Most of us were children, if we had even been born yet, when Jimmy Piersall went nuts.
That’s how Piersall later put it. He said he “went nuts.” He left it to his doctors to give it a fancier name, bipolar disorder. What mattered, he knew, was not how he said it, but that he said it at all.
Piersall, the baseball player and White Sox broadcaster who died Saturday at age 87, helped pull mental illness out of the shadows, freeing himself and enlightening us all.
“I want the world to know that people like me who have returned from the half-world of mental oblivion are not forever contaminated,” he later wrote.
Piersall will be remembered for his achievements on the field and in the TV booth, where he never stopped being a prickly character. But his greatest achievement may have been in helping to rid mental illness of social stigma.
He used the power of sports celebrity to make America more understanding and accepting of mental illness, just as tennis star Billy Jean King would later do for homosexuality and basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson would do for AIDS.
Piersall was an outrageous clown as a rookie in 1952 with the Boston Red Sox. He mocked opposing players, made bizarre gestures while running the bases, harangued umpires and fought with his teammates.
“My wife knew I was sick,” he later wrote, “yet she was helpless to stop my mad rush toward a mental collapse.”
Piersall played just 56 games before checking into a mental hospital. He was diagnosed with manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, and treated with shock therapy and lithium. He would go on to play 17 seasons in the majors, still edgy and antic at times, but never as troubled again as during that first rookie year.
Piersall went public with his mental illness in a 1955 story in The Saturday Evening Post titled “They Called Me Crazy — And I Was!” That led to a book, “Fear Strikes Out,” which became a 1957 movie.
In the conformist 1950s, it took courage for Piersall to be so open about his struggles. Yet he was. He wanted people to understand that mental illness is just that — an illness — and not a shameful personal defect.
He wanted people to know it can be treated, managed and even cured.
Jimmy Piersall was so very sane that way.