Jimmy Piersall: Remembering the Animated Career of Former Met Who Once Ran Around the Bases Backwards & Had a Movie Based on His Life (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 in the league. 

MLB Career: 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.  

Drama: 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 teammate Mickey McDermott.

He was ejected from four games that year soon after had another clubhouse incident. He then spanked teammate Vern Stephens four-year-old son in the locker room, which all built up to him getting demoted by the end of June.

At AAA Birmingham he greeted a teammate at home plate by spraying a water gun at him after hitting a HR. 

Heckling the Ump: Later when he struck out, he went up to the grandstand & 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.

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

He was ejected six times in the next season, once for throwing a ball at the Chicago White Sox elaborate scoreboard after a game. Another time for wearing a little league helmet during an at bat in Detroit. But usually, his ejections stemmed from 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. 

Quotes- Jimmy Piersall: "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Who ever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?"  

Before the 1959 season, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for slugger Vic Wertz & Gary Geiger. Piersall spent three seasons with the Indians & after a terrible adjustment period the first season, he posted a couple of good years there.

In 1960 he hit .282 with 18 HRs 12 doubles a career high 18 stolen bases & 66 RBIs 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.

Attacked by Fans: 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. 

Mets Career: 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.

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

The game went smoothly until the 5th inning. Here's where one of the strangest but funniest base running antics occurred. Jimmy Piersall led off the inning with a HR off Phillies pitcher, Dallas Green. 

It was a milestone HR for Piersall, being the 100th HR of his career.  Piersall dropped the bat, turned around & went to circle around the bases. But he did so by running backwards to the delight of the Mets fans.

The Phillies team & pitcher Dallas Green were not amused. Neither was the MLB Commissioner Ford Frick who was in attendance that day. 

The Mets organization didn’t like it either, Manager Casey Stengel was so angry, he cut Piersall from the team a short time later.

Piersall said he had watched Duke Snider hit his 400th career HR, just a few weeks earlier without any fanfare.  He vowed when he hit his 100th HR, he would do something to make it festive. 

He sure caused a stir of excitement, the Polo Grounds Mets fans loved it, as he trotted around the bases backwards. Even some of his teammates laughed. Amazingly, he never tripped and even shook third base coach; Cookie Lavagetto's hand on the way around.

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 for the fifth place Dodgers.

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. 

Career Stats: He finished a 17-year career batting .272 with 1604 hits, 104 HRs, 256 doubles 52 triples 591 RBIs & a .332 on base % with a .718 OPS in 1734 games played.

In the outfield he played 1213 games in center (58th all time) he has 3115 put outs in centerfield (55th all time) with 63 assists. His .990 fielding % is 40th 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 then worked around Chicago for years where he spent 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.
Fear Strikes Out:  In 1955 he put his memoirs in a book called Fear Strikes Out. 

In 1955 a film was made based on his book starring Anthony Perkins as Piersall & Karl Malden as his domineering father. The movie was & still is praised. Piersall realizes he has been successful in baseball just to please his demanding father, not his own gratification.

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

Passing: Piersall passed away on June 3rd, 2017 at age 87, in Wheaton, Illinois. He is buried in Waterbury, Connecticut. 


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