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Former baseball player Jimmy Piersall, honoured on June 4 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, played 17 seasons professionally, known mostly for on-field antics due in-part to his battle with bi-polar disorder. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Former baseball player Jimmy Piersall, honoured on June 4 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, played 17 seasons professionally, known mostly for on-field antics due in-part to his battle with bi-polar disorder. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Outfielder Jimmy Piersall helped raise awareness about bipolar disorder Add to ...

Jimmy Piersall, the often outrageous outfielder and broadcaster whose emotional breakdown while a rookie with the Boston Red Sox was portrayed in the 1957 movie Fear Strikes Out, a rare glimpse, for its time, at an athlete’s mental illness, died on June 3 in Wheaton, Ill. He was 87.

His death was announced by the Red Sox.

Mr. Piersall was an outstanding centre fielder, a solid hitter and a two-time All-Star, playing in the major leagues for 17 seasons. But his career nearly ended just when it was getting underway.

Envisioned as the ultimate successor to Red Sox’s star centre fielder Dom DiMaggio, Mr. Piersall clowned on the field early in his rookie season, 1952; fought with or simply outraged teammates and opposing players; and harangued umpires.

“I was a funny man, a baseball clown, and where the Red Sox went, the fans flocked to see me,” Mr. Piersall said in his 1955 book, Fear Strikes Out, written with Al Hirshberg. The book was the basis for the movie, in which Mr. Piersall was portrayed by Anthony Perkins.

“Almost everybody except the Red Sox and the umpires thought I was a riot,” Mr. Piersall wrote. “My wife knew I was sick, yet she was helpless to stop my mad rush toward a mental collapse.”

The Red Sox demoted Mr. Piersall to the minors in June 1952, hoping he could gain control of his emotions, but his antics continued, and he entered a mental hospital in Massachusetts a month later. He remained hospitalized for six weeks, undergoing shock treatment and counselling for a nervous breakdown.

Mr. Piersall returned to the Red Sox in 1953 and seemed to have surmounted his emotional demons. But he often showboated in the summers to come, most memorably in June 1963, playing for the New York Mets, when, after hitting his 100th career home run, he circled the bases in their proper order but running backward. When his playing days ended, he encountered trouble with his bosses with his outspoken comments as a broadcaster and an instructor.

Notwithstanding all the turmoil, Mr. Piersall saw a positive side.

“Probably the best thing that happened to me was going nuts,” he wrote, with Richard Whittingham, at the outset of his 1985 memoir, The Truth Hurts. “It brought people out to the ballpark to get a look at me.”

James Anthony Piersall was born on Nov. 14, 1929, in Waterbury, Conn. His father, John, a house painter, encouraged him to pursue sports but, with a quick temper, was often harsh and demanding, as Mr. Piersall recalled. His mother, the former Mary Williams, had intermittent stays in mental hospitals.

After starring in baseball and basketball in high school, Mr. Piersall was signed by the Red Sox organization in 1948. During three seasons in the minors, he was often agitated, fearing he would fail.

He played briefly with the Red Sox at the end of the 1950 season, then returned to the minors. By the time he arrived at spring training in 1952, his fears had worsened, and he became convinced that the Red Sox hoped he would fail when they switched him to shortstop from the outfield.

He played well enough at short, and he entertained the fans with stunts, including his harassment of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, then with the St. Louis Browns, with wild gestures on the basepaths.

But he antagonized virtually all of his teammates with his antics, his tirades against umpires and his showing up Mr. DiMaggio by imitating his distinctive stride, which Mr. Piersall described in Fear Strikes Out as “flat-footed, his legs almost rigid from the knees down” while “he flapped his arms like wings at every step.” He fought with New York Yankees’ Billy Martin and Red Sox pitcher Mickey McDermott and cried in the dugout when manager Lou Boudreau would not put him into a game.

When Mr. Piersall’s disruptive behaviour continued after he was sent to the Birmingham farm club, he was persuaded by the Red Sox and his wife, Mary, to undergo psychiatric treatment.

Early in 1955, Mr. Piersall collaborated with Mr. Hirshberg on a two-part article in The Saturday Evening Post titled They Called Me Crazy – And I Was! the forerunner of his memoir Fear Strikes Out.

“Mr. Piersall’s courageous description of his struggles with manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, helped bring the disease and its treatments out of the shadows,” Dr. Barron H. Lerner, professor of medicine and population health at the New York University Langone Medical Center, wrote in The New York Times in 2015. “It was really a big deal 60 years ago.”

Mr. Piersall’s battle with bipolar disorder, which is characterized by extreme mood swings that include emotional highs and lows, and for which he was treated with lithium, was dramatized on television in 1955 when Tab Hunter portrayed him as part of the CBS series Climax! and in the Hollywood movie two years later. Karl Malden played his father in the film.

Writing in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called the movie Fear Strikes Out a “first-rate psychological film” in describing Mr. Piersall’s relationship to a father portrayed as being obsessed with his son’s becoming a major league ballplayer.

“I hated the movie,” Mr. Piersall wrote in his 1985 memoir. Mr. Perkins, he said, gave a fine performance but looked foolish trying to play baseball. He maintained that the movie included events that had never happened, and that he had never blamed his father for his breakdown.

More than a half century after his breakdown, Piersall was still working in sports with a radio program in Chicago.

“I’m the gooney bird that walked to the bank,” he told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2001. “I’m doing better than most of those guys who said I was crazy.”

Mr. Piersall’s leaves his wife, the former Janet Weber Jones; nine children from his marriage to his first wife, the former Mary Teevan, which ended in divorce, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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