Friday, January 27, 2012

The Glory of Their Time, Chapter 12: Jim Piersall

1979 TCMA '50s #188 Jim Piersall

I'm going to start shortening these "Glory of Their Time" posts a bit. Although they've been fun to write, the past GOTT posts have been quite time consuming.

This way, it will still be fun to write these posts, and not have it take up too much time.

But anyways, on to the post.

The story of Jim Piersall is indeed a tale of two different men.

There's the sunny day, green grass, "everything is fine" Piersall, like the one on this card. The baseball player.

But the reason that Piersall stands out in baseball history is due to the other side of his personality. The emotionally unstable side. The "Fear Strikes Out" side.

Like it or not, it's the side that everyone seems to remember.

However, we forget that he was a pretty good ballplayer as well. Too much of the actual baseball part of his life gets left out when fans talk about Jim Piersall.

It's a shame.

1991 Topps Archives #286 Jim Piersall

Piersall became a professional baseball player in 1948, signing a contract with the Red Sox at the age of 18.

He was in the majors by 1950, appearing in six games for the Red Sox that year.

Piersall was a regular in the Red Sox lineup early on in 1952. However, on May 24 of that season, him and Yankee hothead Billy Martin got into a fistfight before a game. After that, Piersall fought with teammate Mickey McDermott in the clubhouse. He'd be sent to the minors a month later.

He'd be ejected four times in his first three weeks in the minors. He'd enter treatment at a hospital shortly afterward and miss the remainder of the 1952 season.

The treatment seemed to help, as Piersall would become a regular in the Red Sox lineup for years afterward. In his first full season in '53, Piersall would hit .272 and finish ninth in the MVP voting.

In 1954, he'd hit .285 and be elected to his first All-Star game.

2002 Topps Archives #95 Jim Piersall

1956 would arguably be Piersall's finest season.

He'd hit .293, lead the league with 40 doubles, and collect 87 RBI, a career high. He also played in all 155 games that year, which also led the league. He'd make his second (and final) All-Star team in '56 as well.

Piersall would hit a career high 17 homers in 151 games in '57.

One of the most interesting stories I've read about Piersall was that he used to "talk" to the Babe Ruth monument in center field at Yankee Stadium during down times in the game. Can you imagine if someone did that nowadays?

1958 Topps #280 Jim Piersall

It seems like I've had this card forever. It's etched into my memory. If someone says "Jim Piersall", this is the first image I think of. Baseball cards are funny that way.

1958 would be Piersall's final year in Boston, hitting just .237 in 130 games. However, he would win his first of two Gold Gloves in '58.

1959 Topps #355 Jim Piersall

He'd be dealt to Cleveland for first baseman Vic Wertz after the 1958 season.

His first season as an Indian would be less than promising, as he'd hit just .246 in 100 games.

1960 Topps #159 Jim Piersall

On the baseball field, Piersall's 1960 season would be an improvement. He'd hit .282 with 18 homers and 66 RBI while also stealing a career-high 18 bases.

However, it would be a major setback for Piersall in terms of his behavior. He'd be ejected in the first game of a Memorial Day doubleheader against the White Sox. After catching the final out of the second game, he whipped the ball at the Comiskey Park scoreboard. He'd also go up to the plate wearing a little league helmet for one of his at-bats.

He'd enter psychiatric treatment again in June of 1960, but it didn't help. In July, he was taken out of a game against the Red Sox after continuously running back and forth in the outfield while the game was going on. 

He came back down to earth for the 1961 season, posting an outstanding .322 average (good for third in the batting race) and winning his second Gold Glove award.

1963 Topps #443 Jim Piersall

Despite his fine season, the Indians dealt Piersall to the Senators in October of 1961.

1962 would be Piersall's only full season in Washington. He'd hit an underwhelming .244 in 135 games. It would be the last time he'd see consistent playing time.

2010 Topps "Tales of the Game" #TOG-10 Jim Piersall

This is definitely one of my top five favorite cards from 2010. How could it not be?

After playing the first 29 games of the 1963 season in Washington, he'd be dealt to the Mets for Gil Hodges (who would never play a game as a Senator, but would become their manager for years to come).

His 40-game stint as a Met would be forgotten today had it not been for the incident shown on this card.

He only hit one home run as a New York Met, but it would go down as one of the most memorable in baseball history. The homer was the 100th of his career, and he celebrated it as only Jim Piersall could.

He ran around the bases facing backwards.

1964 Topps #586 Jim Piersall

Topps made absolutely no effort on Piersall's cards in the coming years. You'll see what I mean.

The Mets released Piersall on July 27, 1963. The Angels signed him the next day.

He'd hit .308 in 20 games as an Angel to close out his wild 1963 season.

Piersall would only play a part-time role for the Angels in 1964, but would play it well, hitting .314 in 87 games.

1965 Topps #172 Jim Piersall

See what I mean with these Piersall cards? His 1965 photo is obviously from the same photo session as the '64 card. (Believe it or not, it gets worse.)

He'd play in just 128 games in '65 and '66 combined.

1967 Topps #584 Jim Piersall

Topps just got lazy. You can still clearly see the "Los Angeles" on Piersall's jersey. The "Los Angeles Angels" became the California Angels in 1965. This shot is obviously from a 1963 or '64 photo session.

Piersall would play in five games for the Angels in 1967 before calling it quits, eventually taking a front-office position in California in May of that year.

This 1967 card reminds me of Jim Piersall's career as a whole.

As with the card, one can only wonder what it could've become had it been given the proper treatment. Psychology was still somewhat primitive in the '50s and '60s. We'll never know what Piersall might've become had he had access to proper medication and psychological treatment.

But we've got to look past the flaws and appreciate what we have. I never thought I'd own Piersall's 1967 card. But even with the defects, I'm glad I have it.

It's the same with Piersall. He'll always have a place in baseball history, even if it's largely due to his personality.

Piersall himself said it best:

"Probably the best thing that happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall until that happened?"

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