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Striking fear on the court

Piersall also excelled as basketball player

After everything -- the sensational psychiatric collapse, the electroshock treatments, the remarkable comeback, the zany career, the hit movie, the two books, the three wives, the nine children, the 27 grandchildren, and the father he feared and revered dying in his arms -- former Red Sox center fielder Jimmy Piersall sleeps well. He said a daily dose of lithium helps.

Tomorrow, the man of a thousand antics -- he climbed the flagpole during a game at Fenway Park, wore a Beatles wig to the plate in Kansas City, and ran the bases backward at the Polo Grounds after his 100th career home run -- will turn a new page in one of the most extraordinary personal sagas in professional sports.

A two-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glover, and longtime baseball ambassador of battiness, James Anthony Piersall will become a Hall of Famer.

Not a baseball Hall of Famer, though his 17-year playing career and wild odyssey as a big-league coach, broadcaster, and talk-radio rabble-rouser were colorful enough that he might have commanded a wing in Cooperstown.

Instead, Piersall, 76, who rose to national celebrity from a $19-a-month cold water flat in Waterbury, Conn., will join the Class of 2006 in the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. It turns out the tortured soul who wound up strapped to a bed in ``the violent room" at Westborough State Hospital after his mental breakdown with the Red Sox in 1952 drove himself nearly as hard at hoops.

Playing ``like a savage animal," according to the Hartford Courant, Piersall scored the final 7 points to lead Waterbury's Leavenworth High School past Durfee of Fall River, 51-44, in the 1947 New England championship game at Boston Garden. A crowd of 13,909 watched Piersall score 29 points, a rarity in that era.

``He was perhaps the best high school basketball player in New England that year," said Dan Doyle, executive director of the Institute for International Sport, which runs the New England Basketball Hall of Fame at the University of Rhode Island. ``He was terrific."

Piersall's father accepted no less. Though the pressure John Piersall placed on his son in baseball was famously chronicled in the book and movie, ``Fear Strikes Out" -- Karl Malden played the abusive father, Anthony Perkins the anguished son -- Piersall felt no less stress on the basketball court.

``I always had the fear of failure," he said by telephone from his home near Chicago. ``It made me concentrate better."

It also contributed to his breakdown at 22, midway through his rookie season with the Sox. Even after Piersall fulfilled his father's obsessive ambition for him to play for the Sox, the son came undone when manager Lou Boudreau opened the season by trying to transform him from one of the game's best defensive outfielders (Piersall remains the all-time career leader among Sox outfielders with a .989 fielding percentage) to a shortstop.

``The experiment was ridiculous," said Johnny Pesky, a former shortstop who played third base at the time for the Sox. ``Very few guys can make that kind of move."

Especially with a fragile psyche. Piersall recalled cracking under the strain of desperately trying to master a new position and stay in the big leagues to support his needy parents and rapidly expanding family.

``I got physically and mentally tired," he said. ``It got to the point where I believed I wouldn't be able to feed my kids."

Psychological scars
In his ``mad rush toward a mental collapse" -- a months-long span of violent mood swings that included trading punches with Billy Martin of the Yankees and spanking the 4-year-old son of teammate Vern Stephens -- Piersall went from batting in a lineup with Dom DiMaggio and Billy Goodman (Ted Williams spent most of the season training to fly combat missions in the Korean War) to undergoing six weeks of intensive psychiatric treatment in a state institution.

Piersall said he remembers little about his ordeal in a locked ward at Westborough other than gazing out a window and fixing on a nearby water tower as his ``symbol of hope."

But his childhood friends vividly remember the terror that fueled his mental anguish. They witnessed the torment Piersall endured from his father, a housepainter who grew up poor and demanded his son achieve the greatness that had eluded him.

``Most fathers would have been thrilled to have a son like Jimmy," said Bernie Sherwill, of West Yarmouth, Piersall's best friend and teammate through high school. ``But Jimmy's father was always around, always telling him he could do better, always putting all that pressure on him. Psychologically, that's what happened. It made Jimmy very high-strung."

Piersall's teammates sensed it that night in 1947 as he led them to the pinnacle of New England high school basketball. During a timeout with three minutes left and the score tied, 44-44, Piersall seized command from his coach in the Leavenworth huddle.

``Jimmy was very determined and very focused," said Sherwill, Piersall's cocaptain. ``He said, `Give me the ball and I'll get you a score.' And, bingo, he did."

Never mind that Piersall's father was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack he suffered during a tournament game several days earlier as he watched a trainer snap Piersall's dislocated jaw back into place. The father had trained Piersall to fight any hint of failure.

``I was running out of gas," Piersall recalled of the timeout with three minutes to go. ``But I remember saying, `We came here to win. We've got to win.' "

So spectacular was his performance that the next day's Boston Sunday Globe described him on the front page as ``one of the best all-around players seen here in many years."

Career full of antics
As it turned out, the game opened the door to Piersall's major league career. A Sox scout, Neil Mahoney, sitting in the crowd, asked Piersall's friends if he played any other sports. Soon, Piersall was a Sox bonus baby, poised to earn $25,000 if he made the majors within four years, which he did.

Then came the psychiatric collapse his rookie year in 1952. The way Piersall remembers it, only one sportswriter, the Globe's Roger Birtwell, predicted he would return from the trauma. But Piersall came back to play 151 games in 1953 and spent five more years with the Sox, rivaling Willie Mays as the best defensive outfielder in the game. He played later for the Indians, Senators, Mets, and Angels, finishing his career in 1967 with a .272 average, 104 home runs, 591 RBIs, and a legacy as one of the greatest madcaps in baseball history.

``He could catch the ball and run as well as anybody I ever saw play the outfield," Pesky said. ``I always thought he would be a good player, if he just settled in. But it seemed like he was always doing something crazy." Like retreating behind the monuments during a game at Yankee Stadium (``I was talking to the Babe," Piersall said).

Or performing a war dance while playing center field for the Indians with Ted Williams at the plate (``I knew Ted didn't like any movement when he was batting," he said). Or imitating Satchel Paige's windup while Paige was pitching and Piersall was leading off first base at Fenway Park.

One thing Piersall never did was climb the screen behind home plate at Fenway, as he was depicted doing in the film ``Fear Strikes Out."

``If I had thought of it," he said, ``I would have done it."

After all, he said, ``The best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts."

Life after the game
It helped an everyday baseball player become a legend. And Piersall rode his celebrity long after his last at-bat, becoming a regular on television talk shows, a color commentator with broadcast legend Harry Caray, and a sports radio fixture, irreverent as ever until the run ended in July with a Chicago station pulling the plug on his weekly show.

Still, Piersall faced additional hardships along the way. He recalled the pain of his father fatally collapsing in his arms in 1961 while his father was painting the windowsills of Piersall's Newton home (``I could have torn that house up, I was so upset," he said).

Piersall has long been estranged from his children, who he said are ``upset because I divorced their mother in 1968." (His son, Jim Piersall Jr., who lives on Cape Cod, declined comment.) And Piersall has survived two open-heart surgeries, he said, in 1973 and 1987.

Yet he golfs and fishes regularly (he landed a 29-inch catfish last week). He walks with his prized dog, Annie, a fluffy white Bichon Frise. And he looks forward, when the cold blows toward Chicago, to traveling with his wife, Jan, to their second home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he jaunts out occasionally to the casinos for a few hands of poker.

Never a drinker or smoker, Piersall said, ``I've taken pretty good care of myself, except for my nerves, and they're doing fine."

The lithium he has taken for 30 years ``has really helped," he said. ``It levels me off."

Now, five weeks shy of his 77th birthday, Piersall can look back fondly at his greatest basketball memory (the 1947 game at Boston Garden) and his happiest baseball moment (his first big-league hit as a September call-up at Fenway Park in 1950) as he prepares to savor a Hall of Fame induction.

``It's been a wonderful life," he said. ``God owes me nothing."

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