from his first marriage, and 36 grandchildren.
Piersall, who celebrated his 81st birthday last November, has had two serious heart operations in the past, and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years ago. “The doctors and rehab people have really been great helping me with Parkinson’s,” he said recently from his Scottsdale home. “I’m back to playing golf a couple of times a week.”
Jimmy’s book, Fear Strikes Out, was reissued in 1999, and he contributed an Afterword to the reprinting. But he still isn’t a fan of the movie version. “Anthony Perkins [who played Piersall] threw like a girl. He may have been the worst looking ballplayer I have ever seen. And the movie was much too harsh on my dad. It wasn’t fair to him at all.”
Jimmy Piersall was one of the first well-known people to speak publicly on the special challenges of mental illness. Looking back, Jimmy is glad that he spoke widely about his personal battles. His mother was treated for mental illness, and was hospitalized for long stretches when he was a youngster, so he knows first-hand of the impact on families.
“I spoke to young people a lot when I was with the Cubs,” he says, “and I would tell them, ‘If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. Talk to your parents, talk to your doctor. Reach out for help.’”
Asked if has any message for Red Sox fans, Piersall answers, “I want them to know how much I appreciated their support and kindness over the years, especially after I was hospitalized. They were always behind me and that meant a lot. I’ll always be thankful to them.”