Monday, April 7, 2014


Jimmy Piersall benefited from a particular moment in American cultural discourse that simply might not have come into play in our present-day world.

His volatile behavior as a young outfielder for the Boston Red Sox in the early 50s was a moment when the nation took a timely snapshot of changing perceptions about mental illness and personality issues in American society.

Simon Rodia
A wave of sympathy followed Piersall around, even as he manifested similar symptoms in the 60s. It was at this point in time that the formulation of "just Jimmy being Jimmy"--which would find selective application for others in the press over the next half-century--was created to take the sting out of overly aggressive behavior.

Our neo-postmodern world is less prone to overt displays of compassion when athletes or other celebrities "act out."

Busby Berkeley
The therapeutic model of the state is something that is rarely defended these days; a player like Piersall, with his serial volatility, would find it a lot harder to remain employed in the major leagues as was the case in the 50s and 60s.

Brother Theodore
Piersall's ability to adjust himself and his behavior to public scrutiny was in part due to a brief period of "media detente" (for lack of a better phrase) that was unable to extend itself into more encompassing social issues in the 1960s.

As a result, we have a more fractured, polarized, and individualistic view of human personality and how it interacts with the forces of social stimulus and constraint. We are quicker to diagnose, faster to judge, less willing to exhibit patience with behavior that exceeds or challenges prescribed boundaries.

Baseball became less tolerant of Piersall, of course, as his productivity declined. He became a serial publicity stunt in the 60s, shipped to the lowly Mets, where it was thought that he would be a colorful appendage of Casey Stengel.

Marcus Garvey
Piersall created an indelible media moment in June 1963 when he circled the bases backwards after hitting his 100th home run, but Casey didn't take to his antics--the Ol' Professor coveted the media for his own purposes and had no use for players who upstaged him--and when Jimmy didn't hit (a sub-.200 batting average), he was quickly cut.

Jimmy found a congenial landing place in southern California, where his type of local color fit in with the prevailing landscape, and he had a fatherly type in manager Bill Rigney, who knew how to spot Piersall.
Aimee Semple MacPherson

Sun Ra
He found a way into the local media whirl, where his mood swings between perky and pugnacious could be packaged. He'd receive a series of "second chances" when his borderline on-air antics would cross the line.

Today, however, such incidents would result in a swifter marginalizing--particularly given the vehemence with which Piersall would dispense criticism. While one could suggest that Jimmy was the forerunner of "snark radio," the fact is that much of that is simply scripted artifice. While much of the media would seem to subscribe to Jimmy's maxim that "the truth hurts," it's clear that they are mostly manufacturing "controversy."

Lenny Bruce
Jimmy Piersall
Some years back, freeform radio station WFMU-FM (91.1 on the dial in the western region of the NYC metro area) commemorated a series of "extreme" individuals in a series of cards that they merchandized. Two sets of cards, called "Crackpots and Visionaries," were created.

Nearly twenty years later, it's possible to look at those sets and wonder if those terms connect, or whether they separate. It's a cultural question that is seemingly less and less open-ended, and one wonders if the sets were commissioned today, whether they would of necessity be labeled with more specificity (i.e. "crackpots" in one set, and "visionaries" in another).

Jimmy Piersall was the second card in the first set. These 72 cards were focused solely on the psycho-cultural force we've termed "extremity." (Manifestations of extremity in modernist culture were, as the examples above demonstrate, extremely wide-ranging.) The question we'll take up in our look at Piersall's "orange crate art" hommage by Ben Sakoguchi will concern whether there is something beyond that characterization to be found there.