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A Routine Ballplayer

I just finished proofreading an ebook-conversion manuscript of Fear Strikes Out by Jim Piersall and Al Hirshberg. First published in 1955 and restored to print in 1999 by Bison Books of the University of Nebraska Press (which has the admirable mission of rediscovering great baseball books that might otherwise be lost), Fear Strikes Out is an honest account of Piersall’s youth and rookie year, 1952, with the Boston Red Sox. Halfway through the season Piersall suffered a nervous breakdown was institutionalized for several weeks. His on-field performance that year had included not only stellar play but outrageous antics ranging from delaying games — to the delight of fans — by performing an extended stretching routine, imitating (on field) other players including the great Satchel Paige and Piersall’s own idol, Dominic DiMaggio, and harassing umpires.

Piersall’s comeback the next season was facilitated by the way the professional baseball fraternity came together in a truly brotherly fashion. Piersall was not stigmatized for having been through a mental illness and breakdown. Players and umpires did not seek “revenge” for his sometimes mean-spirited clowning around on the field. Surprising and even ahead of its time in a decade that was not always so understanding and forgiving about such illnesses, the baseball community, including, ultimately, the fans, embraced Piersall, who went on to play for 16 seasons that included two trips to the All-Star Game. Born in 1929, Piersall presently lives in Arizona.

Here’s an excerpt from his story, as he steps gingerly into spring training of 1953.

The other Red Sox players treated me exactly as they treated each other. . . . . There’s always a lot of hand shaking and back slapping and kidding around and shouting back and forth. I was included in all of it. As far as the boys were concerned, I was a routine ballplayer who had had a routine winter vacation.

Everyone I’d played with who was still with the club acted the same towards me. The boys were neither too hot nor too cold. There was no self-conscious moving in, shaking hands and moving out again. I was one of the crowd and that was just the way I wanted it. Even when I saw [Mickey] McDermott for the first time, I felt no embarrassment. He shook hands and kidded with me just as the others had. The same thing happened with [Billy] Martin when I saw him later in nearby St. Petersburg, where the Yankees trained. The flareups of the year before were forgotten. We met in the natural course of events, shook hands as any two people would after not having seen each other for some time, and passed the time of day.

I was a little concerned about how the umpires would treat me. After all, I had given them a worse going-over than anyone else. Umpires have spring training just the way ballplayers do. Usually an umpire is assigned to a team for several weeks at a time. Bill Summers, a rolypoly veteran who had been around for years, was with us.

When we met for the first time, he held out his hand and said, “How are you doing, Jimmy?”

“Fine,” I told him.

“You look great. Now just get out there and stay loose and you’ll be all right. Don’t worry about anything. Play the best ball you can. The umpires all want to help you. They’ll do anything they can to make it easy for you.”

Charley Berry, another veteran American League umpire, who joined us later, told me the same thing. Everywhere we played, the umpires who were working the game went out of their way to be nice to me. I was a little apprehensive about Honochick, with whom I’d had that terrible battle in New York, and Passarella, whose conscience I had once challenged, but they were just like the rest. . . .

The newspapermen were wonderful. I read all the Boston papers daily, and I didn’t see a single reference to any of the stunts I had pulled either on or off the field, or to the nature of my illness. There was nothing but encouragement, as the baseball writers, to a man, reported how well I was hitting and fielding and how certain it was that I was on my way towards making a sensationally successful comeback. (pages 197-199)


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