Eight years ago Jimmy Piersall lay in the violent room of the Westborough State Hospital near Boston and reflected on a water tower he could see from his window. "There it stood," he wrote later in his book Fear Strikes Out, "high and solid, almost majestic, and, more than anything else, normal.... That's what I want to be—normal and commonplace—an average guy. I don't ever again want to be different."
During recent weeks, Jimmy Piersall, now center fielder for the Cleveland Indians, has been at various times sensational, irritating, colorful, heroic and comical, but the one thing he has not been is commonplace. As a player this season he has hit eight home runs, has stolen nine bases, has hit well over .300 and has made unbelievable catches (see page 30). He has played daring, aggressive baseball and his obvious desire to win has kept the Indians alert. "We'd be dead without him," said Frank Lane, Cleveland general manager.
As a personality, currently the most controversial in the game, Piersall this season has argued fiercely with umpires and catchers, has been tossed out of a game and fined, has thrown an orange and a baseball at Bill Veeck's fancy scoreboard, has sprayed insecticide at flying bugs in the outfield during a game, has been bombarded by paper clips, firecrackers and flashlight batteries from the stands, has tossed bats, gloves, batting helmets and even a metal bucket from the dugout onto the field, has been called unfortunate names by fans and has, at least once, broken down in tears in the clubhouse.
For seven years after his release from the hospital, most of which time he was with the Boston Red Sox, Jimmy Piersall emulated his water tower. His play, while good, was comparatively subdued. Last year he was traded to Cleveland and spent much of the season sitting in the obscurity of the bullpen (which he prefers to the dugout). Now, as the result of his fine play and his extraordinary antics, Piersall's name has been in big print. Some newspapermen insist that this is exactly what Piersall wants, that his wild acts are publicity gimmicks. "You'll notice that he saves his best shows for the big weekend and holiday crowds," said one writer. But one of Piersall's teammates pointed out, not without logic, that a person as high-strung as Piersall naturally would be more subject to tantrums in front of large crowds.
Jimmy Piersall is 30 years old, is married and has seven children and a fine home in Newtonville, Mass. He is a handsome man, trim and well groomed, with flashing brown eyes. Smiling, he is the most friendly looking player in baseball. But when he grows tense, the smile disappears and the lower jaw tightens, revealing clenched teeth. His eyes grow hard and he does not look friendly at all.
Last week in New York, over a breakfast of fried eggs and sausages, which, in his enthusiasm to talk, he barely ate, Jimmy Piersall discussed his play this season, his recent antics and the problems he confronts.
"This story ought to begin in spring training," he said, pushing aside his plate. "You know I didn't get to play much last year. During the winter I asked Bucky Harris, the general manager of the Red Sox, if he couldn't make a trade to get me back to Boston. Of course, my home is there, my wife Mary and the kids. Let me give you their names because people like to read about families: there's Eileen—she's 9—Doreen, 8, Claire, 7, Jimmy Jr., 6, Maura Ann, 4, Kathleen, 2½, and Ann, 8 months. So Harris agreed he'd try to make a deal. Later Frank Lane told me Cleveland offered me in a trade to Harris but that Harris said he didn't want me. I just mention this to show you how I was feeling this spring. On the plane to Arizona I sat with Billy Jurges, the Red Sox manager. I told Jurges that if I didn't do well this year I was going to quit.
"Out in Arizona—I was there a week early, by the way—I practiced hitting against the pitching machine. I tried to hit ground balls instead of fly balls. [Manager Joe Gordon of the Indians calls this "curing Piersall's Fenway Park swing."] When the exhibition games started, I was hitting line drives. Even the outs were line drives. Bill Rigney told me I looked good. Joe Gordon said the center-field job was mine until I proved I couldn't handle it.
"Then along comes Bond [Rookie Walter Bond]. He's 6 feet 6 and hits them a mile. I couldn't compete with that. I mean, I'm trying to hit ground balls and he's hitting home runs. I was sick. He wasn't a center fielder, not by a long shot, but he got the job. It's tough to lose your job that way. But I worked hard and stayed ready."
Just before the season began, the Indians traded Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn. On Opening Day, Kuenn played center, Bond played right and Piersall sat in the bullpen. There was no score for 10 innings. Then in the top of the 11th the Tigers scored twice. In the bottom of the 11th, the Indians loaded the bases with two out. Gordon signaled to the bullpen for Piersall to come in and pinch hit.
"I was scared," said Piersall. "As I came across the outfield I got a standing ovation, me, a .245 hitter last year. There were 55,000 people there. I've never had a bigger thrill.
"Bunning was pitching for Detroit, and I made up my mind to hit that first pitch. He threw it in and I hit a line drive over shortstop to tie the game. If the ground hadn't been so wet it would have gone between the outfielders, and everybody would have scored. As it was, we lost."
Kuenn was hurt in that first game, so Piersall began to play every day. By the time Kuenn was well, Bond had started looking like a rookie. Piersall was back as a regular.
In early May against Chicago, Piersall got into a fiery argument with home-plate umpire Frank Umont from the on-deck circle. Johnny Temple was at bat, and Umont had called a questionable strike. Temple just blinked his eyes, but Piersall argued violently. When he came to bat, Piersall renewed the argument, finally stopped, faced the pitcher, Billy Pierce, and hit the first pitch on a line over the left-field fence.
Desire to win
"I think I play better when I'm mad," said Piersall. "I just wanted to beat Pierce and I didn't think Umont was calling a good game. I figured that if Temple squawked he'd be tossed out quick, since he's just over from the National League. So I told Umont to bear down. When I got up to bat and Umont wagged his finger at me, I told him to stop or I'd bite it off. Then I told myself Pierce was going to throw a slider, so I'd be set. It was a slider."
The next day Piersall ruined Herb Score's composure by leading off with a bunt, stealing second and third and scoring on an overthrow. "It was Gordon's idea to bunt," said Piersall. "I want to give him credit." His next time up, Piersall hit a long drive to straight center field. Jim Landis got his glove on it, but crashed into the wire fence and collapsed, the ball falling over the fence for a home run. Piersall, thinking the ball had been caught, stopped at first base, threw his batting helmet into the Cleveland dugout and waited for someone to bring him his glove. Finally he discovered what had happened and, bareheaded, raced around the bases at top speed, as he does after every home run he hits.
Near the end of May, the Indians moved into Detroit. "I've always thought Detroit was vicious," said Piersall. "The trouble started there in 1954, when I was with the Red Sox. I had made a good catch off Fred Hatfield, and they started booing me, so I showed them my teeth. They were furious. They started throwing paper clips and whisky bottles and debris. Bill McKinley, the umpire, comes trotting out and tells me I'm the instigator and that he's going to throw me out. He should have forfeited the game. The next day in the papers they call me the instigator. I had to go to the dictionary to look the word up. I've never signed autographs in Detroit since then.
"This year I hit a three-run homer in the ninth to put us ahead 6-4. When I went out to center field they start hitting me with ice cubes and paper clips. I told Larry Napp the game should be forfeited and he just laughed. Just as the game ended, someone threw a firecracker—they wrap pieces of wire around them so they travel further—and it went off, making a lot of noise and smoke.
"I lost 10 pounds that day and we had a double-header coming up in Chicago the next day. I was exhausted. We had a long bus ride from the train to the hotel in Chicago. My regular roommate, Johnny Klippstein, was visiting his family, so I was rooming with John Powers, and he had a cold and he snored all night. It kept me awake.
"In the first game the next day, I was on second base, with Harvey Kuenn hitting against Early Wynn. Napp is umpiring at home and calls two bad strikes against Kuenn, so I started squawking. Napp didn't mind but that new umpire, Cal Drummond, comes up behind me and tells me to shut up. I guess he wanted to make a good impression. I wheeled around and let him have it, and he tossed me out of the game. Umpires should learn to take a little abuse. People don't come to see them play, you know. Anyway, after he tossed me out, I forget exactly what happened except that Umont led me from the field very nicely. He handled it very well. Then I threw the helmets, the bats and the gloves on the field. All I could think of was that my 15-game hitting streak was over because I was out of the game. Just as I was leaving for the dressing room I caught one more look at Drummond. I got mad again. I saw a sand bucket, so I dumped out all the sand and threw the bucket on the field. I went into the clubhouse and fell asleep on the floor.
"I played the second game and went 0-5. I could hardly see the ball, I was so tired. The last out of the game was a fly which I caught. Just as I caught it, an orange hit me on the head. I picked it up and threw it against that big, new scoreboard. Then I threw the ball. I was aiming for the glass, but I missed."
(Many American Leaguers have expressed secret admiration for Pier-sail's assault against the rocket-shooting, horn-blowing scoreboard. They resent the board because of the money it cost. "Veeck spent $300,000 on the board," said one player, "but he doesn't spend a dime on the visiting players' dressing room, the worst in the league.")
"Veeck phoned me after the game and gave me hell. I blasted him and he blasted back. But we get along O.K. I got fined $250 and I deserved it."
That night Piersall called his wife to tell her he was all right. She said: "Honey, I'm on your team."
A week later Jimmy had more trouble with Detroit. It started when Detroit Manager Jimmy Dykes had the umpires make Piersall put on his batting helmet while in the on-deck circle.
"I began to trade shouts with Dykes," said Piersall. "I pointed to the left-field seats with my bat. Burn-side was pitching and he's got a screwball I couldn't hit with a broom. But I got lucky and really hit one. I just stood there and laughed at Dykes. Then I ran around the bases, but when I got to third, I thought to myself, 'I'm going to rub it in good,' so I tipped my hat to him and yelled, 'Get on that, old man.'
"Before I got up the next time one of the Tigers told me they were going to stick the ball in my ear. So when I got up, I wore this big football-type helmet. Burnside's first pitch was close, but not very. Red Wilson started yelling at Burnside like he was crazy, telling him to knock me down and calling him gutless if he didn't. The next pitch sailed over my head. John Flaherty, the umpire, didn't do a thing. Wilson was getting madder. The third time Burnside threw at me, Flaherty gave him a warning. Wilson still wasn't satisfied. I told him I'd seen a lot of crazy people in the sanitarium, but nothing as bad as that. Then we both laughed."
By this time Jimmy Piersall had finished breakfast, had taken a cab ride through Central Park and up to Yankee Stadium. The night before in the Stadium he had hit a triple. This day he was to get a hit, score a run and make a catch in center field that one New York sportswriter described as "impossible" and the best catch made in the Stadium "since Joe DiMaggio robbed Hank Greenberg many years ago."
But before the game, as he was preparing to enter the players' dressing room, Jimmy Piersall paused a moment and produced a letter.
"This is from my wife," he said. "It's a wonderful letter. She says that when I'm away, it's only half a family. She says, 'We all love you.' That's all that matters to me."