On the list of the biggest jerks in baseball history, there’s no denying you’ll find names like Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, and Roger Clemens, among others. One player from the 1950s and 60s who is often missing from such a list is Jimmy Piersall, who received more attention during the course of his career for his antics than he did for his performance. In fact, if you look at all of his transgressions, he can go toe-to-toe with any jerk or villain in baseball history.
In 1952, Piersall’s first full season in the majors as a member of the Boston Red Sox, he had a physical altercation with a teammate, engaged in a full-fledged fistfight with Yankees infielder Billy Martin, and took it upon himself to spank the four-year-old son of a teammate in Boston’s clubhouse. All of that happened in the span of a few months, leading to a demotion to the minors, where he proceeded to get ejected four times in three weeks.
Of course, that was just the beginning of Piersall’s infamous antics. He was known to take a bow after making routine plays in the outfield. He once stepped into the batter’s box wearing a Beatles wig and using his bat to play air guitar. He also, on one occasion, shot a water pistol in the direction of an umpire. There was also an incident in which he made pig noises directed at legendary pitcher Satchel Paige.
Even later in his career after he was an established big leaguer, there were notable events that had little to do with baseball. He threw a bat at Yankees pitcher Jim Coates in response to Coates throwing at him. He once charged the mound after being hit by a pitch from future U.S. Senator Jim Bunning. Finally, in a great display of showmanship, Piersall circled the bases running backward on his 100th career home run.
But there was a method to his madness. Rather, there was a reason for his madness. Piersall was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a trait he most likely inherited from his mother, who struggled with mental illness and was often in an institution seeking treatment throughout much of Piersall’s childhood.
If my father was preparing supper when I got home, it wouldn’t be necessary for us to exchange a word. I knew that meant my mother had gone away again.
Following his demotion to the minors and subsequent string of ejections in 1952, Piersall spent seven weeks in an institution receiving psychiatric treatment. Piersall would later say that he couldn’t remember a thing from that season, which as we’ve learned, was eventful in more ways than one.
Probably the best thing that happened to me was going nuts. Nobody knew who I was until that happened.
But to his credit, Piersall didn’t hide his condition; instead, he embraced it. In 1957, a movie based on Piersall called Fear Strikes Out was released. While Piersall disagreed with how his father was depicted in the movie, the film did tell the story of his nervous breakdown, subsequent treatment, and return to the game, bringing attention to his problems and all he did to overcome them.
Unfortunately, everything that happened overshadowed what was actually an impressive career. In 17 seasons, Piersall hit .272 with 104 home runs, making two all-star teams and winning two Gold Gloves. Even without impressive speed, many considered Piersall an exceptional center fielder.
I thought Joe DiMaggio was the greatest defensive outfielder I ever saw. But I have to rate Piersall better.
So, what’s the verdict? Is Piersall one of baseball’s all-time biggest jerks or simply one of the game’s most colorful and entertaining characters? Maybe he’s a man who was just misunderstood and a victim of a disease passed on to him by his mother? However you want to describe Piersall, there should be no doubt that for better or worse, he’s worth remembering.