Casual baseball fans know the stars of the 50’s & 60’s. Williams, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Koufax, Clemente and other Hall of Famers are part of the sports culture and their legacies endure. However, for those of us who actually watched baseball in those decades, there are hundreds of outstanding ballplayers who we remember even though they might not have the same cache or reputation of perennial All-Stars. Names like Carl Furillo, Bobby Avila, Ted Kluszewski, Vic Power, Harvey Kuenn, Minnie Minoso, Dick Groat and so many others.
Last week, when Jimmy Piersall passed away at age 87, it brought back a flood of memories for that young boy who spent so many days at Fenway Park in the 1950’s. Sure, he made a couple of All-Star teams (’54 & ’56) and won two Gold Gloves (’58 & ’61) but he was never a “star” and today, the average fan under the age of 50 probably doesn’t know much about him. He played in the days before ESPN highlights, video replays on the scoreboard and interleague play, so his reputation can only be preserved by those of us who watched him patrol the outfield with grace and style.
His playing career was certainly worthy of accolades with 17 years in the major leagues and over 1,600 lifetime hits but I feel sorry for all my baseball friends who never got the chance to see him track down a deep fly ball and rob the hitter of a Home Run. And, for Fantasy Baseball team owners, how about his age 26 season at the plate in 1956….293 BA, 14 HR’s, 87 RBI’s, 7 SB’s, a league-leading 40 Doubles and more walks (58) than strikeouts (48).
With all that being said, this player’s human interest story is actually more amazing than his baseball career on the field. His first real taste of the big leagues was in 1952 but his erratic behavior got him sent back to the minors where the personal issues escalated to the point that he was hospitalized for seven weeks with “nervous exhaustion”…a 50’s term for mental disorders. He returned to the Red Sox in ’53 and had an outstanding season, finishing 9th in the MVP balloting.
In 1955, he shared the challenges of his life in the best-selling book “Fear Strikes Out”. It wasn’t the age where people talked about these types of personal issues, but with the assistance of his co-author Al Hirshberg, he helped countless readers get through their own dark days. In 1957, Hollywood made the book into a major motion picture starring Anthony Perkins (three years before “Psycho”) and Karl Malden.
Of course, Jimmy’s personality was always “quirky” even in the best of times and his later career as a broadcaster wasn’t exactly smooth sailing when it came to getting along with team management. But as he once said, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Who ever heard of Jimmy Piersall before that happened?”
None of the details matter for that young boy who can still see Jimmy gliding back to the 380 marker in front of the bullpen in right field…you just knew he would make the catch.