Monday, June 5, 2017

Teammates tout Jimmy Piersall's transcendental outfield abilities

“The catches Piersall makes simply defy description. They have to be seen to be believed and he keeps making them,” Lou Boudreau.
Those who watched Jimmy Piersall patrol the outfield for the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s, placed his name above lauded fly chasers such Tris Speaker, Terry Moore, Joe DiMaggio, and yes, Willie Mays. The daring depths at which he played allowed for Piersall to make miraculous catches that were deemed impossible by everyone in the ballpark, except by himself.

While his legendary defensive efforts were overshadowed by his struggles with his mental health and unpredictable on field behavior, there was no denying that Piersall’s glove was where many sure hits in the expansive ballparks of his era went to rest. Sadly, on Sunday June 3rd, 2017, Piersall too met his final resting place in Wheaton, Illinois. He was 87.

Piersall was signed by the Red Sox in 1948, and immediately made an impact for their Class A team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Usually most rookies fresh out of high school were sent to lower classifications, but one Scranton teammate saw why Boston put him on the fast track to the major leagues.

“Jim joined us about 30 days late in 1948,” teammate Harley Hisner recalled in 2008. “He was in high school and his team was in the high school finals. They signed him and sent him to Scranton. He was only 18 years old, but he was the best curve ball hitter I’d ever seen that young.”

The oddly shaped outfields of minor league parks gave Piersall the room he needed to show off his spectacular defensive abilities. After spending three seasons with Piersall in Scranton and Louisville, Hisner held him in higher esteem than his famous New York contemporaries.

“As far as I am concerned there was nobody that can go get a ball better than him, including Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays," Hisner said. "He had a sense of where that ball was going; as soon as it was hit, he was off and running. I’d take him any day.”

When the Red Sox finally brought Piersall up for good in 1952 after a quick look in 1950, manager Lou Boudreau envisioned Piersall’s athleticism serving him best at short stop. The toll that the demands of learning a new position wore heavily on Piersall, which led in part to his well publicized nervous breakdown.

Ted Lepcio was one of Boston’s fresh faced infielders in 1952 and was quickly paired with Piersall as their double play combination of the future. He found Piersall conflicted by playing a position that he had little familiarity with in order to meet management’s demands.

“He was supposed to help me out,” the 87-year-old Lepcio said via telephone from his home in Needham, Massachusetts shortly after Piersall’s passing. “Imagine that, a center fielder going to help me out! That was a joke. He told me personally that he didn’t want to do it, but what are you going to do when you are a young kid and the guy says you’re going to play a position. He knew he wasn’t in the right position.”

Piersall, Lepcio, Boudreau and Dick Brodowski / Boston Public Library
Piersall's recovery was well documented in his autobiography, "Fear Strikes Out," which later became a Hollywood movie with Anthony Perkins. Lepcio was Piersall’s roommate and the two developed a close relationship throughout Piersall’s struggles. When Piersall finally returned to the team from being hospitalized, Lepcio’s locker was the first reporters ran to.

“He didn’t go in there for a joke, he was wound tight and finally had to have some help at the time he went in,” Lepcio said. “When he came out, the first thing was the reporters came to me. I said, ‘He was the same Jimmy to me.’ It was kind of meant as a joke, but he improved. We roomed together for almost two years until we had enough of each other.”

Ike DeLock also broke in with Piersall and Lepcio in 1952, serving as a reliever on a veteran pitching staff. He said that Piersall had a fascination with besting Tris Speaker’s record for unassisted double plays by a center fielder. As a young pitcher, he was always worried that Piersall was going to get beat behind him by a fly ball.

“He always wanted to have a double play unassisted,” the 88-year-old Delock said Sunday from his home in Naples, Florida. “I told him, ‘Jimmy, when I’m pitching, you play deep in center field because I don’t want anybody to hit the ball over your head.’”

I had the opportunity to speak with Piersall in 2008 over the phone from his home in Wheaton. He explained how he learned to play such a shallow center field, one that is rarely seen anymore in the major leagues.

“It was 500 feet to centerfield in Louisville, the biggest centerfield in the world,” he said. “Most of the time, I cut it in half. Most balls are hit in front of you, not over your head. Watch how many broken bats go out into left field.”

Piersall’s made his presence known in baseball after he was moved permanently to the outfield in 1953. His knack for the spectacular led author Jason Aronoff in his book, “Going, Going … Caught,” to rate Piersall as the best defensive major league outfielder that year.

“In 1953 Jimmy Piersall had a fielding year which was brilliant from start to finish,” Aronoff said. “He had a number of catches which veteran observers called the greatest they had ever seen.”

While Piersall continued to make plays throughout his career on balls that were foregone as home runs or extra base hits, none came close to his series of thefts in 1953. Fast forward a decade later, Piersall found his way to the New York Mets via the Washington Senators in a trade for Gil Hodges.

While the lowly Mets thought that Piersall could recapture some of his Boston magic, he made noise not for his outstanding play on the field, but his outlandish response after he hit his 100th career home run against the Philadelphia Phillies in the Polo Grounds.

Tim Harkness had just arrived from the Los Angeles Dodgers and had reveled in the presence of his veteran teammates, including the newly arrived Piersall. He noted a conversation in the clubhouse between Piersall and Duke Snider that occurred shortly after Snider hit his 400th career home run.

“Duke hit his 400th home run that summer and Piersall said to him, ‘You know, I’ve got 99, when I hit my 100th, the whole world is gonna hear about it,’” the 79-year-old Harkness recalled from his Ontario home on Sunday.
Piersall goes backwards for 100th home run / Author's Collection
As luck would have it, Harkness was hitting behind Piersall when he hit his infamous home run where he rounded the bases backwards. Harkness was immortalized in the photo, waiting on deck in his number three jersey as Piersall approached the plate. He recounted the event as it unfolded in front of him in the on-deck circle.

“He hit one of those Chinese home runs in the old Polo Grounds,” he said. “He hit it about 285 feet. When he got to first base, he turned around and started running backwards. When he rounded third, I said to myself, ‘Should I kick him in the ass?’ When he came to the plate, I just stood there with the bat just like a statue and just watched him do it. As soon as he touched home plate, the umpire said, “Home run and you’re gone!” He threw him out of the ballgame for making a travesty of the game so to speak.”

Piersall was shortly thereafter released by the New York Mets. He didn’t hold back about his feelings for the organization when asked about the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium in 2008.

“I don't give a s—t,” he replied.

He finished his 17-year major league career with the Los Angeles and California Angels in 1967. He later was in the spotlight for his controversial comments as a White Sox broadcaster that led to his firing and spawned his book, “The Truth Hurts.”

During our conversation in 2008, Piersall displayed his candor when discussing the prevalent ticket prices at major league stadiums. As both New York teams were moving towards new stadium, he felt that the outrageous prices were driven by the owners.

“Two-hundred-fifty dollar a seat in Yankee Stadium ... the only problem we have are politicians,” he said. “The message never seems to get to those guys. It was $2.50 for the bleachers and $6 for a good seat. Everyone is saying that the players are making too much money, but the owners aren't going bankrupt. ... They could get rid of those 40 guys in the offices that send out postcards. They could cut down on their expense accounts, but it won't happen.”

As we came to the close of our interview, Piersall left me with this gem that was reminiscent of the old school mentality that is long gone from today’s game, as the league has become more conscious of the protecting their on-field product.

“I got drilled one day and I said to the pitcher, ‘If you don't get that guy, I'll drop the ball with the bases loaded.’ I asked the umpires why they're so tough and the owners said they don't want their players getting hurt. Bob Watson said the owners are afraid the good players are going to get hurt. There aren't that many good players; they're decent players.”

0 comments:

Post a Comment