DETROIT — Jimmy Piersall, who shared his struggle with mental illness in his autobiography ‘‘Fear Strikes Out’’ and always spoke his mind as Harry Caray’s fiery sidekick on White Sox broadcasts, died Saturday at a care facility in Wheaton after a long illness. He was 87.
Piersall was a two-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove outfielder during his 17-year major-league career with the Red Sox, Indians, Senators, Mets and Angels during the 1950s and 1960s. His .99022 career fielding percentage was better than those of Hall of Fame center fielders Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio.
‘‘Ted Williams told me he was the best center fielder he ever saw,’’ Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson said.
But Piersall was best-known in Chicago for his free-wheeling criticism of managers, coaches, ownership and even players’ wives. Caray was often right there with him, but it was Piersall who was fired in 1983 for being too critical of the players and then-manager Tony La Russa on the air.
In the mid- and late 1980s, the Cubs employed Piersall as a roving outfield instructor. They eventually would let him go, and Piersall said it was for his open criticism of the team.
Piersall, who also served as the first baseball analyst on radio station WSCR-AM, was a meticulous instructor who knew his craft, Sox broadcaster and former Cubs outfielder Darrin Jackson said.
‘‘He knew what he was talking about as an instructor and coach,’’ Jackson said. ‘‘He was very good and very passionate about what he was trying to teach us. Some of the young guys were like, ‘Come on, man, this guy is crazy,’ and I would turn around and say, ‘Shut up, this guy knows what he’s talking about.’ He would keep you out there all day if you didn’t do it right.’’
After work, Jackson said Piersall and his wife ‘‘would take guys like Davey Martinez and his wife, me and my wife and Gary Varsho out to dinner. We’d have a good time. He was very passionate about everything he did.’’
From the time he broke into baseball with the Red Sox, Piersall became famous for amusing fans and media. He made pig noises on the field, stepped up to bat wearing a Beatles wig and playing air guitar on his bat and backpedaled around the bases after hitting his 100th career home run.
He argued vehemently with umpires, got into a fistfight with the Yankees’ Billy Martin at Fenway Park, was ejected from a game while playing for the Indians for running around and waving his arms in center field to distract Williams at the plate and was arrested after going into the stands to confront a heckling fan.
‘‘Almost everybody except the umpires and the Red Sox thought I was a riot,’’ Piersall said in his 1955 autobiography, which later was made into a movie starring Anthony Perkins. ‘‘My wife knew I was sick, yet she was helpless to stop my mad rush toward a mental collapse. The Red Sox couldn’t figure out how to handle me. I was a problem child.’’
Piersall played 56 games in the majors in 1952 before being admitted to a mental hospital with what later was diagnosed as bipolar disorder. He wrote in his book that he had almost no memory of the season or of his time in the hospital.
Piersall is survived by his wife, Jan; nine children; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Contributing: Associated Press
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