At one point in the 1940s and 1950s, when the sport reigned supreme, it was entirely common for true stories about baseball players to become movies.
Lou Gehrig’s life became “Pride of the Yankees,” with many Yankee ballplayers, including Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey, playing themselves. Ruth himself got a biopic, with William Bendix as the title character, as did Jackie Robinson, who played himself. Jimmy Stewart was Monty Stratton in “The Stratton Story,” Ronald Reagan was Grover Cleveland Alexander in “The Winning Team,” and Anthony Perkins – before he was the keeper of the Bates Motel – was outfielder Jimmy Piersall in “Fear Strikes Out,” a story of a the outfielder’s triumph over mental illness.
Piersall, who died Saturday at the age of 87, is most closely associated with the Red Sox. Others remember him for his prank after hitting his 100th home run with the New York Mets in their early “Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game” days. But for three years, with mixed results, he was an outfielder for the Indians.
After the 1958 season, when the Indians replaced manager Bobby Bragan with former second baseman Joe Gordon on the way to a 77-76 record, General Manager Frank Lane told the Plain Dealer that he wanted the mercurial outfielder. “I’d like to have Piersall even though he does act goofy,” Lane said in the Nov. 22 edition. “There aren’t many who can play center field any better.”
“Acting goofy” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Piersall had distinguished himself in high school playing basketball and baseball, but he was a brooding child with an intimidating father. In 1952, former Indians manager Lou Boudreau – then retired as a player and managing the Red Sox – tried to switch Piersall to shortstop. Boudreau and team president Joe Cronin – both former shortstops – worked with Piersall on the switch. The move didn’t work well, and Piersall was sent to Birmingham. He ended up in a mental hospital in Massachusetts, diagnosed with manic depression.
He returned to the team the following year and became the everyday center fielder, being named an All-Star in 1954 and 1956, and earning a Gold Glove in 1958.
In 1955, Piersall collaborated with sportswriter Al Hirshberg on a two-part story in the Saturday Evening Post, “They Called Me Crazy – and I Was!” The story became the basis for a book and subsequent movie, “Fear Strikes Out.” Piersall himself didn’t care for the film, particularly Karl Malden’s portrayal of his demanding father, and Perkins’ attempts at baseball.
Less than two weeks after Lane announced his sights were set on Piersall, he got his man. The cost was Vic Wertz and Gary Geiger. Plain Dealer writer Harry Jones said Piersall and Billy Martin – acquired by Lane on November 20 – made the Indians “the fiercest club in baseball – temperamentally, at least.” “We’ll have a good ball club next year if the players don’t beat Hell out of each other,” Gordon said, maybe not entirely in jest. “I’ll wind up being a referee, not a manager.”
As it turns out, 1959 was a good year for the Indians, who won 89 games but finished second in the American League, five games behind the pennant-winning White Sox. But it wasn’t a good year for Piersall, who hit .246 and lost his everyday center fielder job to Tito Francona in what was a career year for him (he was fifth in the American League MVP vote).
The following year, Francona was moved to left field after Lane dealt away Minnie Minoso, and Piersall flourished in center field. But although his mental illness was being treated, he still had bizarre antics in the field, including one time where he danced in center field to distract Ted Williams while he was batting. In fact, Piersall set a major league record that year – with seven ejections.
In 1961, he posted the highest batting average of his career, .322, and received another Gold Glove. But he was traded after the season to Washington for Dick Donovan, Gene Green and Jim Mahoney. He played a full season for the Senators before being traded in May 1963 to the Mets for the rights to Gil Hodges, who became the Senators’ manager. It was with New York that Piersall hit his 100th home run, off Dallas Green in Philadelphia. He circled the bases running backward – but in the correct direction. The Mets released him a month later. He spent the remainder of his career – parts of four more seasons – with the Angels.
Photo: 1960 Topps baseball card