Jimmy Piersall’s Public Struggle with Mental Illness

Photo of Maury Wills, Milton Berle, Jimmy Piersall and Willie Mays in a salute to baseball on the television program The Hollywood Palace - 1967


By Andy Piascik

If Jimmy Piersall accomplished nothing else in his long, colorful life, he drew a great deal of attention to issues of mental health. Because he was a major league baseball player, his battles became public in ways that were undoubtedly quite painful for him–all the more since popular attitudes about mental illness were very different 65 years ago. It may not be accurate to say Piersall was the first person to struggle with these issues in such a public way, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth, either.

Jimmy Piersall, 1953

Piersall was born in Waterbury on November 14, 1929. He starred in baseball and basketball at Leavenworth High School there, leading the basketball team to the New England championship in 1947. Piersall was a serious, introspective youth and his family’s descent into poverty during the Great Depression troubled him greatly and likely impacted his mental health. During much of his early life, his mother battled mental illness as well and required regular inpatient treatment.

The Boston Red Sox signed Piersall in 1948 and he played his first major league baseball game in 1950. After displaying increasingly erratic behavior for a period of months in 1952, he suffered a serious breakdown. He spent time in a hospital in Massachusetts where doctors diagnosed him as manic depressive and treated him with electric shock therapy. He was also prescribed lithium and took it for most of the rest of his life.

Fear Strikes Out

Piersall made a remarkable recovery and re-joined the Red Sox in 1953. He also began working on a book about his ordeal, Fear Strikes Out, that he co-authored with Al Hirschfeld and that was published in 1955. The story was made into an episode of the television anthology show Climax! a short time later and then, in 1957, a Hollywood movie starring Anthony Perkins as Piersall and Karl Malden as his father, John Piersall. Both the book and the movie were powerful depictions of a young man struggling with mental illness read and/or seen by tens of thousands at the time.

Movie promo for “Fear Strikes Out” – 1957

Piersall endured a great deal of abuse from opposing players and fans in the years after the book and movie came out. Two fans even attacked him on the field at Yankee Stadium during a game.

Despite it all, Piersall managed to display a comic touch. One example was when he hit the 100th home run of his career in 1963 while playing for the New York Mets and marked the achievement by circling the bases backwards. On another occasion, when he came up to bat he doffed his cap and several birds he had hidden under it took flight to the delight of many in attendance.

While Piersall is best-known for his mental health struggles, he was a good enough ballplayer to play 17 seasons in the major leagues. He won two Gold Glove awards for defensive excellence and might have won as many as four more had the award existed before 1957. He was twice named to play in the All-Star Game and is a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

Piersall continued to live in Waterbury through much of the 1950s but eventually settled elsewhere and rarely visited his hometown after the deaths of his parents. He remains one of Waterbury‘s best-known natives and greatest athletes, however, and is enshrined in the Waterbury Hall of Fame that is maintained by the city’s Silas Bronson Library.

Piersall continued to contribute to our understanding of mental illness in the decades after his playing career. He spoke openly about his illness while encouraging others to seek treatment during a long second career in the public eye as a sports talk-show host and broadcaster. He died in Illinois on June 2, 2017, at the age of 87.

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for numerous publications and websites over the last four decades and is the author of several books. He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

Learn More

Newspapers

Waterbury Republican-American. “Former Major Leaguer Jimmy Piersall, Waterbury Native, Dies at 87.” June 4, 2017.
Goldstein, Richard. “Jimmy Piersall, Outfielder Whose Mental Illness Was Explored in Film, Dies at 87.” The New York Times, June 5, 2017.

Books

Piersall, Jim, and Al Hirshberg. Fear Strikes Out: The Jim Piersall Story. Boston: Little Brown, 1955.
Golenbock, Peter. Fenway: An Expurgated History of the Boston Red Sox. New York: Putnam, 1992.
Piersall, Jimmy, and Richard Whittingham. The Truth Hurts. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1984.

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