On the day the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox were in town to meet President Bush, a group of Massachusetts lawmakers huddled around 76-year-old Jimmy Piersall in the White House Map room, awaiting the president’s arrival. As they listened intently to story after story, Capitol Hill’s Boston boys, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), appeared captivated by the former Red Sox outfielder.
“I’ve never seen so many Members finally shut up and listen,” said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). “They were enthralled.”
Although Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams once called him the best outfielder he’d ever seen, Piersall’s popularity isn’t rooted in statistics. Instead, his 1952 mental breakdown, vividly documented by the 1957 film “Fear Strikes Out,” along with his outrageous behavior on the field, established Piersall as one of the game’s most colorful personalities.
“Jimmy Piersall was larger than life to me when I was a boy and he still is today,” Markey said.
Everyone has a favorite Piersall story: the time he shot an umpire in the face with a water pistol, the day he threw an orange at the scoreboard at Comiskey Park and who can forget his 100th career home run, which he celebrated by running around the bases backwards.
“He’s great, but you have to play him in a cage,” Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel once said of Piersall.
But the untold story of Piersall is his trip to Washington, D.C., to meet Bush, arranged by his godson, Foley.
It had been more than 12 years since Foley and Piersall had last seen each other, and Foley said he could barely recognize his godfather when he met him at the airport terminal. But for many in the Reagan National Airport crowd, Piersall was easy to spot. “Jimmy Piersall? Hey Jimmy!” the crowd buzzed, according to Foley.
“I’m still surprised by how well known he is,” Foley said.
Foley was in a meeting at the White House when he overheard that the Red Sox were being invited to the District to celebrate their 2004 World Series victory. He then contacted the administration to arrange to have Piersall included in the festivities.
Piersall’s first year in the big leagues came with the Boston Red Sox in 1950. Almost immediately, he began to demonstrate the outlandish behavior that would make him famous: getting in fights with fans, arguing with umpires, bowing to the crowd after catching fly balls. Such symptoms of his mental illness would culminate in 1952, when he suffered a full-blown mental breakdown and checked himself in to Westborough State Hospital, in Westborough, Mass., for six weeks of psychiatric treatment.
Piersall has since been diagnosed with manic depression and prescribed lithium.
He returned to Major League Baseball the following year, but his behavior problems continued. Soon Piersall found himself in trouble with the law for disorderly conduct and other minor disturbances.
It was through his regular dealings with Boston area police that Piersall met, and became friends with, Foley’s father, Ed, who was a police officer in Newton, Mass. The two quickly became close, and when Foley was baptized, Piersall was given the honor of serving as his godfather.
Piersall hated D.C. when he played for the Washington Senators in the early 1960s. “I’d never let any of my children go there,” he said. But when Foley invited him to come back to the nation’s capital to meet the president, Piersall bought a new suit.
“It was a real thrill for me to go to the White House,” he said.
While in D.C., Piersall stayed at his godson’s home. Even though he’s not a fan of most Beltway insiders, Piersall said he’s proud that Foley is a Member of Congress. “I’m not much for politicians, but I’m happy for him,” he said.
Piersall’s high-profile battle with mental illness did a great deal to raise public awareness about the disease, Foley said. “With his whole life being put in a book and in a movie, I think it sort of took away the cloud and stigma to some degree,” Foley said.
New York Yankees third-baseman Alex Rodriguez’s recent admission that he is seeking professional counseling is a testimony to the way the country has changed its perception of mental health issues, Foley said.
“In Jimmy’s day they wouldn’t have even remotely announced that he was seeking it,” Foley said. “Now here’s a guy who feels comfortable enough acknowledging his mental health problems — he’s not the first in the baseball game.”
After retiring from baseball, Piersall became an announcer for the Chicago White Sox; but his unpredictable behavior would only continue. At one point, umpires threatened to forfeit a game if he did not stop inciting fans with taunts from the broadcast booth.
Foley, aware of his godfather’s history of wild behavior, made Piersall promise that he would conduct himself with dignity inside the White House.
But for the irascible 76-year-old, it was a tough promise to keep.
As the two approached the White House, Foley recalled that Piersall mindlessly used an expletive and was immediately reprimanded by the Florida Congressman.
“Jimmy, I said no swearing!” Foley said.
“I’m outside the building,” Piersall replied. “You said not inside the White House!”
Foley learned a great deal about mental illness through his long friendship with Piersall. “Mental illness was something that was brought forward to me very early in life as something that shouldn’t be a stigma,” he said. “It can be treated with the right therapies.”
This understanding, Foley said, has affected him as a lawmaker. “I’m more compassionate,” he said. “When you’ve seen it up close, you also see the benefits of therapy. You can’t deny that mental illness is something that’s treatable and that those who suffer from it are redeemable.” Foley said that mental illness is the root cause of a host of social afflictions ranging from drug addiction to homelessness.
Today, Piersall lives in Illinois and Florida with his third wife. He has nine children from previous marriages. Although he is still the character he always was, Piersall appears to have won his battle with mental illness.
On March 2, Bush told the crowd of Red Sox players and fans on the White House South Lawn that he admired the team for the way they played that season. He also said that he was happy to have some of the former Red Sox players on hand, including Piersall and his former teammate, Dom DiMaggio.
The crowd roared in approval.
“And you could see these two older guys kind of hunched over from age, almost levitate, their bodies straightened,” Foley said. “It was a beautiful moment.”
“It was heartwarming,” Piersall said. “And the man who made it possible was Foley.”
After the ceremony, Foley introduced his godfather to the president.
“This is your godfather? Jimmy Piersall? Let me shake your hand. Now I know where I’m going to go when I need a vote,” Foley recalls the president saying.
For Piersall, meeting the president was the highlight of the trip. “He said, ‘I always enjoyed watching you play,’” Piersall said. “And I said, ‘I didn’t vote for you.’”