Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 8, 2017

Remembering Jimmy Piersall

Jimmy Piersall died last weekend. His passing was newsworthy in New England because Piersall spent the first half of his seventeen-year major league career roaming center field at Fenway Park. During his eight seasons with the Red Sox he was twice an All-Star and won the first of his two Gold Glove Awards. In 2010 Piersall was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

After the 1958 season Piersall was traded to Cleveland, where he spent three years. The latter part of his career saw him in the uniforms of three expansion franchises, the Washington Senators, the New York Mets and finally the Los Angeles Angels. He also worked as a broadcaster for the Rangers and White Sox after his playing days were over. Despite that geographical diversity, this death of an 87-year old former ballplayer whose career ended half a century ago would normally be of little note to fans living beyond driving distance to the ancient ballyard on Yawkey Way.

But Piersall’s story was about much more than balls and strikes, or hits and errors. In a baseball uniform he was a defensive wizard. His career .990 fielding percentage ranks him 31st among center fielders with at least 500 games. Of course, fielding percentage is one of those old statistics that the sabermetrics crowd scorns. New Age statisticians point out, quite correctly, that a fielder can’t drop a ball if he can’t get to it. Piersall had plenty of speed and understood his position. Long before defensive shifts were in vogue he would position himself to account for the tendencies of hitters and he read batted balls well, covering ground efficiently.

Not surprisingly, modern statistics rate him even higher. His range factor, which is putouts plus assists divided by innings, was 0.17 higher than the league average during his career. That translates into one extra out recorded by Piersall about every six games as compared to an average center fielder. That’s better than the great Willie Mays, whose range factor advantage over the average center fielder during his career yielded one extra putout every eight games. Piersall’s career Defensive Wins Above Replacement is fifth among center fielders. He had a career Total Zone Runs number of 128, trailing only Andruw Jones, Mays and Paul Blair among center fielders in this compilation of defensive statistics.

His offensive contributions were more modest. Piersall was a career .272 hitter, with an OPS of .718, which ranks him as decidedly average. He sprayed the ball to all fields and recorded forty doubles in 1956 and twenty or more in seven different seasons. But his bat didn’t harbor great power. His home run total never reached twenty in a single year. For his career Piersall drove just 104 balls out of the park.

When he hit his hundredth home run, while playing for Casey Stengel and the Mets, Piersall ran around the bases in the correct order but while facing backwards. The stunt was one of many on-field incidents, from arguing with umpires to fighting other players to going into the stands to confront hecklers, that peppered Piersall’s career. Some were amusing while others were grim, but they were all reminders that the other part of Piersall’s story was a lifelong battle with bipolar disorder.

In the middle of the 1952 season he was diagnosed with “nervous exhaustion” in the polite vernacular of the time, and spent seven weeks undergoing treatment at a Massachusetts psychiatric hospital. Piersall would later recount his battle with mental illness in a revealing biography, “Fear Strikes Out.”

Piersall’s time in Washington was brief. Traded to the Senators before the 1962 season after batting a career-high .322 in Cleveland the previous year, he patrolled center field at the newly opened D.C. Stadium for just that season and part of the next. But his tenure as a Senator coincided with the growing interest in the Great Game of a boy from the D.C. suburbs, then not yet ten years old. That boy knew nothing of Piersall’s personal struggles, only that his woebegone local team, which would lose 100 or more games each of its first four years of existence, had a dynamic, slick fielding center fielder who led off the 1962 home opener with a triple as the Senators beat the Tigers 4-1. The Senator who wore number 37 quickly became that boy’s first baseball hero.

Late in that season, before a game in Baltimore, Piersall was arrested after charging into the stands to confront a heckler. As reported at the time, Piersall said, “This guy was on my back while we were in batting practice. He was calling me things like ‘crazy man,’ and said I should be in ‘Spring Grove.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about but later I learned that Spring Grove is a Baltimore mental institution. I told him to come down to the field and say those things. He told me: ‘You come up here.’ So I did. But I never touched him.”

A few days later a judge dismissed the charges against Piersall, calling him a “symbol of the strides a person treated for mental illness can make.” The judge added, “I feel no ballplayer should be subjected to the barrage of vilification and abuse that Piersall was. It is a fan’s privilege to heckle and ridicule players, but only as to their playing ability, not to them as an individual.”

Over the long decades since that 1962 season, as that young boy grew into adulthood his love of the Great Game deepened, and he found in it many heroes, most of whom wore pinstripes. But the memories of those early years will never entirely fade. Those Senators may have been a hapless bunch, but they were still the local team. Mickey Vernon managing the ragtag crew. Young Eddie Brinkman, a shortstop without peer in the field, but unable to buy a hit. Tom Cheney, Bennie Daniels and Claude Osteen anchoring the rotation, such as it was. And in center field, if only for a fleeting moment, a player whose perseverance in life as much as in baseball, ultimately made him a winner in both. Rest easy Jimmy Piersall.

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Responses

  1. A beautiful tribute, Mike. I agree with the judge’s view on heckling.
    Ω


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