Obituaries

Jimmy Piersall, a Red Sox star who was open about struggles with mental illness, dies at 87

Shortly before being traded from the Red Sox, Mr. Piersall, known for his defense, talked with a young fan about how to handle a glove.
Globe Staff/File 1958
Shortly before being traded from the Red Sox, Mr. Piersall, known for his defense, talked with a young fan about how to handle a glove.

After blasting his 100th career home run, he backpedaled around the bases. At various times in an antics-filled career, he scaled the Fenway Park flagpole, wore a Beatles wig to home plate, and performed an outfield war dance during a Cleveland Indians game. Famous for his clownish behavior on the ball field, he was also the subject of a gripping, groundbreaking Hollywood film about an emotionally troubled athlete and his overbearing father.

Of all the colorful personalities who have played for the Boston Red Sox, phenoms and flame-outs, none compiled a resume quite like Jimmy Piersall’s, for whom the term “madcap” fit so snugly it might have been stitched onto his uniform jersey.

During his 17-year major-league career, eight with the Red Sox, Mr. Piersall played on two All-Star teams, compiled a .272 career batting average, slugged 104 home runs, stole 115 bases, and won a pair of Gold Glove awards for his defensive prowess. His made television appearances with Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, and many other stars. After his playing days ended, he worked as a coach, roving instructor, broadcaster, and radio host, mainly in Chicago, where he earned the rare distinction of being fired by both the White Sox and Cubs.

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A 2010 inductee into the Red Sox Hall of Fame, Mr. Piersall died in Chicago Saturday of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 87.

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Mr. Piersall’s fiery temper often overshadowed his many talents on and off the field, leading to battles with team owners, teammates, opposing players, umpires, managers, and sportswriters — some of them physical. Yet he was best known for the movie “Fear Strikes Out,” based on his 1955 autobiography of the same title. It dramatized his struggles with mental illness in ways seldom seen in the context of professional sports and permanently shaped his public persona, even if Mr. Piersall objected to his on-screen portrayal by the actor Anthony Perkins (Karl Malden was cast as his father), whose baseball skills were rudimentary.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts,” Mr. Piersall often said. “Nobody knew who I was until that happened.”

Boston, MA - 7/23/1960: Cleveland Indians' Vic Power has to hold back teammate Jim Piersall, at right. after Piersall was ejected for distracting Red Sox batter Ted Williams in the eighth inning during a game at Fenway Park in Boston on Jul. 23, 1960. At left, Johnny Temple (16) and manager Joe Gordon confer with umpires Ed Hurley and John Flaherty. (Gil Friedberg/Globe Staff) --- BGPA Reference: 170213_BS_001
Gil Friedberg/Globe Staff/File
Cleveland Indians' Vic Power had to hold back teammate Jim Piersall, at right, after Piersall was ejected for distracting Red Sox batter Ted Williams in the eighth inning during a game at Fenway Park in Boston on July 23, 1960.

Described in a 2010 Boston Globe profile as the “longtime baseball ambassador of battiness,” Mr. Piersall maintained minimal ties to the Red Sox after being traded away in 1958. His Boston legacy is not insubstantial, however. Neither is his role in raising public awareness about the emotional and psychological ills that beset some professional athletes.

According to Red Sox historian Gordon Edes, Mr. Piersall ranks among the team’s all-time best defensive center fielders, a small group that includes Tris Speaker, Fred Lynn, and the incumbent, Jackie Bradley Jr. Even more remarkable, said Edes, is Mr. Piersall having played pro baseball for 17 seasons with all the challenges he faced.

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“I wonder how a player like Jimmy Piersall would have survived in the social media era,” Edes mused. Teams today devote vastly more resources to helping troubled athletes, he noted, whereas in Mr. Piersall’s day, “baseball was ill-equipped to deal with these issues.”

Mr. Piersall laughed with Don Zimmer (left) when they were inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2010.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File
Mr. Piersall laughed with Don Zimmer (left) when they were inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2010.

In his book “Fear Strikes Out,” Mr. Piersall wrote of suffering from anxiety-related headaches throughout his childhood. His epic nervous breakdown during a Fenway Park game, in 1952, became the centerpiece of the movie, depicted in a scene in which he climbed the netting behind home plate, howling in pain. (Mr. Piersall denied he ever climbed the netting although he admitted, “If I had thought of it, I would have done it.”)

In real life, he spent six weeks in Westborough State Hospital, receiving shock treatments for what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder. His memory of the preceding seven months had been erased.

Crediting his religious faith — and the drug lithium, which he began taking in the mid-1970s — with helping him cope with his disorder, Mr. Piersall faced other serious health issues, including two heart surgeries in the ’70s and ’80s. In 2014, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A pair of failed marriages and a trail of broken relationships also spoke to the price he paid for his erratic behavior.

“I have not made an awful lot of friends in my lifetime,” he told one interviewer. “But my dad once told me that if you have too many friends you become a follower.”

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James Anthony Piersall was born Nov. 14, 1929, in Waterbury, Conn. His family lived in a cold-water flat. Mary Piersall, his mother, was hospitalized numerous times for her own mental health issues. An older brother died when Jimmy was a young boy. John Piersall, his father, was a self-employed house painter who mercilessly drove his younger son to excel at sports.

‘I’m the gooney bird who walked to the bank. I’m doing better than most of the guys who said I was crazy.’

Jimmy Piersall, when asked to sum up his baseball career 

In 1961, the elder Piersall suffered a massive heart attack and died in Jimmy’s arms. The emotional scars inflicted by that relationship never healed entirely.

“I always had the fear of failure,” Mr. Piersall told the Globe in 2006. “It made me concentrate better.”

An outstanding high school basketball player, Mr. Piersall led his team to a New England regional championship in 1947, scoring 29 points in a game in the old Boston Garden. He was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Also excelling as a high school and semipro baseball player, Mr. Piersall won a tryout with the Red Sox, the team for which he had rooted as a youngster. He made his major league debut in 1950 and two years later cracked Boston’s starting lineup, playing alongside his hero, Ted Williams.

Although his first full season was cut short by his hospitalization, he rebounded in 1953 to become a productive hitter and elite defender. In one game he collected six hits in six at-bats, then a club record. In 1956, Boston sportswriters voted him team MVP.

Two years later, he was traded to Cleveland for the slugging first baseman Vic Wertz and outfielder Gary Geiger. In addition to the Red Sox and Indians, Mr. Piersall played for the Washington Senators, New York Mets, and Los Angeles and California Angels.

With his first wife, the former Mary Teevan, Mr. Piersall had nine children. That marriage, and a second marriage, ended in divorce.

Newton, MA - 12/9/1960: Baseball player Jim Piersall spends the holiday season at home with his children, from left, Jimmy, 6; Doreen, 8; Claire, 7; Maura-Ann, 4 1/2; Kathleen, 3; Eileen, 9; and Ann, 1 1/2, in Newton, MA on Dec. 19, 1960. (Gil Friedberg/Globe Staff) --- BGPA Reference: 170213_BS_009
Gil Friedberg/Globe Staff/File
Piersall at home with his children in Newton on Dec. 19, 1960.

A service will be announced for Mr. Piersall, who in addition to his third wife, Jan, of Chicago, leaves seven daughters, Eileen Scherer of Franklin, Doreen Moan and Claire Morris, both of Brewster, Maura Gage of New Hampshire, Ann Russo of Florida, and Kathleen Lovinsky and Patricia, both of Harwich; two sons, Jimmy Jr. and Christopher of New Hampshire; 28 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.

Mr. Piersall had a largely distant relationship with his children, “something we had learned to live with — or live without,” Eileen said.

“His death is an extreme loss to me, and he leaves a beautiful family — and a beautiful family that doesn’t know him, and that’s the struggle we all face for the rest of our lives,” said her son Alan of Leominster, Mr. Piersall’s oldest grandchild.

The two went to see Mr. Piersall in Chicago in November as his health was failing, a visit that was difficult and poignant. “It was really great to hear him laugh,” Alan said, “and to hear my mom bring him back to times when he was happiest.”

At the end, Alan recalled, “he said to me, ‘I’m sorry.’ He said, ‘I pray for you every day. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you and that it took me this long to remember what I loved about life in the first place.’ ”

After retiring from playing, Mr. Piersall managed a Roanoke, Va., football team and coached in the Texas Rangers organization.

In 1977, he joined Harry Caray in the White Sox broadcast booth. The two formed one of baseball’s most beloved (and outspoken) broadcasting teams. Mr. Piersall was fired in 1981 for publicly ripping team management. In 1985, he published a second book, “The Truth Hurts,” covering his later playing days and broadcasting career.

Time after time, Mr. Piersall’s tongue and temper got him in hot water with his employers. He disparaged players’ wives on a radio show and called the wife of White Sox owner Bill Veeck “a colossal bore.” In 1980, he assaulted a Chicago sportswriter, earning himself another team-mandated psychiatric evaluation.

Not all of his antics ended in animosity.

Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff
Broadcaster and former Red Sox player Jim Piersall talked with Red Sox manager Don Zimmer before a game against the White Sox in Boston on Jun. 14, 1977.

During his rookie year, Mr. Piersall engaged in a brutal fistfight with New York Yankee infielder Billy Martin, another noted hardball hothead. After exchanging taunts in previous games, the two slugged it out under the stands in Fenway before a game.

Martin later said he was ashamed of fighting someone as psychologically fragile as Mr. Piersall. When Martin became manager of the Texas Rangers, he hired Mr. Piersall as an outfield coach. The two had became good friends, with Mr. Piersall crediting his former combatant with helping him get back into baseball

In 2010, the Red Sox inducted Mr. Piersall into their Hall of Fame, joining a class that included Eddie Kasko, Don Zimmer, John Valentin, and Tommy Harper. To younger Boston fans, he was at best a distant memory, the subject of a grainy Hollywood biopic. But Mr. Piersall did not seem to mind, calling it “a thrill” to be joining former outfield mate Ted Williams in the hall of Red Sox legends.

As for harboring any regrets about his behavior as a ballplayer, coach, and broadcaster, Mr. Piersall was unapologetic.

“I’m the gooney bird who walked to the bank,” he once said, summing up a baseball career unlike anyone else’s. “I’m doing better than most of the guys who said I was crazy.”

Boston, MA - 5/2/1952: Red Sox shortstop Jim Piersall picks a favorite bat from the rack at Fenway Park in Boston on May 2, 1952. (Paul J. Maguire/Globe Staff) --- BGPA Reference: 170213_BS_017
Paul J. Maguire/Globe Staff/File
Piersall picked a favorite bat from the rack at Fenway Park on May 2, 1952.

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at josephpkahn@gmail.com.