He was an 18 year old kid out of Waterbury Connecticut when James Anthony Piersall signed with the Red Sox in 1948. Two years later he made his major league debut at Fenway Park, pinch running for Ted Williams in a comeback win against the Yankees; and in 1952, he made it to the Red Sox. A tremendous raw talent, the 22 year old rookie played 30 games at shortstop, 21 games in right, threw in a couple in center and even played a game at third base. Taking to calling himself “The Waterbury Wizard”, the brash and cocky kid did not endear himself to the veterans on the squad. However, it didn’t take long to realize that the young Piersall was battling more than just opposing pitchers. By the end of June he had been involved in an on field fight with Billy Martin, a clubhouse fight with teammate Mickey McDermott and had spanked the four year old son of teammate Vern Stephens.
Banished to the minor league Birmingham Barons to mature and find himself, his antics continued until he climed atop the grandstand roof to heckle the home plate umpire. Receiving a three game suspension, he was sent to Westbourough State Hospital in Massachusetts. Diagnosed with “nervous exhaustion”, he spent the remainder of the 1952 season there.
He returned to the Red Sox in 1953 and became their regular rightfielder. Enjoying one of his finest seasons, he finished ninth in the MVP voting. Now entrenched in the Red Sox outfield, he would ultimately move to centerfield where, flanked by Ted Williams in left and Jackie Jensen in right, he was part of the best outfield in the American League. A two time all star with the Red Sox, he was the first centerfield recipient of the Gold Glove Award in 1958.
On December 2, 1958, the Red Sox traded Piersall to the Cleveland Indians for first baseman Vic Wertz and centerfielder Gary Geiger. He played 10 more seasons with the Indians, Senators, Mets before finishing in California with the Angels. And he continued to battle his demons.
Never quite fulfilling his tremendous promise as a baseball player, Jimmy Piersall’s contributions range far beyond the baseball field. His very public battle with manic depression (bi-polar disorder) raised a level of national awareness of mental illness and the courage it takes to endure. His story is chronicled in his book Fear Strikes Out.
Piersall became an inspiration to millions of Americans and played a highly significant role in bringing mental illness out of the closet. Embraced by the fans, they often paid the fines that his colorful behavior, at times, incurred.
Following the Red Sox World Series victory in 2004, Piersall was part of the Red Sox contigent which was invited to the White House. “This is a real thrill for a poor kid from Waterbury” he said, “and I’m a 75 year old man, there’s not much left.” In 2010, Jimmy Piersall was elected to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame. In November he celebrated his 82nd birthday.
And so it was on this date in Fenway Park history, December 2, 1958