Jim Piersall, who played center field for the Red Sox from 1950 to 1958, and for other teams until 1967, won two Gold Gloves for his fielding, appeared in two All-Star games. led the American League in doubles once. and batted .324 one season, third highest batting average in the American League.
But he is best remembered for his erratic behavior on the diamond, frequent ejections from games by umpires, and hospitalizations for mental illness. Less well known, but equally important, was his recovery after his playing days with help from what he called “a little miracle called lithium,” a medication for bipolar disorder (manic depression) that was approved by the FDA in 1970.
Lithium, a naturally-occurring substance, produced many miraculous-looking outcomes in people who had been considered hopeless “manic depressives” facing hopeless futures. People did go on to lead full lives, stable and symptom-free. But it did not become the “magic bullet” many doctors predicted it would be. It turned out to be toxic for about 20 percent of people who tried it, and it did not treat symptoms that resulted from previous traumas.
Jim’s Troubled Red Sox Years
Two Internet profiles agree on these facts about Jim’s early baseball career:
He signed a contract with the Red Sox as an 18-year-old, played in the minors, and appeared in eight major league games late in the 1950 season. He became a full-time starter for the Sox in 1952.
On May 24, 1952, just before the game against the New York Yankees, Piersall had a fistfight with Yankee infielder Billy Martin. Following the brawl, Piersall briefly scuffled with teammate Mickey McDermott in the Red Sox clubhouse.
After several such incidents, Piersall was sent to the minor league Birmingham Barons on June 28. The final straw came when Piersall spanked the four-year-old son of teammate Vern Stephens in the Red Sox clubhouse during a game.
Westborough State Mental Hospital
In less than three weeks with the Barons, Piersall was ejected on four occasions, the last coming after striking out in the second inning on July 16. Prior to his at-bat, he had acknowledged teammate Milt Bolling‘s home run by spraying a water pistol on home plate. Piersall then moved to the grandstand roof to heckle home plate umpire Neil Strocchia.
Piersall entered treatment three days later at the Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts. Diagnosed with “nervous exhaustion,” he would spend the next seven weeks in the facility and miss the remainder of the season.
Talking to Babe Ruth
Piersall returned to the Red Sox in the 1953 season, finishing ninth in voting for the Most Valuable Player award. He remained a fixture in the Red Sox lineup through 1958.
He once stepped up to bat wearing a Beatles wig and playing “air guitar” on his bat, led cheers for himself in the outfield during breaks in play, and “talked” to Babe Ruth‘s monument in center field at Yankee Stadium.
In his autobiography, Piersall said, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Who ever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?”
Fielding Compared to Joe DiMaggio
Traded to Cleveland Indians and Re-Hospitalized
In 1958, Piersall was traded to the Cleveland Indians. In the Memorial Day doubleheader at Chicago, he was ejected in the first game for heckling umpire Larry Napp, then after catching the final out of the second game, whirled around and threw the ball at the White Sox’s scoreboard.
He later wore a little league helmet during an at-bat against the Detroit Tigers, and after a series of incidents against the Yankees, Indians team physician Donald Kelly ordered psychiatric treatment on June 26.
After a brief absence, Piersall returned only to earn his sixth ejection of the season on July 23, when he was banished after running back and forth in the outfield while the Red Sox’ Ted Williams was at bat. His subsequent meeting with American League president Joe Cronin and the departure of manager Joe Gordon seemed to settle Piersall down for the remainder of the season and career, except for minor eruptions and colorful displays for the crowd.
With the N.Y. Mets in 1963, he celebrated his 100th career home run by circling the bases backward, but in the right direction. After he stopped playing, he remained in baseball, succeeding as a coach, scout, and broadcaster.
Fear Strikes Out Anthony Perkins, and Karl Malden
According to his 1955 autobiography, Fear Strikes Out, Piersall blamed much of his condition on his father, a frustrated semi-pro player, who pressured him to succeed as a professional baseball player. A major motion picture Fear Strikes Out was released in 1957, with Anthony Perkins as the tormented Jim, and Karl Malden as his overbearing father.
Piersall disowned the movie years later, saying his father was not to blame. When lithium treatment threw so many severe, chronic cases of bipolar disorder into seemingly permanent remission, medical researchers changed their view of what caused the disease from dysfunctional parents to a chemical imbalance in the brain.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
The National Alliance on Mental Illness now says on its website www.nami.org “most scientists believe that bipolar disorder is likely caused by multiple factors that interact with each other to produce a chemical imbalance affecting certain parts of the brain”. In other words, mental illness is not caused by bad parents or weak character, NAMI Iiterature says.
NAMI lists the movie Fear Strikes Out as a movie that perpetuates false stereotypes about mental illness because it blames the family for the disease.
NAMI believes lithium and other mood stabilizing drugs manage this chemical imbalance the way insulin manages diabetes, a chemical imbalance in another vital organ, the pancreas. Lithium and insulin are not cures, according to NAMI, but allow near symptom-free management.
Marcia Purse, writing on About.com on Oct. 11, 2010, said lithium is a natural substance, first used in Canada as a mood stabilizer in 1949. The FDA approved its use in the U.S. in 1970. Nobody knew how it worked until a neurochemist in Wisconsin advanced a plausible theory in 1997, she said.
Post Script: Chemical Imbalance Questioned
In recent years, the chemical imbalance theory has become increasingly controversial. For the award-winning book Anatomy of an Epidemic (2010), invcstigative journalist Robert Whitaker reviewed all the scientific literature since the chemical revolution in psychiatry began in 1952, and said the evidence used to prove the chemical imbalance does not really prove it. Studies that raise doubt have been ignored or suppressed, he says.
Predictable attempts to marginalize him by the medical establishment and drug companies have not succeeded, as they did for 30 years with critics who did not assemble Whitaker’s research base. Whitaker acknowledges that psychiatric medicine helps many people a lot in the short term, but studies of people who take them for decades show very disturbing outcomes in many cases.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.