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Reel Classics: 'Diggstown'

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Classic catches up with Jimmy Piersall
By Phillip Lee
Special to ESPN Classic

Jimmy Piersall played for the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Angels. However, he is best remembered for mental breakdown early in his baseball career. Piersall overcame his problems and went on to play 17 years in the majors. Piersall's personal problems were documented in his book "Fear Strikes Out," which was later made into a movie. He also wrote another book "The Truth Hurts." ESPN Classic's Phillip Lee recently caught up with the very candid Piersall.

Jimmy Piersall
Piersall celebrates his 100th homer by circling the bases backwards.
Phillip Lee: What are you doing these days?
Jimmy Piersall: Well, I have a radio show on WSCR in Chicago. I've had it for 10 years. And, I'm on four days a week, and I'm their analyst . . . a baseball analyst.

PL: Is it a talk show?
JP: Yeah. . . it's the biggest in town.

PL: How do you enjoy that?
JP: Well . . . at 72 years old . . . I'm able to be involved with keeping my mind sharp. I watch the games, and I comment on the Cubs and the White Sox every show. Callers call in, and it's like any other talk show. Except I know a little bit more about baseball than the guys who are on ESPN.

PL: Now, you used to be an announcer for the White Sox, is that correct?
JP: Yes.

PL: Do you miss announcing baseball games?
JP: Well, I was with Harry Caray for about seven years. Probably he and Vin Scully were the two best in the country, so I was very fortunate. It gave me a chance to establish myself in the Chicago area, and I've been living here now for about 24 years.

PL: Talk about the movie "Fear Strikes Out."
JP: The movie was terrible. They re-wrote the whole script. The only thing that was actually what (I wrote) was what they used for my home. The rest of the stuff, they re-wrote it. There was nothing out of the book, so I didn't like it at all. The movie has been playing since 1957, which is fine by me, but they played my father as a real rotten individual. Certainly, that was not what I was thinking about. But, I told my dad what they were doing, but the money we got in those days was money we never had and he didn't really let it bother him.

But, I was very offended about how they did it. The producers and directors were good people, but they tried to make Tony Perkins an athlete. And, Tony Perkins couldn't be an athlete in the toilet. He was a great actor, but athletic ability, he had none. Karl Malden was a terrific actor and I got to know Karl Malden, and I was very pleased with him. But, the overall picture, I thought was clearly not that good. ? (But) It was a thrill for me because here I am, still a young man, and they're doing my life story. I think mine was one of the first done. The Babe Ruth story, I think, was before mine, but they hadn't done too many baseball stories.

PL: So you've benefited from the movie?
JP: The movie has been playing so many years, it keeps me alive. I do all the card shows, the speaking engagements. I've had decent jobs most of my life now. It's one of those things that good things happen for the best, and I have to say that going nuts was very good to me. I have two homes. I have a home in Illinois and one in Arizona. I've got four cars; I have everything paid for. So, you carry that stigma the rest of your life. I was able to fight the fact that many people were talking behind my back, calling me "goony bird" and "wacko." But, the more they talked, the more money I made. So, it was like Liberace who said, "I'm laughing all the way to the bank." When he said that, he reminded me that it was very good for me.

PL: If someone were to go through your problems these days, do you think that they would be able to recover as well?
JP: Are we talking about if an athlete had a mental breakdown?

PL: Yes.
JP: I think there certainly are guys you don't here much about. But, there is treatment today. I have been taking Lithium now for the past . . . since 1976, and it helps level me off. And, they can take Lithium or the other drugs they have today that certainly help guys who have depression. I was physically and mentally tired which caused the breakdown. Once I got strong again, you lose the fact that you can fight off anything. Everybody has worries; everybody has responsibilities. Nobody really cares but yourself and, I've been very fortunate to realize that the Lithium would help me. I'm a very strong-minded guy; you've got to prove things to me.

PL: Do you think that, these days, with the media scrutiny, it would be tougher on you?
JP: Well, first of all, when I was in the hospital, all the writers except one in Boston said I'd never play again because I was so high-strung. I was the showman, you know and when you're a nonconformist, there's something wrong with you. But, I would imagine today . . . it's like any other sickness. You can cure it, or you can lick it, if you want to. The big thing is that many people are afraid to face the public and go back to their jobs because they're afraid what people might say about them. Alcoholics are treated much better than somebody who had a mental illness, which is maybe not 100 percent true, but it is pretty true.

PL: How tough was it for you when you actually stepped back on the field again?
JP: I had the good fortune of playing next to Ted Williams after that, for about eight years. He's a hall of famer. And, then I worked with Harry Caray for a long time, and Harry is in the hall of fame. So, there were two times I was able to work with people who, certainly, I learned a lot from and who also helped me to get recognition. I coached for Billy Martin for three years in Texas. I needed a job, and I talked to him and I talked to two of my other friends, Bob Aspromonte and Frank Lucchesi, and they all came back with a different job. So, you don't have too many friends but, I'll tell you, when you have good friends, they really help you. So, I was very fortunate to have Billy and I went with Billy, and I worked for the front office of the Texas Rangers for a few years. And I had two open-heart surgeries. Had one in 1976 and one in 1984.

PL: How are you feeling?
JP: Oh, I'm fine. I'm very fortunate. I was one of the first to have open-heart surgery . . . quadruple in 1984. So, they have ways now where they don't take it out of your leg; they take it out of your chest. I ran a football team for four years in the Atlantic Coast Football League in Roanoke, Va. working for a buddy. I worked for 1973-76 for the Texas Rangers; 77-84 for the Chicago White Sox and Harry Caray; in 85, I had my own talk show for an hour for two years. I coached for the Chicago Cubs in the minor leagues from 1986-1989. I've been on the Ed Sullivan show twice . . . once with Tony Perkins. And, (Johnny) Carson about seven times; Merv Griffin eight times; Milton Berle once; Don Rickles twice, Joey Bishop twice. I've been very active as far as now, I just try to stay alive.

PL: It sounds like you're doing a real good job.
JP: I'm sitting in a den my wife built for me with all my trophies and all my pictures of Kirk Douglas and Casey Stengel. You know, just . . . I could pick up 21 scrapbooks my father kept of every game I ever played. I've had a comic book done about me. I had my book Fear Strikes Out, and the truth hurts, I wasn't very good at school. You know, so I've got pictures here with Joe Dimaggio and Harry Caray and fights I've had on the field. When I walk on the street, the people say how they enjoy listening to me on the air or when my father said "how good you played." That's my Hall of Fame.

PL: I imagine you're an inspiration to lots of people?
JP: I got a lot of letters; hundreds and hundreds of letters. I was told by my lawyer not to answer them because somebody might do something drastic. But, I'm not a doctor. I don't really believe in psychiatrists that much either, because all they ever do is ask you what do you think. And, psychologists, they talk too much, and they do nothing. So, it all depends on you . . . if you have a problem, you have to lick it yourself, and you have to look in the mirror and say I can't feel sorry for myself and I can't get drunk or I can't watch television all my life. I've got to get back and make people appreciate the fact that I've got talent. And, that's what I did. When I went back to play, the players on the opposition would blow sirens and screw around with me. That made me play better. And, then when I hit a home run, I ran around the base giving them the finger. In those days, you could get away with that.

PL: Do you miss coaching?
JP: I miss the kids. I really miss the kids, because I had a good time coaching with the kids. I don't miss the politics and all these college people with their computers and their reports and all their other crap. That part, I don't miss or the travel with the kids. I upset people in the Cubs organization when I said on the air one time "well, when you're bad, you're bad" and people are listening to my radio show, and the comments they make to me when they stop me on the street "you know the game, and you speak your mind," and it's only my opinion, but most of the time, I know what's going on out there. You don't look for every player to be complete, but you should have an idea of how to play the simple parts of the game. But, you see so many guys who just don't care. They don't care about striking out; they walk back to the bench like it was nothing. The years I played, I only struck out 43 times, because I learned how to hit with two strikes, because it was embarrassing to walk back into that dugout. That was a long walk back into that dugout.

PL: If you had to pick something, baseball wise, your most-memorable moment, what would it be?
JP: I would have to think putting the uniform on for the first time. I was a Red Sox fan as a kid in Connecticut and then putting on that uniform was something I'll never forget. And, having the opportunity to play with Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of all-time. And, I try to remember playing in so many parks when I was playing, some of the catches, some of the hits. Some of the players I played with who were such outstanding guys.

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