Nov 14, 2014

Animated Career of Former Met Who Once Ran Around the Bases Backwards: Jimmy Piersall (1963)

James Anthony Piersall was born on November 14, 1929 in Waterbury, Connecticut. He was a fine all around athlete leading his high school team to the New England Basketball Championship in 1947.

The next year he was signed by the Boston Red Sox at age 18 making it up the big leagues by 1950 as one the youngest players. By 1952 he was the Sox regular centerfielder & would be one of the finest defensive outfielders in the league in the coming years.

Piersall won two Gold Glove Awards (1958 &1961) led the league in fielding % for centerfielders four times & put outs twice. He also posted ten or more assists from the outfield four times.  

That year he began to suffer from personal issues. In a May game against New York he got into a fist fight with Billy Martin, then later in the clubhouse he got into another fight with team mate Mickey McDermott.

He was ejected from four games soon after & then spanked team mate Vern Stephens four year old son in the club house, which all built up to him getting demoted by the end of June.

At AAA Birmingham he greeted a team mate at home plate by spraying a water gun at him after hitting a HR. Later when he struck out he went up to the grand stand & heckled the umpire. He was suspended and sent to spend some time in a mental hospital due to nervous exhaustion.

Many of Piersall's personal issues may have gone back to his childhood, as his dad had put a tremendous amount of pressure on him to make it as a ball player. His story is well documented in the film “Fear Strikes Out” where Piersall is played by Anthony Perkins.  

He returned to play in 1953 to hit .272. He spent eight years in Boston leading the league in doubles in 1956 (40) as well as having career highs in batting (.293) & RBIs (87). He would hit twenty plus doubles five straight seasons in Boston.

In 1957 he would score over 100 runs & hit a career high 14 HRs, while stealing 14 bases, it was the second of five seasons with double figures in steals. He remained fan favorite in Boston until he was traded to Cleveland for Vic Wertz in December 1958.

Piersall still had his share of antics; He claimed he talked to Babe Ruth’s ghost behind the Monuments of the AL New York clubs ballpark.

He was ejected six times on the next season, once for throwing a ball at the Chicago White Sox elaborate scoreboard after a game, once for wearing a little league helmet during an at bat in Detroit & usually for fighting with umpires.

Back at Fenway Park he was ejected while running back & forth along the outfield fence as Ted Williams was at bat. He was sent for more help & once again returned. "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Who ever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?"  

He posted a couple of good years in Cleveland, as he hit .282 with 18 HRs & 66 RBIs in 1961 earning votes for the MVP Award. The following year he came in third in the AL batting race, hitting .322 with a .378 on base %.

In 1961 he charged the mound when Jim Bunning hit him with a pitch & was ejected that summer when he threw his helmet at another pitcher.

That season he was heckled mercifully in New York & was even attacked on the field by two fans. He managed to punch one of them out while trying to kick the other before security restrained the two culprits. That year his father also passed away which added more grief & guilt to his life.

He found himself starting the 1962 season with the Washington Senators but he fell off to a .244 average with just four HRs in 135 games for the tenth place team. In May of 1963 his contract was sold to the second year New York Mets for cash.  

He made his Mets debut on May 24th in St. Louis, going 1-4 with an RBI single off the Cardinals Bob Gibson.

Mets manager Casey Stengel once commented "He's great, but you have to play him in a cage”. He found himself in the lineup often upon his arrival although he wasn’t hitting. From June 5th to June 23rd he was at his best, with 14 hits & eight RBIs.

After seeing Duke Snider hit his 400th career HR with the Mets, Piersall noted the moment was not festive enough. He vowed to make his milestone 100th career HR moment a bit more fun.

His most famous Mets day came on June 23rd, 1963 at the Polo Grounds in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

In the 5th inning Piersall led off with a HR, it was his 100th career HR, coming off future Mets manager Dallas Green.

In most dramatic fashion, Piersall jogged around the bases backwards, to the delight of the Mets fans. The Mets management, Casey Stengel & the Phillies were not as amused. Jimmy Piersall was gone from the team three weeks later. 

On July 21st. after just 40 games as a Met he was batting .194 with that one famous HR, 4 doubles 10 RBIs & a stolen base when he was released. That same day he was signed by the Los Angeles Angels. In 1964 he batted .314 playing in 87 games.

Trivia: That season during the height of Beatlemania, he once came to bat wearing a Beatles wig.  


Piersall played through the 1967 season with California before retiring. He finished a 17 year career batting .272 with 1604 hits, 104 HRs, 256 doubles 591 RBIs & a .332 on base % in 1734 games played.

In the outfield he played 1213 games in center (52nd all time) he has 3115 put outs in centerfield (53rd all time) with 63 assists (82nd all time). His .990 fielding % is 30th all time among all center fielders.  

Retirement: After his playing days he moved into the Angels front office in the late sixties.

In 1974 he was a broadcaster for the Texas Rangers, then moved on to the White Sox broadcast team with Harry Carry. He was fired there for criticizing the team too much. He has worked for years in Chicago where he spends his summers working on sports radio.  

Honors: He has been to the White House twice, once as a guest of John F. Kennedy then again in 2004 with 1000 invited guests when the Red Sox won the World Series.

In September 2010 the Red Sox inducted him into their Hall of Fame.

Throughout time he disowned the film portrayal of him in Fear Strikes out saying the facts were distorted.

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