It’s not often that a person wins the game’s highest honor for defense and loses it. No. The player didn’t lose his Golden Glove but he simply ‘lost it’ a lot. Jimmy Piersall (‘Fear Strikes Out’) was one of the most hilarious sidekick baseball announcers of all time. His choice of words and phrases to describe what he just saw was far funnier than anything Jack Buck could utter. To listen to him on a telecast of the Chicago White Sox from 1977 through 1981 was worth the price of admission. Teamed with legendary Harry Caray, no slouch himself when it came to ‘wacky’, Piersall set the standard for ‘losing it’ as an announcer when he was fired after excessive on-air criticism of team management. That was only one instance of Piersall’s conflict with the establishment.
Here was a guy who actually came to the plate in a major league game while wearing a Beatles wig and playing an air guitar with his bat as he stepped into the batter’s box of old Shea Stadium. Of course he was playing for the Mets in their early years of wackiness. Again as a Met, in another game, hit his 100th career home run and celebrated by facing backwards as he trotted around the bases. Now you might ask yourself, why is that unusual? Really?
My favorite Piersall moment however was his wacky and inventive manner of distracting Ted Williams in a game at Fenway, July 20, 1961. There was the Splendid Splinter at the plate, a formidable figure if there ever was one in baseball. Here was a man who was the last player in baseball to hit .400+ in a single season. This was his last season. But he was still a force. He stepped into the box, tapped the plate…took those two perfect practice swings, and he was ready. All of a sudden, here was Piersall racing back and forth in the outfield in an attempt to distract the future Hall of Fame hitter. Close your eyes and think about it. Your imagination runs wild. While at the plate, Williams, a notorious left-handed hitter with supreme concentration, out of the corner of his right eye was seeing this blur moving toward and then rescinding, back and forth, in his vision of sight. Today various managers, using computer information that is updated after every pitch, design defenses of over shifts to combat the strengths of various hitters. But here was a guy who was way before Univac. He was creating the distraction of all distractions. What could Williams do about it? He stepped out of the box and asked the plate umpire what he was going to do about it. What could the manager do about it? The umpire was chastising the manager for Piersall’s actions. What could umpires do about it? There were no rules covering this in the rule book of baseball. He was a whirling dervish all by himself. Solution? He was banished….BANISHED, not ejected but banished, from not only the game, but from baseball. His subsequent meeting with American League president, Joe Cronin, brought him back into baseball.
Here was a guy who would make Reggie Jackson smile because he was the guy who got into a fight with Billy Martin BEFORE a game. An All-Star in 1954 & 1956 for Boston he won the Golden Glove in 1958 and again 1961 for Cleveland. He had 95 assists in his career with 15 in a single season. He was #1 in the league in assists with 12 in 1957. From 1955 through 1961, he was #1 or #2 in range factor for 9 innings as a center fielder. In 1961 he had a .322 batting average, 3rd best in the American League. He was 3rd in the American League in scoring (103 runs) in 1957. He was a player.
There are few in the history of the game who have ever accomplished so much. Yet this magnificent player, who suffered from Bipolar disorder, will never make it to Cooperstown. Baseball doesn’t get guys who do strange things like wearing wigs, playing air guitar, running backwards, creating havoc in the outfield to distract and who openly criticized management for not doing all they could to improve the team. Jimmy loved baseball. Jimmy loved his teams.
Now you know the curious case of a golden glove winner. As people are considering who is going to win one for this past season’s play, it enjoyable to remember one of the greats who ever played the game. In 2010, at least Boston recognized his greatness as Jimmy Piersall was inducted into the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame. As for Cooperstown, he should be placed in it and enshrined for the sole reason that he punched out Billy Martin BEFORE the game began.
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