Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part V--Jimmy Piersall)

During his playing days, Jimmy Piersall suffered from bipolar disorder, a severe and persistent illness marked by extreme highs and lows. The illness can be easily managed with medications, but many sufferers choose to stop taking them over time in the mistaken belief that they have been "cured." In Piersall's time, the illness was known as "manic/depressive disorder." (The name was changed because it was believed to be stigmatizing.) In the "depressive" phase of the illness, patients can become suicidal. In the "manic" phase, they sometimes suffer from delusional thinking and lose touch with reality. Piersall's manic behavior was apparent at several points during his career and he had multiple hospitalizations. His struggles later became the subject of a book and a movie entitled: Fear Strikes Out.

Piersall was a talented outfielder who came up with the Red Sox. Stationed primarily in center field, he posted the highest fielding percentage among his AL peers on five occasions and was recognized with a pair of Gold Gloves. At the plate, he compiled a competent .272 lifetime batting average, leading the league in doubles during the 1956 slate. Though '56 was his best offensive year all around,  he reached a personal high in '61 with a .322 average--third best in the circuit. Traded to Cleveland in '59, he would spend 17 years in the majors with 5 teams, making 2 All-Star appearances. 

But it wasn't an easy road.

During his rookie season, he got into a fist fight with Yankee infielder Billy Martin (who was pretty easy to provoke). After the scrape, Piersall got into another scuffle with one of his teammates in the Boston clubhouse. His sporadically "wild" behavior earned him a trip to the minors in June. While playing for the Birmingham Barons, he was ejected several times in a short span. During one game, he sprayed home plate with a water pistol then reportedly sat on the grandstand roof heckling the umpire. After serving a 3-game suspension, he ended up being hospitalized at the Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts. He was diagnosed with "nervous exhaustion" and missed the remainder of the season.
Piersall came back strong in '53, finishing ninth in MVP voting. He would remain the BoSox starting center fielder for the next five seasons. When he learned of his trade to Cleveland after the '58 campaign, he was shocked and disheartened. He had just started a business in Boston and purchased a home. He had six children at that point with another on the way. Slumping mightily in '59, he returned to form the following year. But his troubles had begun anew.

In '59, he was ejected from three games, charging pitcher Pedro Ramos with his bat at one point. In May of 1960, he argued balls and strikes with home plate ump Cal Drummond while standing on second base. This led to a physical altercation with the arbiter. Piersall stormed off to the dugout and hurled every piece of equipment he could find onto the field. He earned a stiff fine for his tantrum. Later that day, in the second game of a doubleheader, he caught the last out and whipped the ball into the Comiskey Park scoreboard, shattering several bulbs.

The incidents kept piling up. During a June contest, he threw a pair of balls at pitcher Jim Coates as he was warming up. Later in the game, he threw his glove in the air in protest of a call and made crude gestures at the official scorer after one of his bunt attempts was ruled an error. Two days later, Piersall was sent home to get psychiatric care. He was in denial about it, though he did consult with a doctor and apologize to his teammates. After sitting out six games, he returned to the lineup, landing himself in hot water yet again when he was ejected for repeatedly doing a "war dance" in center field at Fenway Park while Ted Williams was batting. He would later be summoned to the office of the league president (along with his wife) for what has been described as a "fatherly talk." The rest of the season ended somewhat uneventfully, though he was reprimanded for holding up a game at Yankee Stadium when he hid behind the monuments in center field and refused to come out.

In one of the most infamous moments of his career, two men jumped out of the stands at Yankee Stadium during a 1961 game and came after Piersall, shouting "You crazy bastard! We're going to get you!" Defending himself, Piersall knocked one of the men down with a punch to the face. When the other retreated, Piersall administered a swift kick to his rear end. The altercation was captured in a series of famous photos. Both attackers were arrested and Piersall was absolved of any wrong doing. He dealt with the insensitive heckling of fans throughout his career.

Even when he was not manic, Piersall was fond of  playing practical jokes. He once came to bat wearing a Beatles' wig. On the occasion of his 100th career homer, he ran the bases backward. He remained in the spotlight after his retirement, appearing in numerous commercials and television programs. He also hosted his own radio show for awhile. While working for A's owner Charlie Finley in group sales, he had another breakdown and was hospitalized. He later worked alongside Harry Caray broadcasting White Sox games. He was married and divorced multiple times. As of 2009, he was still making public appearances and appearing on various talk shows. He once commented that his illness was the best thing that ever happened to him because it made him famous.   


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