Fear Strikes Out is a 1957 movie in which Tony Perkins plays major league player Jim Piersall who had suffered from mental illness and a nervous breakdown. Piersall appeared in six games in 1950 with his primary team, the Boston Red Sox, then played each season from 1952 through 1967. He played in at least 100 games 1953-1962, then hung on as a part time player. In 1953 Piersall finished ninth in American League (AL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) voting. He was an All Star in 1954 and 1956 and won a gold glove in 1958 his last season with Boston.
I probably became aware of Piersall around 1960 and knew nothing about his nervous breakdown. I was not aware of the movie until several years later when it first appeared on television. I watched it at home with my parents and siblings:
- Gary, three years younger
- Linda, eight years younger
- Louie, fourteen years younger.
I had started calling my sister Shotsie when she was quite young. The name came from the dog on The Sandy Becker Show (1955-1968), for reasons I cannot recall. My brothers and I still call her Shotise, though none of our cousins do, which I find puzzling. When the movie Fear Strikes Out started, Shotsie asked a question: "Which one is Fear?". To this day Shotsie retains whatever quality inspired her to ask that question.
In the 1960s we just thought of Jimmy Piersall as a nut. Euphemisms hadn't been invented yet. I'm not about to get into any real mental illness stuff but I do want to address fear as an integral part of baseball.
Goose Gossage, Hall of Fame relief pitcher. Last week Gary had called me and said he was about to meet Gossage at some promotion that Gossage was doing near Gary's home and did I have anything I wanted him to ask. Not really but I had to give Gary something so I suggested that he ask Gossage about his appearance in the final regular season game in 1978 in Fenway Park between the Yankees and Red Sox.
In case you cannot read the inscription on the photo:
Best Wishes to a great Yankee fan.
I was scared shitless in 78!
Gossage pitched from 1972 through 1994 (not in 1990) and for the Yankees 1978-1983 and 14 innings in 1989. He replaced lefty Sparky Lyle in 1978 as the top Yankee relief pitcher even though Lyle had won the Cy Young award in 1977. Lyle pitched for the Yankees 1972-1978.
Wednesday, Jul 19 the Yankees had fallen 14 games behind the Red Sox but Sunday, Sep 10 the Yanks completed a four game sweep in Fenway Park and tied Boston for first place. The following weekend the Yankees won the first two of three games at Yankee Stadium and took a lead of 3.5 games, their biggest of the season.
Saturday, Sep 23 (game 155) the Yankees lead dropped to one game where it remained through game 161. The Yanks lost game 162 and Boston won. They played one more game to decide the winner of the Eastern Division ... in Fenway Park. The game was played Monday, October 2, 1978 before 32,925. It started at 2:30PM and lasted 2 hours 52 minutes. It was televised nationally, ABC as I recall.
I took the day off from work to watch. This was while it was still interesting to watch a game live without being bored out of your mind. Ron Guidry (24-3) started for the Yankees. Left fielder Carl Yastrzemski, who had turned 39 in August, batted cleanup and led off the second with his 17th home run (HR). Boston led 2-0 after six but the Yankees scored four in the top of the seventh, highlighted by shortstop Bucky Dent's 5th home run with two out and two on off former Yankee Mike Torrez who had started for Boston.
With a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the 7th Guidry struck out (SO) the first batter then allowed a single. He was replaced by Rich "Goose" Gossage whose swagger made him look like he had come out of central casting for a baseball movie. Gossage got out of the inning: SO, ground out.
In the top of the 8th Reggie Jackson led off by hitting his 27th HR into the center field bleachers off Bob Stanley. Yanks led 5-2.
In the bottom of the 8th:
Jerry Remy double
Jim Rice flied to right
Yastrzemski single; Remy scores
Carlton Fisk single
Fred Lynn single; Yastrzemski scores.
The Yankee lead is cut to one run and Boston has only one out and two base runners. Gossage is blowing it. Yankee manager Bob Lemon leaves Gossage in:
Butch Hobson flies to right
George Scott (1B), who had proclaimed that choke is not in our vocabulary, struck out.
Bottom 9th, Yanks lead 5-4:
Dwight Evans (PH) flies to left
Rick Burleson walks
One out but two on with the 3-4 hitters, Rice and Yastrzemski coming up. After the season Rice beat Guidry for the MVP award. He had 46 HR. Yastrzemski had one HR in the game. Gossage was blowing it again but Lemon stays with him against Rice, righty on righty. Rice lines one into right center. With the late 2:30 start the sun is directly behind the ball. Yankee right fielder Lou Piniella is briefly blinded but reaches out and catches the ball. Burleson tags and moves the tieing run to third base with two out. Remy is on first with the winning run. Lefty Lyle is warming in the Yankee bullpen with lefty Yastrzemski coming to bat. Lemon stays with righty Gossage.
Yastrzemski fouls out to Graig Nettles at third. Yankees win 5-4.
What the heck was Gossage thinking? Take me out? Leave me in? Or was he just so scared that he wasn't thinking.
It seems to me that in a situation like this the pressure is on the pitcher. The batter is expected to fail as usual. Plus, the batter can be passive. No matter how scared the batter becomes he can just stand there and hope for a reprieve: a walk. If we exhumed the body of Babe Ruth and placed it in the batter's box, the Babe could still draw a walk. The pitcher must not only throw the ball but he must throw it for a strike.
I don't think we fans have any idea what these players experience during a game. Gossage seemed emotional out there, so his description of his fear might not seem surprising. What about Mariano Rivera, the king of cool? What are his emotions as he prepares, then executes?
All the players experience a general fear of failure and specific fear of a particular situation. That 1978 game reviewed above is a classic example of fear overwhelming even a Hall of Fame player, who falters but ultimately prevails.
In a subsequent post we'll look at fear of injury, specifically, fear at the plate.