Eight years ago Jimmy Piersall lay in the violent room of the Westborough State Hospital near Boston and reflected on a water tower he could see from his window. "There it stood," he wrote later in his book Fear Strikes Out, "high and solid, almost majestic, and, more than anything else, normal.... That's what I want to be—normal and commonplace—an average guy. I don't ever again want to be different."
During recent weeks, Jimmy Piersall, now center fielder for the Cleveland Indians, has been at various times sensational, irritating, colorful, heroic and comical, but the one thing he has not been is commonplace. As a player this season he has hit eight home runs, has stolen nine bases, has hit well over .300 and has made unbelievable catches (see page 30). He has played daring, aggressive baseball and his obvious desire to win has kept the Indians alert. "We'd be dead without him," said Frank Lane, Cleveland general manager.
As a personality, currently the most controversial in the game, Piersall this season has argued fiercely with umpires and catchers, has been tossed out of a game and fined, has thrown an orange and a baseball at Bill Veeck's fancy scoreboard, has sprayed insecticide at flying bugs in the outfield during a game, has been bombarded by paper clips, firecrackers and flashlight batteries from the stands, has tossed bats, gloves, batting helmets and even a metal bucket from the dugout onto the field, has been called unfortunate names by fans and has, at least once, broken down in tears in the clubhouse.
For seven years after his release from the hospital, most of which time he was with the Boston Red Sox, Jimmy Piersall emulated his water tower. His play, while good, was comparatively subdued. Last year he was traded to Cleveland and spent much of the season sitting in the obscurity of the bullpen (which he prefers to the dugout). Now, as the result of his fine play and his extraordinary antics, Piersall's name has been in big print. Some newspapermen insist that this is exactly what Piersall wants, that his wild acts are publicity gimmicks. "You'll notice that he saves his best shows for the big weekend and holiday crowds," said one writer. But one of Piersall's teammates pointed out, not without logic, that a person as high-strung as Piersall naturally would be more subject to tantrums in front of large crowds.
Jimmy Piersall is 30 years old, is married and has seven children and a fine home in Newtonville, Mass. He is a handsome man, trim and well groomed, with flashing brown eyes. Smiling, he is the most friendly looking player in baseball. But when he grows tense, the smile disappears and the lower jaw tightens, revealing clenched teeth. His eyes grow hard and he does not look friendly at all.
Last week in New York, over a breakfast of fried eggs and sausages, which, in his enthusiasm to talk, he barely ate, Jimmy Piersall discussed his play this season, his recent antics and the problems he confronts.
"This story ought to begin in spring training," he said, pushing aside his plate. "You know I didn't get to play much last year. During the winter I asked Bucky Harris, the general manager of the Red Sox, if he couldn't make a trade to get me back to Boston. Of course, my home is there, my wife Mary and the kids. Let me give you their names because people like to read about families: there's Eileen—she's 9—Doreen, 8, Claire, 7, Jimmy Jr., 6, Maura Ann, 4, Kathleen, 2�, and Ann, 8 months. So Harris agreed he'd try to make a deal. Later Frank Lane told me Cleveland offered me in a trade to Harris but that Harris said he didn't want me. I just mention this to show you how I was feeling this spring. On the plane to Arizona I sat with Billy Jurges, the Red Sox manager. I told Jurges that if I didn't do well this year I was going to quit.
"Out in Arizona—I was there a week early, by the way—I practiced hitting against the pitching machine. I tried to hit ground balls instead of fly balls. [ Manager Joe Gordon of the Indians calls this "curing Piersall's Fenway Park swing."] When the exhibition games started, I was hitting line drives. Even the outs were line drives. Bill Rigney told me I looked good. Joe Gordon said the center-field job was mine until I proved I couldn't handle it.
"Then along comes Bond [Rookie Walter Bond]. He's 6 feet 6 and hits them a mile. I couldn't compete with that. I mean, I'm trying to hit ground balls and he's hitting home runs. I was sick. He wasn't a center fielder, not by a long shot, but he got the job. It's tough to lose your job that way. But I worked hard and stayed ready."
Just before the season began, the Indians traded Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn. On Opening Day, Kuenn played center, Bond played right and Piersall sat in the bullpen. There was no score for 10 innings. Then in the top of the 11th the Tigers scored twice. In the bottom of the 11th, the Indians loaded the bases with two out. Gordon signaled to the bullpen for Piersall to come in and pinch hit.