Sports Collectors Digest: Jimmy Piersall

By Marty Appel

Jimmy Piersall was in the news recently, with some memories stirred over a loony event from 1963 when he hit his 100th home run – and ran the bases backwards.

He was playing for the Mets in their second season, and their final one in the Polo Grounds before moving to Shea Stadium in ’64. He had told everyone that when he hit number 100, he would do just that, run backwards. And that is the way it was remembered by most. A wire service photo of the moment shows him heading for home with his back to home plate, number 34 on the rear of his Mets home uniform.

What actually happened was that he ran the right way from home to third, then paused, turned, and went the final 90 feet backwards. And for some, it was a reminder that after wearing 37 for his whole career, he was now 34 because 37 resided on the uniform of his manager, Casey Stengel, who had once discharged a bird from under his cap while playing for the New York Giants.

They don’t make characters quite like this anymore.

Jimmy Piersall turns 80 on November 14, 2009. He may have been the most unforgettable baseball character of the 1950s, largely due to a best-selling book and a movie of the same name, “Fear Strikes Out.” They dealt with his eccentric on-field behavior, later diagnosed as mental illness, which saw him institutionalized and the recipient of electric shock therapy.

The first time I met Piersall he was working as a broadcaster for the Texas Rangers, and I was the Yankees PR director. He had always been intriguing to me, partly because of a couple of Yankee Stadium episodes, one in which he retreated to sit down with the monuments in center field and apparently have a conversation with them, and another in which he kicked a fan who had run onto the field in the rear end, getting as much elevation in his leg as a football placekicker.

“Nice to meet you, Marty,” he said. “Are you sane?”

I smiled, and something like, “I’d like to think so!” (I actually hadn’t given it much thought).

To which he replied, “Do you have the papers to prove it?” And with that he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a copy of his discharge paper from “the institution” certifying that he was cured, and thus, “sane.” I had no such proof. He had me.

I don’t imagine I was the first one he did that to. Or the last.

“Fear Strikes Out” appeared as a book in 1955 after first appearing in short form in the Saturday Evening Post under the title, “They Called Me Crazy – and I Was!” It was written by Boston sportswriter Al Hirshberg, then 46, and would spend a week on the New York Times bestseller list, the first baseball book to make it since Babe Ruth’s autobiography seven years earlier.

The year Ruth’s book made the list – 1948, was the year Piersall signed with the Red Sox at age 18. Two years later he made his major league debut, and by 1952 was a full-fledged big leaguer. As a native of Waterbury, CT (in “Red Sox Nation”), he was terrifically popular with Red Sox fans. But he had a quick temper, brawled frequently, (including one with Billy Martin), went overboard in arguing with umpires, drew suspensions, and was thought to be, in the chatter of the times, “a little crazy.”

He was sent to the minor leagues in June of ’52, his behavior became more troubling, and he was finally “sent away” where he received the electric shock treatments. “Cured,” (check his papers!), he rejoined the Red Sox in ’53 and largely on his defensive brilliance playing centerfield (replacing Dom DiMaggio), he finished ninth in MVP voting. In ’54 he made the All-Star team.

Hirshberg, a Boston native, had already written a book on the Red Sox (“The Bean and the Cod”, 1947), and the Boston Braves (“The Pick and the Shovel, 1948), when he collaborated with Piersall on “Fear Strikes Out.” The World War II veteran became an “A list” writer from this effort, especially when film rights were sold. He and Piersall enjoyed screen credits as writers of the original book for the Tony Perkins/Karl Malden film, which was released in 1957 and famously showed Piersall climbing up the backstop in a mad fit. Piersall hated the movie, particularly disliking Malden’s portrayal of a demanding father. And he wasn’t thrilled when he later heard rumors of Perkins’ sexual orientation. The film doesn’t make too many “best baseball movie” lists.

Piersall went on to play for Cleveland, Washington, the Mets and the Angels (the later three, all expansion teams), and stretched his career out to 1967. Charlie Finley hired him to, sadly, run errands for him during the A’s great seasons in the early ‘70s, showing him off to his guests, as Piersall would serve drinks and snacks to the Oakland owner. It was embarrassing to more seasoned baseball people.

After his Rangers broadcasting job he teamed with Harry Caray for five years on White Sox broadcasts, finally getting sacked for criticizing management too often. That led to his second book, called “The Truth Hurts,” (with Dick Whittingham), published in 1985.

By ’85, Al Hirshberg was long gone. He died in 1973 in Sarasota following a heart attack. His body of baseball work after “Fear” was impressive – biographies of Eddie Mathews, Jackie Jensen, Red Schoendienst, Joe Cronin, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Frank Howard, and collaborations with broadcasters Russ Hodges, Curt Gowdy and Lindsey Nelson, and players Al Kaline, Carl Yastrzemski, and Hawk Harrelson. His book with Yaz followed Carl’s triple crown season of 1967 and his book with Harrelson was published a week after his trade from Cleveland to Boston, good timing for both.

He branched away from sports to do a pair of books on “Project Concern,” about medical outreach to third world nations, both in collaboration with a Dr. James Turpin, as well as a few other “non-sports” titles. In some years, he had as many as four books published.

“He liked people, he genuinely did,” says Ray Robinson, who was frequently his magazine editor. “He’d call everyone ‘pally.’ No one ever had a bad word for Al, and when he died, his agent threw a party in his memory in New York with a terrific turnout of the sports literary world.”

“We called him ‘The Old Master,’ and never let a World Series pass without giving him an assignment”, says Al Silverman, editor of Sports Magazine in the ‘60s. “He told me once he did more than 400 magazine articles in his career.”