Rozner: As a character, Jimmy Piersall was an all-timer

 
 
Updated 6/5/2017 6:14 AM
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  • Jimmy Piersall, who bared his soul about his struggles with mental illness in his book "Fear Strikes Out," has died. The Boston Red Sox, for whom Piersall played for seven of his 17 seasons in the majors, said Piersall died Saturday at a care facility in Wheaton.

    Jimmy Piersall, who bared his soul about his struggles with mental illness in his book "Fear Strikes Out," has died. The Boston Red Sox, for whom Piersall played for seven of his 17 seasons in the majors, said Piersall died Saturday at a care facility in Wheaton. associated press/June 1952

  • Jimmy Piersall, a member of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame and a former White Sox broadcaster and Cubs instructor, died Saturday.

    Jimmy Piersall, a member of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame and a former White Sox broadcaster and Cubs instructor, died Saturday. AssocIated Press/1958

  • Jimmy Piersall, right, interviews Jackie Robinson in the Brooklyn Dodgers' dressing room at Ebbets field in Brooklyn.

    Jimmy Piersall, right, interviews Jackie Robinson in the Brooklyn Dodgers' dressing room at Ebbets field in Brooklyn. AssocIated Press/September 1955

  • Red Sox first baseman Walt Dropo gives a few pointers to outfielder Jimmy Piersall, who came up to the Red Sox on Aug. 30, 1950 from the Louisville Colonels.

    Red Sox first baseman Walt Dropo gives a few pointers to outfielder Jimmy Piersall, who came up to the Red Sox on Aug. 30, 1950 from the Louisville Colonels. associated press/August 1950

Jimmy Piersall did not get cheated.

He would have enjoyed being thought of in that way, though ­-- ironically­ -- when he was alive he never really stopped to think about what people thought of him.

Piersall died Saturday at the age of 87 at a care facility in Wheaton, leaving behind a legion of fans and friends who knew him as a player, a movie character, a TV broadcaster, a coach and a radio personality.

He also had many enemies, a result of telling the truth as he saw it from the time he was able to speak.

In Chicago, he will be remembered most from the "Harry and Jimmy Show," also known as White Sox broadcasts, when Harry Caray and Piersall were never shy about criticizing players, managers, coaches and ownership, which led to numerous problems for both men.

Harry would often say, "You're crazy Jimmy," to which Piersall would respond, "And I have the papers to prove it."

It was a nod to Piersall's well-publicized battle with mental illness as a young man.

Caray had already departed for the Cubs when Piersall was fired by the Sox in 1983 for being too critical of the team, but Piersall always believed Tony La Russa was behind it after several confrontations with the White Sox manager.

That was the essence of Jimmy. Say what he thought, to heck with the consequences.

He found work as a roving outfield instructor with the Cubs in the mid-80s, but later joined WSCR 670-AM as a contributor several days a week. That led to more trouble and the Cubs fired him in the fall of 1999 after 14 years with the organization.

There was little doubt in his mind, or anyone else's, that his on-air comments left him without a job in baseball for the first time in 50 years.

"I have not made an awful lot of friends in my lifetime. But my dad once told me that if you have too many friends you become a follower," Piersall told me in January 2000. "Maybe I shouldn't have said some of things I said, but when Dallas Green and Don Zimmer and Jim Frey were here, they always told me to speak up if I saw something wrong, in the majors or the minors.

"But they're old-time guys. Today, you can't say anything to anyone because their feelings get hurt. When you work the way I work, some people are going to dislike you. Some kids probably didn't like my style, but a lot of guys have thanked me for helping them."

Piersall was openly critical of Andy MacPhail, Ed Lynch and several minor league employees, not to mention Tribune Co. execs he thought should stay out of the baseball business.

"I can see the Cubs' point," Piersall said. "They don't want anyone in the organization criticized by others in the organization. But I didn't do it to hurt people. I was just saying what I saw."

After being fired, Piersall got calls from several players, like Doug Glanville, Corey Patterson and Rafael Palmeiro, all grateful for the tough love Piersall showed them while teaching them to survive in a big-league outfield.

"I'm going to miss all my kids," Piersall said, referring to his outfield prospects, and in this case not his nine grown children. "You go through so much with them and try to teach them how to play the game and how to be a man.

"You try to get them ready to be professionals, teach them about life a little bit. Not many coaches will do that in the minors anymore."

Said Glanville at the time, "When Jimmy tells you something you don't want to hear, it's the truth. It's shocking at first, but then you realize he's your friend and he's trying to help you.

"He's taken some pretty bad fielders and made them average enough to survive up here. But the best part is he prepares you for life up here. Nobody else gives you that."

Piersall was not sorry he had been critical of the team, but he was upset about being disconnected from the young players.

"The game will go on without me," Piersall said. "It just hurts because I still felt like I could help kids. I'm 70 years old and that was the best part of my day.

"It's a shame that my work on the field wasn't more important than some of the things that were bothering them.

"These (executives) have never been out on the field with these kids. They don't know how to get to them or what makes them work hard to get better. All they do is set rules and regulations and put them down in a book.

"Look, I didn't do it for the money. The pay is nothing. I didn't do it for the glory. There is none. I just liked giving back to the game and making a difference in young people's lives.

"It'll be hard for me to get a job in baseball after the things (the Cubs have) told people. But if that's the way it is, I'll play golf and fish. I love to fish. I can fish 4 or 5 hours a day. And it's a blessing that I won't have to get on those airplanes anymore.

"I'm just gonna miss those kids."

A great teacher, Piersall also won two Gold Gloves as a player, made two all-star teams, finished ninth in MVP voting once and played for five teams, beginning with the Red Sox.

Piersall was called "the best defensive center fielder in history" by Willie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio said Piersall was "the best baserunner in the league."

In later years, he was probably best-known as a player for having run around the bases backward after hitting his 100th career home run while with the Mets and against the Phillies' Dallas Green in 1963.

While finishing his career with the Angels, he appeared on TV shows in Hollywood with the likes of Lucille Ball.

He's in the Red Sox Hall of Fame and visited the White House twice, including as a guest of the 2004 World Series winning Red Sox, something Piersall called a "thrill" for a Connecticut native.

In March 2001, at age 71, Piersall was introduced to another generation when his name was featured in an episode of the "Sopranos."

Upon finding an old box filled with childhood memories, Tony's sister Janice read from a school assignment: "Anthony Soprano, Seventh Grade, Mr. Martino. Why 'Fear Strikes Out' by Jim Piersall is a good book."

"It's very heartwarming," Piersall told me in 2000. "Of course, at my age anything is heartwarming."

A Hollywood friend tipped off Piersall ahead of time, but his wife Jan still wouldn't let him watch the program.

"She says there's too much foul language," Piersall laughed. "I play golf with a lot of guys 65 or 70 years old and their wives won't let them watch, either."

It was hardly the first time his name had been mentioned on TV, or on screens much bigger.

"Through the years, many TV shows and movies have used my name," Piersall said. "It always has something to do with someone being goofy."

Throughout his life, Piersall spoke about battling mental illness before being properly medicated as a young adult, but he was always bothered by his portrayal in the movie "Fear Strikes Out," the 1957 adaptation of the book.

It starred Karl Malden as his overbearing father, and a horribly miscast Anthony Perkins as Jimmy Piersall.

"The book was great. It was me. There was nothing false in there," Piersall said. "The movie wasn't me. Anthony Perkins is a great actor, but a terrible athlete and he couldn't even throw a baseball.

"Karl Malden was terrific. He even looked like my father.

"But so much of what was written for Perkins as my character wasn't true and I didn't like that. He did the best he could with what was written, but there was a lot of fiction.

"I never climbed the screen behind home plate. That bothered me. It was just poorly done. If people want to know about it, they can read the book."

Just like little Anthony Soprano.

"I'm going to have to see a tape of that (bleeping) show," Piersall chuckled. "But I'll have to wait until Jan goes shopping."

A friend to many and an entertainer to all, Jimmy Piersall was a character and coach, all-star and actor, broadcaster and player, father and husband.

He lived a full life. He did not get cheated.

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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