James Anthony Piersall (born November 14, 1929 in Waterbury, Connecticut) is a former center fielder in Major League Baseball. While playing for the Boston Red Sox he was demoted to the Birmingham Barons in 1952 following a series of much-publicized brawls with teammates and others. His three weeks as a Baron ended with his admittance to a mental hospital in Massachusetts, after which he resumed his major league career.
Early baseball career
Piersall led the Leavenworth High School (Waterbury, Connecticut) basketball team to the 1947 New England championship, scoring 29 points in the final game. Piersall became a professional baseball player at age 18, signing a free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox in 1948. He would reach the majors in 1950, playing in six games as one of the youngest players in baseball.
In 1952, he earned a more substantial role with the Red Sox, frequently referring to himself as "The Waterbury Wizard", a nickname not well-received by teammates.
On May 24, 1952, just before the game against the New York Yankees, Piersall engaged in a fistfight with Yankee infielder Billy Martin. Following the brawl, Piersall briefly scuffled with teammate Mickey McDermott in the Red Sox clubhouse. After several such incidents, Piersall was sent to the minor league Birmingham Barons on June 28. The final straw came when Piersall spanked the four-year-old son of teammate Vern Stephens in the Red Sox clubhouse during a game.
In less than three weeks with the Barons, Piersall was ejected on four occasions, the last coming after striking out in the second inning on July 16. Prior to his at-bat, he had acknowledged teammate Milt Bolling's home run by spraying a water pistol on home plate. Piersall then moved to Rickwood Field's grandstand roof to heckle home plate umpire Neil Strocchia.
Receiving a three-day suspension, Piersall entered treatment three days later at the Westboro State Hospital in Massachusetts. Diagnosed with "nervous exhaustion," he would spend the next seven weeks in the facility and miss the remainder of the season. According to his autobiography, Piersall blamed much of his condition on his father, who pressured him to succeed as a baseball player as a small child.
Nevertheless, not only would Piersall return to baseball by the opening of the 1953 season, but he finished ninth in voting for the MVP Award. The next year he became the Red Sox's regular center fielder, taking over for Dom DiMaggio and playing well enough to remain a fixture in the starting lineup through 1958.
He once played game in a Beatles wig, led cheers for himself in the outfield during breaks in play, and "talked" to Babe Ruth behind the center field monuments at Yankee Stadium. In his autobiography, Piersall commented, "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?"
Piersall was selected to the American League All-Star team in 1954 and 1956, largely due to his outfield play, which drew favorable comparisons to Joe DiMaggio. By the end of the 1956 season, in which he played all 156 games, he posted a league-leading 40 doubles, contributed 91 runs and 87 RBI, and had a .293 batting average. The following year, he collected 19 home runs and scored 103 runs. He won a Gold Glove Award in 1958.
On December 2, 1958, Piersall was traded to the Cleveland Indians for first baseman Vic Wertz and outfielder Gary Geiger. In a strange coincidence, Piersall was reunited with his former combatant Billy Martin, who also had been acquired by the team. The 1959 season would be a successful one for Cleveland, which battled the Chicago White Sox for much of the season before finishing a close second in the standings.
In the Memorial Day doubleheader at Chicago, he was ejected in the first game for heckling umpire Larry Napp, then after catching the final out of the second game, whirled around and threw the ball at the White Sox' scoreboard. He later wore a little league helmet during an at-bat against the Detroit Tigers, and after a series of incidents against the Yankees, Indians team physician Donald Kelly ordered psychiatric treatment on June 26.
After a brief absence, Piersall returned only to earn his sixth ejection of the season on July 23, when he was banished after running back and forth in the outfield while the Red Sox' Ted Williams was at bat. His subsequent meeting with American League president Joe Cronin and the departure of manager Joe Gordon seemed to settle Piersall down for the remainder of the season.
Piersall came back during the 1961 season, earning a second Gold Glove while also finishing third in the batting race in with a .322 average. However, he remained a volatile player, charging the mound after being hit by a Jim Bunning pitch on June 25, then violently hurling his helmet a month later, earning him a $100 fine in each case.
On September 5, Piersall's 74-year-old father died of a heart attack. Two days after attending the funeral, Piersall returned to play in New York only to be the target of continued fan abuse. During the September 10 doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, Piersall was accosted on the field by two fans, one of whom he punched before attempting to kick the other.
Despite the minor eruptions, Piersall earned a $2,500 bonus for improved behavior, but following three hectic years in Cleveland, Piersall was dealt to the Washington Senators on October 5. His time in the nation's capital would not be long after his production declined, with the veteran outfielder then being sent to the New York Mets on May 23, 1963, for cash and a player to be named later.
In a reserve role with the second-year team, Piersall played briefly under manager Casey Stengel. In the fifth inning of the June 23 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Piersall ran the bases while facing backward (though in the correct order) after hitting the 100th home run of his career off Phillies pitcher Dallas Green.
One month after reaching the milestone, Piersall was released by the Mets, but he found employment with the Los Angeles Angels on July 28. He would finish his playing career with them, playing nearly four more years before moving into a front office position on May 8, 1967. In a 17-season career, Piersall was a .272 hitter with 104 home runs and 591 RBI in 1,734 games.
Piersall later had broadcasting jobs with the Texas Rangers beginning in 1974 (doing color and play-by-play for televised games) and with the Chicago White Sox from 1977 to 1981 where he was teamed with Harry Caray. He was fired after excessive on-air criticism of the team's management. He became the subject of a movie based on his writings, Fear Strikes Out, where he was portrayed by Anthony Perkins (directed by Robert Mulligan, 1957). Piersall would eventually disown the film due to what he believed were its distortion of the facts, including over-blaming his father for his problems. Besides Fear Strikes Out, Piersall authored The Truth Hurts, in which he details his ouster from the White Sox organization.
Piersall, who winters in Arizona and still does a sports radio show in Chicago, was invited to a White House event honoring the 2004 World Champions Boston Red Sox on March 2, 2005. According to a Red Sox official, the White House prepared a guest list of about 1,000 for the event, scheduled to be staged on the South Lawn. "This is a real thrill for a poor kid from Waterbury, Connecticut," Piersall said. "I'm 75 years old. There aren't many things left." He also said he visited the White House once before as guest of President John F. Kennedy.
Piersall was the guest of honor at the 2008 Rickwood Classic. The May 28 throwback game featured the Birmingham Barons in jerseys reminiscent of their 1952 team, and the first 1,500 fans recieved a vintage portrait of Piersall.
- Jimmy Piersall. (April 27, 2008). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 5, 2008.
- Reynolds, Ed (May 1, 2008) "Bases Loaded: Jimmy Piersall is the special guest at this year's Rickwood Classic." Black & White
- Jim Piersall and Al Hirshberg (1955) Fear Strikes Out: The Jim Piersall Story. Boston: Little, Brown & Company