SCORES & OUTDOORS: Fear strikes out

Roland D. HalleeSCORES & OUTDOORS

by Roland D. Hallee

Back around 1954, when I was seven years old, I became aware of a game called baseball. I loved it. I grew up in an era where I watched some of the greatest baseball players in history: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, etc. The list goes on.

I watched on television when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run of the season in 1961, at Yankee Stadium against Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard, breaking Babe Ruth’s legendary record; I was at Fenway Park when Detroit’s Jim Bunning pitched a no-hitter against the Red Sox; I was also at Fenway Park when Ted Williams hit his 521st, and last home run in his final at-bat before retirement in 1962. I’ve seen many games, watched many players who are now enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But, my two main idols in those formative years were Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone, whom I think I gravitated to because that was the position I played in Little League, high school, and during my softball playing days. But my favorite in the 1950s and early 1960s, was Red Sox centerfielder Jim Piersall.

Jim Piersall

What brings this up is that Piersall passed away on June 3, at the age of 87. But the story doesn’t end there.

Back in the early 1990s, a friend of mine was in the business of promoting sports memorabilia shows in Augusta. My job was to drive to Portland and rendezvous with professional athletes with whom he had contracted to come to the shows for autograph sessions. Among the many I drove from Portland to Augusta and back were former Red Sox stars Jody Reed, George Scott, Jim Rice, Jim Lonborg, Bill “The Spaceman” Lee, etc.; New England Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson; Celtics star Robert Parrish and Bruins players Cam Neely, Bobby Carpenter, Ken Hodge, just to name a few.

Well, one day, my buddy says to me, “I’m putting on a show next week, and I need you to go to Portland and pick up George Foster and Jim Piersall.”

I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. A week later, I was driving a car to Augusta with Jim Piersall sitting in the back seat. I was hoping he would sit next to me up front, but Foster claimed that spot. My conversation with Foster is a story for another day. But Piersall did not disappoint me in his storytelling.

Unfortunately, Piersall suffered from bipolar disorder during his playing days, in a time when the disease was not fully understood (early in his career he was diagnosed with “nervous exhaustion” and spent seven weeks in a mental facility in Massachusetts), and everyone said he was crazy. The film Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony Perkins as Piersall, was the story of Piersall’s 17-year major league career and the mental challenges he faced.

But that day, in the car, on our round trip from the airport to the Augusta Civic Center, he displayed no signs of the disorder. Most of his topics were up and coming players at the time and some banter with Foster, who was a feared slugger who played in the National League for the Cincinnati Reds’ “Big Red Machine” in the 1970s. He once held the National League record for most home runs in a season with 52.

Piersall’s stories are legendary. He once stepped up to bat wearing a Beatles wig and playing “air guitar” with his bat; led cheers for himself in the outfield during breaks, and “talked” to Babe Ruth behind the centerfield monuments at Yankee Stadium. In 1963, while playing with the New York Mets, he hit the 100th home run of his career and ran around the bases backwards.

He was ejected from the game a countless number of times for the shenanigans he performed on the field.

In his autobiography, Piersall commented, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jim Piersall, until that happened?”

The list of his antics are endless, but one memorable one was when he was ejected from a game, while playing for the Cleveland Indians, for running back and forth in the outfield, waiving his arms frantically, trying to distract Ted Williams during an at bat.

He heckled umpires, threw baseballs at scoreboards, and charged the mound when hit by a pitch.

He was a colorful character that is missing from the game today. When Jim Piersall stepped on a baseball field, you never knew what was going to happen.

But with all these incidents, playing for five different teams, Piersall was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame on September 17, 2010.

To this day, I really can’t explain why I idolized that baseball player.

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