Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Merry Prankster

The Merry Prankster

Baseball legend Jimmy Piersall, who will throw out the first pitch at the Rickwood Classic on May 28, still calls ‘em as he sees ‘em.

May 15, 2008
In his second autobiography, The Truth Hurts, former Major League baseball player Jimmy Piersall opined, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall until that happened?” Though he had won two Golden Glove awards for his fielding prowess, Piersall was not well known until he had a nervous breakdown. He was noted for clowning around to entertain fans as well as for his quick temper, but after having a series of violent outbursts, the Boston Red Sox sent him to their Birmingham Barons farm team in 1952. In Birmingham, he once shot an umpire with a water pistol while at bat, then went to the dugout roof behind home plate to heckle the ump for ejecting him. After he was thrown out of several games, the Red Sox organization removed him from the Birmingham team and placed him in a Massachusetts mental hospital.Piersall’s life was chronicled in the movie Fear Strikes Out, based on his book of the same title. Anthony Perkins starred as Piersall and Karl Malden played his father, a man who relentlessly pushed his son to Major League success. Diagnosed as bipolar, Piersall began using lithium to address his mood swings. He’s been taking it successfully for nearly four decades.

Jimmy Piersall’s 1967 Topps baseball card. (click for larger version)

Piersall will attend the Rickwood Classic on May 28 to throw out the first pitch and sign a few autographs. During a recent telephone conversation, he spoke of changes in baseball, the presidential election, and broadcasting with the legendary Harry Caray. At age 79, Piersall sounds as mischievous as ever. When I thanked him for his time, he replied, “Well, that will be $500 [laughs] . . . I hope I gave you enough bullsh**, because I’m getting so old I don’t always remember things like I used to.”

Black & White: What memories do you have of Birmingham when you were playing here in the early 1950s?

Jimmy Piersall: I was a kid when I was in Birmingham, I was about 20 years old. It was the turning point in my life in baseball. The fans were great. The African-American fans used to sit in right-center field and they’d really cheer me on. We had a great year there.

Were you diagnosed as bipolar before you were sent down to Birmingham?

There were no problems when I was in Birmingham, I was high-strung. I remember I shot a water pistol at the umpire at home plate. . . . Hey, there used to be this clothing store called Blach’s and if you hit a home run, you got a free suit!

You once said that you wound up being more successful than those who said you were crazy.

I always said the best thing that happened to me was going nuts. I got recognition. Every writer said I’d never play again, except for one. I wrote the book Fear Strikes Out, then they did the movie. Karl Malden played my father. When I was playing for the Angels, I got to know him, he looked just like my dad. I got to know Edward G. Robinson. He told me, “Don’t change your ways,” and I guess that’s why I got in so much trouble, because I didn’t [laughs].

You eventually started taking medication for your unpredictable behavior.

I’ve been taking lithium for about 35 years, and it sorta slowed me down. I don’t know if I could have played ball as well if I was taking it at the time, but I do know it’s helped me though my life. I take three a day, and I advise other people to take it if needed. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in taking that stuff.

I’ve read conflicting accounts about your 100th home run. One is that you ran the bases in reverse, starting with third, and the other is that you ran the correct order but facing backward.

[Laughs] I ran facing backward in the correct order. That was the only thing I really planned. Everybody used to write that I was “zany,” but I would say, “Yes, but I’m not an alcoholic like most of you writers.” They were real drunks back then.

Did the umpires allow players to get away with more back then?

In those days, we would go to the mound [when batting, to confront a pitcher who hit them with the ball] and the umpires wouldn‘t throw you out. The game has gotten very dull because the umpires got too much control. The umpires don’t want you to breathe on them. Fans like to see umpires being argued with. When we played, I can remember umpires telling me, “Look, you’ve got two minutes for your act. Now get outta here!”

Any thoughts on the presidential race?

We’re in deep sh** no matter who gets in. They’re liars. They make up all this sh** and they never follow through with it.

Hasn’t it always been that way, though?

Yeah, it’s always been that way. JFK was a favorite of mine, I used to play golf with him when he was a senator. He didn’t have to worry about helping people that were giving him all that money. He had all the money he wanted from his dad.

Did you know Joe DiMaggio? Because if you did, that makes two guys you knew who slept with Marilyn Monroe.

I had an opportunity to work with Joe when we were both in Oakland. I was in sales and doing a little coaching. Joe was in public relations for Finley [legendary maverick Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley]. . . . Joe was a very quiet man. Very, very, very quiet man. You always wondered how he married Marilyn Monroe, he was so quiet. I used to say he must have the biggest dick in the town. [DiMaggio] was a great player. When I was a kid, I’d watch him when he’d hit against Bob Feller and go five-for-five in Yankee Stadium . . . In those days, I never worried about autographs. I used to walk down along the dugouts when they were hitting at batting practice just to be able to see their faces so that when I was listening to it on radio I could know how they looked. Today, they’ve got the television, which is a great help.

You had an interesting broadcasting career working with Harry Caray, didn’t you?

The [Chicago] White Sox general manager offered me an audition with Harry, so I worked three games with him, and boy, they liked it and they gave me a contract and I worked with Harry for seven years. It was really a great experience because Harry taught me an awful lot about radio. He said to me, “You know the game, say it.” Harry and I were working for the last place team for three years, and a great writer for the [Chicago] Tribune, Mike Royko, was putting together a show and he asked Harry and I to go on. All of a sudden, Royko says to me, “Why are these wives trying to get you fired?” The wives were going to the sponsors to try to get me fired because I was telling the truth. I said, “Well, they don’t know anything about that. They’re a bunch of horny broads.” If you ask people in Chicago now, they’ll say we’re the best announcers they ever had together, because we’d be needling each other. One time I said to Harry, “Did you pay your alimony, Harry?” And he said, “Yeah . . . Did you take your pills today?” because I was all excited about something. [laughs] He was a great baseball man. He knew the game. Some of these analysts today are right, but they talk too much. They go on and on. The game is on the field, not in your mouth . . . Baseball makes a life for a lot of people. Even though they are having trouble with the steroids, I can’t understand how the government can [get] involved in that stuff. . . They’ve already made new rules, and they’ve already set up situations where they would catch them. And it hasn’t hurt baseball attendance . . . baseball fans are great fans. It’s an easy game to understand. Soccer is so tough to understand. The only ones who understand it are the ones who play it. It’s great for kids. I think that’s why baseball is losing so much talent because they don’t have as many kids playing Little League and Pony League.

Were there any chemical boosts similar to steroids when you were playing?

We had greenies. They called them “greenies,” they were uppers and downers. You can say one thing: I didn’t need ‘em, I’ll tell you that! [laughs] As soon as I got out of bed in the morning, I was hopped! I didn’t take nothin’. If I had taken lithium, I don’t think I would have been as good a player. Because I had my own way of playing and my own knowledge of the game and knowing how to play the game and knowing how to think the game.

Did you really climb the backstop behind home plate one time, as Anthony Perkins did in Fear Strikes Out?

No, no. That was in the movie, Hollywood did that stuff. If I had thought of it, I would have done it. [Laughs] That was a terrible movie. They rewrote the whole book. The book is very accurate and makes sense.

I’m guessing you were not as nuts as Perkins portrayed you?

Well, Anthony Perkins was a fag. He was a nice guy, a great actor, but he was a fag. I’m the only guy that ever had his part played by a fag. And I have nothing against fags, either [laughs]. &

The Rickwood Classic will be held Wednesday, May 28, 12:35 p.m., at Rickwood Field. Admission is $9. For details call 988-3200, or visit


The Insider

The Insider

Political commentator Cokie Roberts promotes her new book with a lecture and charity event.

May 01, 2008Born Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs (her mother could not pronounce “Corinne” and shortened it to Cokie), award-winning political commentator Cokie Roberts is currently is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. She is also a frequent panelist on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday mornings, along with George Will, Sam Donaldson, and other guests.

Cokie Roberts. (click for larger version)

As the daughter of longtime Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana, Roberts was shuffled between New Orleans and Washington, D.C., during her youth. After her father’s airplane disappeared over Alaska in 1972 (it was never found), her mother, Lindy, was elected to Congress, later serving as ambassador to the Vatican. Roberts is married to political writer Steve Roberts, and the two publish a syndicated column together.

Roberts has written several books about early American women who were an important part of the country’s founding years. Her latest is Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation.

Recently on the Stephanopoulos program you were scoffing at Barack Obama’s talk of bringing about real change.

And should he? McCain was saying the same thing: “We’re going to change the way Washington works.” Well, the truth is, a president can’t do that. A president can’t do that for good reason, which is because the founders were very intent on making it impossible for a president to do that. That’s why we have this cumbersome system of checks and balances. They were very keen that they not have a king. So the idea that anybody of any party after any kind of election can come in and change everything is just not in the cards. The closest we’ve come in recent years is Ronald Reagan in 1981, when he surprised everybody not only by his landslide but also by taking the Senate for the first time in decades. . . . Even then he was not really able to get anything accomplished on his agenda until he was shot. I doubt that either of these guys wants to be shot. But that was part of Reagan’s success. His popularity became so immense in the way he handled the shooting that Congress got scared of him for about a year.

Do the Democrats seem to shoot themselves in the foot more often than Republicans do?

(Laughs) Well, yes, they tend to, yes. But part of that has to do with who is being the more diverse party. That’s changing for Republicans. But the Democrats have so many different constituencies and points of view. It used to be fine to say one thing in one part of town and another thing in another part of town. Now you say something, it’s on YouTube and everybody knows it. Barack Obama is talking in San Francisco in terms that San Fransiscans can sit there and nod over their glasses of chardonnay and agree with, you know?

I was surprised from reading a couple of your books that First Ladies played such vital roles in early America.

Very influential, very powerful, and very involved in politics and policy. There’s been this myth that it’s some 20th-century phenomenon started by Eleanor Roosevelt, but when you do the research, you see that’s just simply not the case.

I was amazed that Martha Washington was on the battlefield with George.

Right, year in and year out. And then lobbying for veterans’ benefits because she had been there with those guys.

Why did Britain elect a woman as prime minister two decades before the United States has a viable female candidate for president?

I think it has everything to do with the parliamentary system versus the presidential system. In a parliamentary system, you become the leader of your party and your party gets elected, and it’s nowhere near the same kind of singular election that we have for president, where we vote for one person and we vote for that person based on judgement and character. It’s different from the parliamentary system. Now, that’s changing to some degree. The prime minister of Great Britain is a more personal election than it used to be. It’s choosing the party, not a person. In this country, if I had a penny for every time somebody tells me in a presidential vote they voted for the man, not the party, I’d be a very rich woman.

Do you have a favorite First Lady?

Well, they’re all interesting in different ways. I suspect that the one that would be the most fun to sit down and have dinner with would be Dolly Madison because she was such a “people person.” She clearly made anybody she engaged feel like the most special person in the room. . . . I guess I met all of them since Eisenhower. I had a very special relationship with Lady Bird Johnson. Clearly, that was the one that I loved best, because I knew her very well and she helped raise me. I’m very fond of Laura Bush. I think she’s one of the most interesting and capable people I know. And I think Hillary Clinton did a terrific job.

Lady Bird helped raise you?

Yeah, sure. It was a small town and the political families were all close. . . . She was always an incredibly loving and caring person. When my mother ran for Congress, Mrs. Johnson said to her, “Well, Lindy, of course I’m with you all the way, but how are you going to do it without a wife?” Because, of course, they ran their husbands’ campaigns, their husbands’ offices.

Any memories of Earl Long [infamous Louisiana politician and brother of Huey Long]? Did he and your father have showdowns?

Oh, absolutely. That was the story of our lives. [My father] was very much the leader of the opposition. My father got into politics [to oppose] Huey Long’s successors, who were very corrupt. Earl very much opposed him, particularly when he ran for governor in 1951. My father was very much in support of civil rights.

Was Louisiana more segregated than D.C. when you were growing up?

It was, but Washington was also a segregated town, it was not really Northern. Then there’s the famous Kennedy line: It was a city of Northern charm with Southern efficiency. &

Roberts will give a lecture and sign copies of her new book on Tuesday, May 13, 4 p.m., at Samford University’s Brock Recital Hall. She will also be the featured author for The Literacy Council’s first 2008 Signature Series event that evening at 6:30 p.m., held at a private residence. The private cocktail reception will benefit the Literacy Council. Tickets are $600 per couple for the entire series, $350 per individual for the entire series, or $150 for a single event. Priority is given to those who purchase tickets for the entire series. For more information call The Literacy Council at 205-326-1925 or 888-448-7323 or log onto

Bases Loaded

Bases Loaded

Jimmy Piersall is the special guest at this year’s Rickwood Classic.

The 13th annual Rickwood Classic will be played May 28 at historic Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball park in America. This year’s game will pit the Birmingham Barons against the Jacksonville Suns, and the yearly tradition of vintage uniforms will continue. The Barons will wear 1951-52 gray uniforms, with red and black caps emblazoned with the Red Sox “B” logo. The Suns will sport 1967-era uniforms from the days when Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitched for Jacksonville.Rickwood Field has hosted an astonishing list of baseball legends, such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Dizzy Dean, and Reggie Jackson. However, Jimmy Piersall, a lesser-known player whose peculiar story earned him a different kind of fame, will be the featured V.I.P. at this year’s event. Piersall was an outfielder with the Birmingham Barons when the team was a farm team for the Boston Red Sox. He was portrayed by Anthony Perkins in the film Fear Strikes Out, based on Piersall’s book of the same name. His personal and professional life comprise baseball’s most bizarre story.


Jimmy Piersall, at left, circa 1952. (click for larger version)




In 1952, after picking a fight with one of baseball’s most volatile figures, hothead Billy Martin (then a Yankees infielder) before a game, Piersall engaged in fisticuffs during the game with one of his own teammates in the Red Sox dugout. Piersall’s behavior soon led to his suspension and demotion to the minor leagues (the Barons). After arriving in Birmingham, he was kicked out of four games during his brief three weeks with the Barons. The fourth ejection was instigated by his squirting a water pistol on homeplate before striking out, then retreating to the grandstand roof to heckle the umpire. Three days later, the Red Sox organization checked Piersall into a mental institution in Massachusetts, where he spent the next two months. Two years after that, he was back in the Major Leagues, playing in the 1954 All-Star game for the Red Sox. Piersall continued to play well in the Major Leagues for almost two decades. He sometimes wore a Beatles wig and led outfield spectators in cheers during game lulls.

In 1963, Piersall was traded to the New York Mets, where he hit his 100th career home run. He honored the milestone by trotting around the bases facing backward. The Mets released him within weeks. He eventually found work as a radio commentator for the Chicago White Sox, working with legendary broadcaster Harry Caray. Piersall once tried to choke a reporter critical of the team after a game, then scuffled with the White Sox owner’s son. A year later, the team suspended him—before eventually firing him—for referring to White Sox players’ wives as “horny broads.”

In his autobiography The Truth Hurts, Piersall observes, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?” He sums up life with a nod to his father. “I have not made an awful lot of friends in my lifetime,” Piersall said. “But my dad once told me that if you have too many friends you become a follower.”

The Rickwood Classic will be held Wednesday, May 28, at 12:35 p.m. Admission is $9. For details call 988-3200, or visit