JIMMY PEIRSALL : A Bit Too Colorful, Even for a Color Man, He’s Now Regaling Portland Beaver Fans
‘I feel like I’m in a room in the sanitarium, only it had a better view. I’d like to get out of here, I’d like to talk to someone about getting another pill. I’d like to see (Vin) Scully work a game in here. I tell you, he’d give it up!’
Here’s how it is with Jimmy Piersall. Here’s how it is to be doing minor league baseball on the radio in Oregon. Here’s what it is like to embark on another reclamation project in another city: Jimmy knows something about that. Most of his adult life has been a reclamation project.
“Why am I here? There’s gotta be something wrong for someone to want to send me somewhere,” Piersall said recently.
“I always go to the places where everyone else has failed. Attention. That’s why I’m here. My name. Controversy. I’ve had that image all my life. It’s not going to change. Once you have had a mental illness, they don’t let you forget it.”
What’s to forget? Just a little lunacy. Just a little bat throwing, name calling, punching and choking. Just Jimmy.
That was Jimmy in Chicago and Boston and Cleveland and Washington and New York and Los Angeles. Now it’s Portland and KRDR 1230 and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Triple-A club, the Beavers. Now it’s Civic Stadium.
“Hey fans, want to get your own box seats for $5? It’s easy, just dial 2-BEAVER. Don’t miss one exciting game.” This is how it is with Jimmy Piersall. He’s working with Dom Valentino, who does the play-by-play. Piersall provides the color. So to speak. KRDR is a 1,000-watt radio station with what’s called a “modern country” format. KRDR broadcasts from Greshman, Ore., and they say that you can almost hear it in Portland. It’s the kind of station you can pick up better in your car than in your home.
“We talk about anything,” Piersall said. “We could be talking about sex, who the hell notices? I said something bad that went over the air. Three people called, so I know someone is listening.
“This is the bushes. How can anybody get mad when you’re drawing 1,002 people to the park? When I came in, they didn’t have radio. The attendance was 975 when I got here. You’ve got to get attention. We do have a listening audience. It may be the smallest audience anywhere, but it’s still an audience.”
That’s really all Piersall needs. An audience. He has always provided the show.
When he ran the bases backward to celebrate his 100th home run, it was cute. When he was thrown out of a game in Boston and threw everything in the dugout onto the field, some thought, ‘How droll.’
But when Piersall nearly choked the breath out of a sportswriter, few were amused. When, in his rookie season in the major leagues, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized, no one laughed.
When he came back to baseball, Piersall picked up his erratic behavior where he had left it. He also got his mouth back in gear, with his foot back in it.
Some tidbits we all remember:
--The time on a radio show that he called Mary Frances Veeck, wife of Chicago White Sox President Bill Veeck, “A colossal bore. She ought to stay in the kitchen, where she belongs.”
--The time he characterized players’ wives as “Horny broads that wanted to get married, and they wanted a little money, a little security, and they wanted a big, strong ballplayer.”
--The time Dave Parker reported to spring training at 255 pounds and Piersall called him a “baby hippo” and the time he called an umpire “a gutless, lazy whale.”
Some tidbits we all forget:
--Four Gold Gloves and a career fielding percentage of .997.
--A .272 career batting average and five All-Star appearances.
Piersall once said that his illness was the best thing that ever happened to him--"Nobody knew me until I went nuts.”
Thirty-four years later, nobody knows him without the nuts label. Jimmy Piersall made his name by saying and doing outrageous things. At 56, he is still expected to make with the jokes.
Piersall is sitting on three stacked chairs. Together, they almost boost him high enough to see the Civic Stadium playing field from gopher-eye level. KRDR broadcasts the games from a dark, dank cubbyhole underneath the stadium.
Piersall and Valentino view the field through a chain-link fence that distorts most of the plays. They also sit directly behind the plate, which has its own distortion.
“This is great--I’ve got a great view of the umpire’s butt and the catcher’s butt,” moaned Piersall during a break in a recent broadcast.
“I feel like I’m in a room in the sanitarium, only it had a better view. I’d like to get out of here, I’d like to talk to someone about getting another pill. I’d like to see (Vin) Scully work a game in here. I tell you, he’d give it up!”
Back on the air, Jimmy observes that the twilight will affect the hitters, that they’ll have trouble picking up the pitches.
Just as he finishes saying this, the game’s first batter hits a home run. As Piersall watches the ball sail over the right-field wall, over the billboards for the Old Country Kitchen and Nail Magic nail strengthener and conditioner, he says: “Kid must have heard me.”
During the average broadcast, Jimmy makes more than a few errors. One hit, which he calls “a line drive to somewhere,” is a pop-up to right. He frequently talks on the air to his wife, Jan, who sits behind him at every home game, knitting Afghans.
Now Jimmy is reading scores from major league games.
“I love it! The Yankees got beat, 15-1,” he says, yowling into the microphone. “I’ve hated the Yankees since I came out of my mother’s womb. The White Sox win, 10-4. So what.”
Now the game is dragging and Jimmy is clearly bored.
“This is the longest inning of my career, except when I was in Cleveland,” he says. “Baseball at times can be the most boring game. Until I watch that soccer on television. Yecch!”
The Beavers are having a good day. They win the game, 10-2, to even their record at 35-35. Most of the 1,000 fans have filed out of the park by the time Valentino and Piersall sign off.
Beaver General Manager Mark Helminiak has been busy and slumps onto a bench under the stadium.
“Jimmy’s a known name and he’s controversial,” Helminiak says. “We want to get Beaver baseball known in Portland. This radio package is not perfect. We’d like more sponsors, for starters. Jimmy’s expressive. But we gave him some definite guidelines we want him to operate under. We feel it falls under general radio conduct. There’s no doubt that he knows his baseball.”
The station has a one-year contract with the Beavers, with an option to renew. Piersall is paid $600 a month to do the home games. He has been paid more in other cities to help bolster flagging public interest.
Piersall would like to stay. He and Jan have an apartment in downtown Portland and a home in Wheaton, Ill. He says he doesn’t need the tension and pressure of the big leagues anymore. Even with 12 years of daily lithium pills, things get under his skin. Triple-bypass surgery has taken a toll.
Portland suits Jimmy just fine. It ain’t the bigs, but there is an audience. And what they get to hear! No subject is outside Piersall’s critical domain. All he needs is an audience.
A sampling of what Jimmy’s saying now:
--"Pete Rose is going the be the worst baseball player to make the Hall of Fame.”
--"Rod Carew complains that the Angels dumped him at the end of his career. What did the guy want, a marching band? I love the guy, but the club doesn’t owe him a damn thing.”
--"You have to be an (bleep)-kisser to survive in baseball. That’s why I’ll never work in the majors again.”
--"Tennis is my game now. Golf is a game for fat men who are going to have heart attacks.”
--"Eisenhower was a nice man, but he fell asleep once he got into office.”
--"The world is in a population explosion. I know a way to stop it--spay all the trash.”
It’s hard to know how seriously Piersall takes himself when he lets loose with some comments. Is he doing what he’s paid to do or doing what comes naturally?
“I think in my way I have survived,” Piersall says. “Every year when I was a player, I used to say before the season, ‘This is the new Jim Piersall.’ He never showed up.
“I don’t smoke or drink. The guys who tell me I’m goofy can’t stop smoking or drinking. What about them?
“I’ve been taking lithium for 12 years and I’m almost as well as the rest of you. I like my way better. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”