Jim Piersall, a character on and off of the baseball field known for his erratic behavior and public battle with bipolar disorder, passed away on Saturday, June 3. He was 87 years old.
Piersall began a long career in Major League Baseball when he joined the Boston Red Sox organization prior to the 1948 season. He made his big league debut in 1950 and reemerged with the club in 1952, becoming a regular center fielder in the Sox outfield after previously working as a shortstop. He would spend parts of eight MLB seasons in Boston, becoming an All-Star in 1954 and 1956, a Gold Glove winner in 1957, and a champion of public mental health awareness and depression by his public displays and willingness to be vocal with his struggles. In 1955, he published his autobiography, Fear Strikes Out, one that would be the subject for the 1957 film of the same name starring Anthony Perkins and Karl Malden.
While Piersall had his personal struggles, he found a way to make baseball fun, both for himself and for those watching, unless it was during one of his many heated displays with umpires, opposing players, or even fans in the stands (and on the field). Early on in his career, difficulties following Boston manager (and longtime Tribe shortstop and skipper) Lou Boudreau’s directions advising for less clowning around on the field led to a benching and, later, a demotion to the minors. There, his behavior worsened, leading to a visit with a psychiatrist and an eventual stay in both a private mental health facility and a state mental hospital, where he would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and would undergo shock treatment.
His time in Boston would end in the offseason following the 1958 season, when he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for Gary Geiger and Vic Wertz.
After another subpar season in his first year in Cleveland, he posted arguably the best numbers of his career in 1960, appearing in 138 games while hitting .282 with 18 homers and 66 RBI. He hit a career-best .322 and won another Gold Glove in his final season with the Indians in 1961 while playing in 121 games.
His time in Cleveland was marred, much like it was in Boston, by on-the-field displays that went again the expected spirit of the game, oftentimes showing up and/or mocking opposing players, yelling at umpires, receiving multiple ejections, and having public meltdowns. At one point, he was summoned to a meeting with league president Joe Cronin, who was the general manager in Boston during his time there, who advised him to put an end to his extracurricular antics. During two separate incidents at Yankee Stadium in his last two seasons with the Indians, he once hid behind the monuments in center field and held up the ball game, and another time punched a fan who ran on the field in the face and gave chase to another, but the latter event was more positively received because of the dangerous actions of the two fans who had entered the playing field.
Days after the completion of the 1961 season, Piersall was on the move again, this time heading to the Washington Senators organization for Dick Donovan, Gene Green, and Jim Mahoney.
He would spend a season and one month with the club before he was dealt to the New York Mets for Gil Hodges, but would make it just days past two months in the Big Apple before he was released. He had probably his single most memorable contribution on the field on June 23, 1963, in game one of a doubleheader between the Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. Piersall had three hits in the first game, including his 100th career home run to lead off the bottom of the fifth inning off of Dallas Green. He celebrated the milestone by circling the bases while running backwards.
With his time with the Mets over, he relocated across the country to Los Angeles as a member of the Angels. He would spend his final five big league seasons on the west coast, calling it a career after five hitless games in 1967.
His baseball life would not be over, as after a variety of gigs away from the game, he would eventually return as a coach with the Texas Rangers and began a broadcasting career with the Chicago White Sox in 1977, one that lasted until his release from the job following the 1982 season for his public criticisms of the team and several heated encounters with members of the organization.
He would publish a second autobiography in 1985, titled The Truth Hurts.
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