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.
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.
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 www.barons.com.