As most baseball fans know, Jimmy Piersall was a major league baseball player who played 17 seasons for various teams including the Boston Red Sox in 1950 and then from 1952 to 1958. Maybe he was. best known for his nervous breakdown and hospitalization during his rookie year with the Red Sox.
He spent much of the following season at Westborough State Hospital. This experience, later diagnosed as bipolar disorder, led to his bestselling book, “Fear Strikes Out,” and a popular film of the same name in 1957.
Piersall was a formidable athlete in his youth, growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut. Although surrounded by local Yankees fans, he and his father were die-hard Red Sox fans; in fact, Jimmy once told a reporter, âI came out of my mom’s womb loathing the Yankees.
Oddly enough, Piersall received a lot of offers and trained at both Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. He will later recall that the Yankees offered him a contract, but he turned it down, stating, âWaterbury is a Yankees town, but I was a Red Sox boy. I wouldn’t have given my Yankee friends back home the satisfaction of signing with their team.
Jimmy Piersall came back strong in 1953 after his battle with mental illness. He played in 151 games, hit .272 and was ninth in the American League MVP vote. In early June against the Browns, he went 6-for-6, the first Red Sox player to accomplish that. The Associated Press named him Sophomore of the Year.
After the season, Piersall appeared in Clinton at the opening of the Clinton Super Market (formerly Brockelman’s) at the corner of High and Church streets (the parking lot of the Clinton Savings Bank today). Store manager Bernard Hastings invited him.
Piersall however continued his antics throughout his career. Those damned Yankees always seemed to bring out the worst in him.
For example, during his rookie year, he fought with Billy Martin of the Yankees under the stands. A few years later, at Yankee Stadium, during a pitcher change, he ran off the field and hid behind the Yankee memorials in the outfield.
Another time, two drunken Yankees fans rushed onto the field to beat Piersall; he held on as the two benches emptied onto the field to help him fight them.
Of course, the oft-quoted Yogi Berra had issues with Piersall from time to time as well.
In one game, a Yankees pitcher hit the first two Sox hitters before Jimmy approached home plate; already in a terrible crisis, Jimmy told the famous Yankees wide receiver, âYogi, I want you to know something. If you knock me down, I’m going to get up and hit you in the head with this baseball bat – and remember, I’m the only guy who can plead temporary insanity and get away with it.
Yogi replied calmly, “Jim, we haven’t knocked down a .230 hitter all year.”
In the early 1950s, on a much smaller field, the Clinton Little League was being formed and opening day was scheduled for Sunday May 16, 1954. Night was Monday May 17 when the Red Sox ( led by pitcher George Makosiej) beat the Dodgers (led by pitcher Ed Bonin).
A full game and box score report was written by Harry Hintlian in a column titled “Diamond Dust” in the Clinton Daily Item. It has become a regular column in the article reporting the details of every Clinton Little League game.
About a week later, Thayer Field in Lancaster was opened and the two Lancaster teams – the Cardinals and Indians – faced off. These two teams were part of the Clinton Little League.
At the end of this very successful first season, the Little League Mothers hosted a banquet for all players and coaches at D’Olimpio’s restaurant. Moms involved in planning the big event included: Ms Lloyd Burdell, Ms Gerald LaPenna, Ms Nick Dintino, Ms Gemma Regonini, Ms John Gannon, Ms Alice Heinold, Ms Bernard Hastings, Ms Russell MacElhiney and Ms James Johnston.
Tickets could be purchased by the public from Firestone Tire and Supply on High Street, Tidy’s Amoco Station on Cameron Street, and D’Olimpio’s. Angie Bazydlo, recently discharged from the US Army and Clinton’s biggest baseball star at the time, was honored during the evening and the guest speaker was none other than Red Sox star Jimmy Piersall , once again sponsored by the Clinton Super Market.
Over 300 Little Leaguers and guests attended this special banquet in November 1954. Piersall was a great speaker and considered himself “a Little Leaguer in the big league baseball”. He told stories about his teammates, his hatred for the Yankees, and the importance of a clean life (Piersall was never a smoker or a drinker).
He told the boys to get plenty of rest and never to get up too late, âIt won’t do you any good and it can hurt you a lot. He told the Clinton audience his biggest thrill was putting on a Red Sox uniform and beating his pet, the New York Yankees. He congratulated the boys and all the league officials, referees, managers, coaches and moms who had organized the banquet.
He ended his speech by telling all the boys, “You can never say it, one of you might be a teammate of mine in a few years and I can look at you and say, I knew you when.” “
Perhaps the funniest part of the evening was when Piersall participated in the presentation of the Clinton Little League Championship trophy. He had a good laugh when he had to introduce him, you guessed it, to the Clinton Yankees. He made a face at the mere mention of the team’s name.
The local Yankees roster included: Bob Kulaga, Lou Regonini, John Decesare, Dick Heinold, George Masciarelli, Jim McCaffrey, Dick Rymsza, Frank Tokarz, Bernie McMahon, Tom Tierney, Paul Cherubini, Joe Dintino and Jack Wattu. The team was led by Jim McLaughlin. It was a night to remember for all of our Little Leaguers.
Jimmy Piersall’s story has been one of the most tragic stories in baseball history. He was a two-time star, won two gold gloves and was considered one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball history. Still, fans turned out to see him “perform,” hoping he would entertain them with his crazy antics – just to make them laugh. Still, there is nothing funny about mental illness.
Terrance Ingano is a Clinton historian.