James Anthony Piersall (born November 14, 1929 in Waterbury, Connecticut) is a former center fielder in Major League Baseball. Between 1950 and 1967, he played for the Boston Red Sox (1950, 1952-58), Cleveland Indians (1959-61), Washington Senators (1962-63), New York Mets (1963) and Los Angeles/California Angels (1963-67).
While he had a fairly good professional career as a center fielder, Piersall is better known for his well-publicized battle with bipolar disorder that became the subject of the movie Fear Strikes Out.
In 1952, he earned a more substantial role with the Red Sox, frequently referring to himself as "The Waterbury Wizard", a nickname not well-received by teammates.
In less than three weeks with the Barons, Piersall was ejected on four occasions, the last coming after striking out in the second inning on July 16. Prior to his at-bat, he had acknowledged teammate Milt Bolling's home run by spraying a water pistol on home plate. Piersall then moved to the grandstand roof to heckle home plate umpire Neil Strocchia. Receiving a three-day suspension, Piersall entered treatment three days later at the Westboro State Hospital in Massachusetts. Diagnosed with "nervous exhaustion," he would spend the next seven weeks in the facility and miss the remainder of the season. According to his autobiography, Piersall blamed much of his condition on his father, who pressured him to succeed as a baseball player as a small child.
Nevertheless, not only would Piersall return to baseball by the opening of the 1953 season, but he finished ninth in voting for the MVP Award. The next year he became the Red Sox's regular center fielder, taking over for Dom DiMaggio and playing well enough to remain a fixture in the starting lineup through 1958.
He once stepped up to bat wearing a Beatles wig and playing "air guitar" on his bat, led cheers for himself in the outfield during breaks in play, and "talked" to Babe Ruth behind the center field monuments at Yankee Stadium. In his autobiography, Piersall commented, "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?"
On December 2, 1958, Piersall was traded to the Cleveland Indians for first baseman Vic Wertz and outfielder Gary Geiger. Piersall was coincidentally reunited with his former combatant Billy Martin, who also had been acquired by the team. The 1959 season would be a successful one for Cleveland, which battled the Chicago White Sox for much of the season before finishing a close second in the standings.
In the Memorial Day doubleheader at Chicago, he was ejected in the first game for heckling umpire Larry Napp, then after catching the final out of the second game, whirled around and threw the ball at the White Sox' scoreboard. He later wore a little league helmet during an at-bat against the Detroit Tigers, and after a series of incidents against the Yankees, Indians team physician Donald Kelly ordered psychiatric treatment on June 26.
After a brief absence, Piersall returned only to earn his sixth ejection of the season on July 23, when he was banished after running back and forth in the outfield while the Red Sox' Ted Williams was at bat. His subsequent meeting with American League president Joe Cronin and the departure of manager Joe Gordon seemed to settle Piersall down for the remainder of the season.
Piersall came back during the 1961 season, earning a second Gold Glove while also finishing third in the batting race in with a .322 average. However, he remained a volatile player, charging the mound after being hit by a Jim Bunning pitch on June 25, then violently hurling his helmet a month later, earning him a $100 fine in each case.
On September 5, Piersall's 74-year-old father died of a heart attack. Two days after attending the funeral, Piersall returned to play in New York only to be the target of continued fan abuse. During the September 10 doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, Piersall was accosted on the field by two fans, one of whom he punched before attempting to kick the other.
Despite the minor eruptions, Piersall earned a $2,500 bonus for improved behavior, but following three hectic years in Cleveland, Piersall was dealt to the Washington Senators on October 5. His time in the nation's capital would not be long after his production declined, with the veteran outfielder then being sent to the New York Mets on May 23, 1963, for cash and a player to be named later.
In a reserve role with the second-year team, Piersall played briefly under manager Casey Stengel. In the fifth inning of the June 23 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Piersall ran the bases while facing backward (though in the correct order) after hitting the 100th home run of his career off Phillies pitcher Dallas Green.
One month after reaching the milestone, Piersall was released by the Mets, but he found employment with the Los Angeles Angels on July 28. He would finish his playing career with them, playing nearly four more years before moving into a front office position on May 8, 1967. In a 17-season career, Piersall was a .272 hitter with 104 home runs and 591 RBI in 1,734 games.
Piersall, who winters in Arizona and still does a sports radio show in Chicago, was invited to a White House event honoring the 2004 World Champions Boston Red Sox on March 2, 2005. According to a Red Sox official, the White House prepared a guest list of about 1,000 for the event, scheduled to be staged on the South Lawn. "This is a real thrill for a poor kid from Waterbury, Connecticut," Piersall said. "I'm 75 years old. There aren't many things left." He also said he visited the White House once before as guest of President John F. Kennedy.
Jimmy Piersall appears as himself in the opening episode of season four of The Lucy Show. In the episode, Lucy and her son are invited to Marineland of the Pacific for "Jimmy Piersall Day".
"Doing a Piersall" is a regional colloquialism used in Ohio and the Northeast to refer to an individual who attempts a routine task in a showboating manner, or one using the antics of the Marx brothers. It is related to the colloquialisms "hotdog" or "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory". It derives from Piersall's on field antics, e.g., during his time with the Cleveland Indians, Piersall would play outfield very shallow, turning otherwise routine fly balls into fingernail-biting over the head catches. This colloquialism was most recently used by Congressman Barney Frank to describe the last minute efforts of Sen. John McCain.