Jim Piersall died Sunday at the age of 87. Many folks won’t remember his name. He was a good ballplayer who played the game for parts of 17 seasons for the Red Sox, Indians, Senators and Angels. Piersall was known on the field chiefly for his excellent outfield defense. He wasn’t bad with the stick either compiling a .272/.332/.382 career slash. He hit .332 in 1961 for the Indians. Hit 19 home runs for the Red Sox in ’57. Not Hall of Fame numbers. But he made a couple of All-Star teams, won a couple of Gold Gloves, and received some MVP votes.
When I was a kid, I’d watch the Game of the Week Saturday mornings with my Dad. Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese were the announcers, and it wasn’t unusual to hear Pearsall’s name come up in discussion. Even sainted Dave Niehaus would raise his name in remembrance when deep in some 8-0 whoopin’ by the Bash Brothers in 1989 and reminisce with soul brother Ron Fairly.
Pearsall was known publicly not so much for his performance between the lines, but his on-field antics. He mimicked the movements of teammates and his manager. He was often ejected for arguing with umpires. He is best known for hitting his 100th home run and running around the bases backwards.
He was a bonus baby and signed with the Red Sox in 1950. He quickly rose through the ranks and became a regular Red Sox in 1952. Piersall began demonstrating erratic behavior and alienated his manager, Lou Boudreau and many of his teammates. He was sent down to Birmingham, but his behavior continued and resulted in a series of ejections and suspensions
G.M. Joe Cronin, alarmed, took a personal interest in Piersall’s situation and had his situation diagnosed by a psychiatrist. Jimmy was found to be suffering from bipolar disorder. Piersall recounts his behavior, diagnosis and treatment quite candidly in his 1955 book “Fear Strikes Out.” A second book followed in 1985, “The Truth Hurts.” Piersall was never entirely free of his demons. Though considered an on-field showman, his career is littered with outbursts and ejections. Yet, he continued playing until 1967.
Piersall went on to have a very productive life after baseball in broadcasting and coaching.
Mark Armour wrote a great article about Piersall for SABR, updated on his death June 3. It will provide far more detail than I can.
Piersall is one of those career good ballplayer kinds of guys. His 28.6 career WAR slots him in between Don Baylor and Tino Martinez. We often overlook his baseball accomplishments in favor of his more “colorful” moments. The man could and did play, played the game well at a no-nonsense point in the game’s history.
But let’s not forget for moment what he overcame and when. I married into a family riddled with mental illness and bipolar disorder. I watched family members struggle most of their adult lives with the condition, aided by the modern knowledge of brain chemistry and treatments that helped them lead productive lives. That Piersall managed to play baseball at the highest level of competition, travel from city to city, change of place to sleep, change of food, away from the support of family and at a time when understanding and treatment of mental illness was in its infancy is remarkable. His story serves as a reminder that anything is possible.