Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part I--Jackie Jensen)

Many large scale surveys of the prevalence of mental disorders in adults have been carried out in the past. The World Health Organization reported in 2001 that roughly 450 million people worldwide suffer from brain disorders or some form of mental illness. The same report also stipulated that one in four people meet the criteria for mental illness at some point in their lives. In the face of such statistics, it should come as no surprise that baseball players are not immune. In fact, numerous high profile players have suffered breakdowns both on and off the field over the course of baseball history. In  my next several posts, I intend to share some of those stories. I'd like to start with the unusual tale of Jackie Jensen.

 During his days at the University of California, Jensen was hailed as the greatest athlete in the school's history. An All-American running back, he set a record for rushing yards with 1,080 in 1948. He also excelled at baseball, prompting several teams to engage in a bidding war before the 1949 slate. Jensen ended up signing a $75,000 contract with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. He was sold to the New York Yankees the following year along with Billy Martin.

Jensen had trouble finding a home in the star-studded Yankee lineup and ended up getting traded to Washington. He hit moderately well there but failed to live up to all the hype. He finally found his groove in Boston. Between 1954 and 1959, he captured three RBI crowns while slamming 25 or more homers four times. He reached the pinnacle of his career in 1958, when he was named AL MVP. But behind the scenes baseball's so-called "Golden Boy" was struggling with a serious and persistent condition known as aerophobia--commonly referred to as "fear of flying."

The condition may or may not be a combination of several other phobias, including claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights) and agoraphobia (an anxiety disorder brought about by specific environmental circumstances). Individuals who suffer from aerophobia experience acute anxiety that can lead to panic attacks while flying. In extreme cases, some sufferers actually vomit at the mere sight of an airplane. The condition was extremely bothersome to Jensen, since his job frequently required him to travel by air.

Jensen tried to self-medicate with alcohol and sleeping pills, but this led to a number of embarrassing incidents. In 1959, he suffered an attack of dizziness before boarding a scheduled flight and had to be helped to his seat. After a few minutes, he was shaking and sweating so profusely, a startled flight attendant notified the captain, who promptly kicked Jensen off of the plane. It was not the only time the tranquilized Jensen had appeared drunk and disorderly to a throng of gawking passengers. He would often drive from city to city to avoid the humiliation.

In the spring of '59, he came clean about his condition with a reporter from the Saturday Evening Post. He explained how he had trouble combating his problem without tranquilizers and complained about being apart from his wife. In 1949, Jensen had married blonde bombshell Zoe Ann Olsen, a U.S. diving champion and Olympic silver medalist. The two were one of America's most admired couples. But Jensen's problems put a tremendous strain on their marriage. Against Zoe's wishes, Jackie officially announced his retirement before the 1960 campaign. 

Jensen took a year off to tend to his restaurant and other investments then decided to make a comeback attempt in 1961. By then, the American League had expanded to Los Angeles, adding a pair of long dsitance flights to a schedule Jensen already found extremely tiresome. By the end of April, he had slumped to .130 at the plate. At wit's end, he visited a renowned nightclub psychic in Reno. He started to hit again, but it proved to be only a temporary fix. Before a road trip to Cleveland, he was a no-show at Boston's Logan Airport, driving 850 miles to attend the series. He skipped the team's second jaunt to Los Angeles in August, meeting up with the club at Kansas City instead. He finished the year with 13 homers and 66 RBI's--not even close to the numbers he had put up in his prime. He never played another season in the majors.

The years after baseball were tough ones. Jensen lost a lot of money on various investments and ended up divorced. He eventually remarried and took a job as a color commentator for ABC. He continued to battle with acute anxiety. A heavy smoker, he had a serious heart attack at age 41 and lost his ABC job. In the '70's, he became head baseball coach at the University of California. His life finally seemed to be turning around when he died of another heart attack in 1982.                

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