The eccentric ballplayer who battled mental illness
When Jimmy Piersall made the leap to the big league with the Boston Red Sox in the early 1950s, the slick-fielding centerfielder seemed to have limitless potential. He was also wildly mercurial, throwing tantrums and battling umpires, opponents, and teammates alike. Many fans found the rookie entertaining, but his erratic behavior was the result of serious psychological distress. Piersall suffered from bipolar disorder, then known as manic depression. He recounted his struggles in the 1955 memoir Fear Strikes Out, made into an acclaimed 1957 film with Anthony Perkins, which offered a rare look at mental illness in the macho sports world. Medication helped Piersall cope with his disorder, but he maintained his zany reputation with goofy stunts, striding to the plate in a Beatles wig or running backward around the bases for his 100th career homer. “The best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts,” he said. “Nobody knew who I was until that happened.”
Born in Waterbury, Conn., Piersall grew up “in a cold-water flat,” said The Boston Globe. His mother “was hospitalized numerous times” for mental health issues, while his housepainter father drove him mercilessly to excel at sports. Piersall was signed by the Red Sox organization in 1948, and during his three seasons in the minors, he “was often agitated, fearing he would fail,” said The New York Times. Called up to the majors in 1952, he “antagonized virtually all of his teammates with his antics,” especially when he mocked revered outfielder Dom DiMaggio “by imitating his distinctive stride.” Sent back to the minors, Piersall continued “his disruptive behavior,” until he finally agreed to receive psychiatric treatment following a 1952 breakdown. He was hospitalized for six weeks, undergoing shock treatment and counseling, and returned to the Red Sox in 1953.
A two-time All-Star, Piersall retired after 17 seasons and found new fame in the broadcast booth, teaming with Chicago White Sox announcer Harry Caray. Their act “was almost vaudevillian,” said the Chicago Tribune, and Caray would often ask his colleague, “Did you take your pills today?” But Piersall’s unfiltered style kept him in hot water. He offered up withering critiques of management, players, and even players’ wives, whom he called “horny broads.” Piersall never apologized for his impropriety. “I’m the gooney bird that walked to the bank,” he said. “I’m doing better than most of the guys who said I was crazy.”