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In the long history of Major League Baseball, few personalities have been more of a lightning rod than Jimmy Piersall. His achievements on the field alone would have earned him a place in baseball history, but what people remember even more than his outstanding fielding and batting stats are the antics, arguments, and outbursts that marked his long career.
The story of Jimmy Piersall’s life has been recorded and analyzed by literally hundreds of sportswriters and commentators. Jimmy himself has cowritten two autobiographical books, including The Truth Hurts (1985) and his first book, Fear Strikes Out, published in 1957, which chronicles his struggles with mental illness early in his adult life. A blockbuster feature film by the same name, starring Hollywood legends Karl Malden and Anthony Perkins, depicts Jimmy’s struggles with what was only many decades later diagnosed and treated as a bipolar chemical imbalance.
A lot of the actions and words attributed to Jimmy through his fifty-plus years in baseball—first as a player and later in other roles—will never be fully understood, but two facts are indisputable: first, Jimmy Piersall was a remarkably talented athlete with an extraordinary grasp of the game of baseball. Second, he was and is recognized as one of the most colorful, unpredictable, and limit-pushing individuals in the history of the game. Although many considered Jimmy one of the best, if not the best, fielders of all time—with the stats to prove it—it was his often dramatic, sometimes quirky, attention-getting behaviors that earned him the most headlines.
One often-repeated story in sports annals recounts Jimmy’s actions on the day he hit his one-hundredth home run. After hitting the ball just over the right-field fence, Jimmy ran, facing backward, around the bases.
While some inaccurately report he ran the bases starting with third, Jimmy’s wife, Jan, clarifies that he touched each base in the correct order, but facing backward. Interestingly, his actions were legal at the time he did it but were outlawed by the league soon after.
Jan adds that while most people think he pulled the stunt as a spur-of-the-moment joke, he actually had another motive. A few days earlier, teammate Duke Snider hit his own four-hundredth homerun, a huge accomplishment, which newspapers treated almost as a footnote. Jimmy slyly told his friend that the story of his own anticipated hundredth home run—a significant but lesser achievement—would make a far bigger splash.
In fact, he did make front-page headlines in the New York papers, but he also was cut from the team two days later by manager Casey Stengel, who reportedly quipped that the team was “only big enough for one clown—and that’s me! You’re fired!”
In spite of his well-publicized misbehaviors, including an on-field brawl with the fiery Billy Martin, Jimmy earned a number of distinctive records, including
•signing with the Boston Red Sox at age 18—among the youngest players ever to compete in the major leagues,
•being named to American League All-Star teams in 1954 and 1956, and
•earning two Gold Glove awards—in 1958 and 1961—for best field performance in the American League.
Even after retiring as a player, Jimmy stayed in baseball, working for a number of years as a successful outfield coach and as a color commentator, including seven years in Chicago, teamed with Harry Caray, broadcasting Chicago White Sox games.
For the past 30 years, Jimmy and Jan have made their home in Wheaton, and even as health issues slowed Jimmy down, he continued to have a passionate interest in sports, particularly golf and, of course, baseball—interests he shared with his north-Wheaton neighbor Keith Lindley.
Talking with Keith was especially enjoyable because of their shared love of the Boston Red Sox.
“We had a lot of fun talking together,” Keith says, “since I’d grown up as a Red Sox fan. My dad had played ball in the West Texas–New Mexico League, and my uncle was in the Cardinals chain, so I’d grown up as a real baseball fan. And even though I grew up in Texas, the Boston Red Sox were my team. I knew all the players by name—Jimmy and I would talk about Bobby Doerr and what a great guy he was, and Johnny Pesky, Ted Williams, and Dom DiMaggio—and sure, I knew who Jimmy Piersall was.
“I didn’t know all the details of Jimmy’s life,” Keith adds, “but I’d heard a lot of the stories.”
Keith and Jimmy had lots of talks about baseball, often sitting in the garage, when Jimmy would come by and pull up a chair, or out for walks around the neighborhood.
“There was a lot of kidding,” Keith recalls. “We were neighbors, and our friendship developed like that. And then Jimmy started to get sicker and sicker—and sometimes he had to be hospitalized.
It was during a visit in Jimmy’s hospital room that more serious conversations began to take place between the two men. One day, when Jimmy was in particularly bad shape, Keith, who was accompanied by his wife, Diane, that day, asked Jimmy if they could pray for him.
Keith had made no secret of his faith in his earlier conversations, but Jimmy wasn’t interested. That day, however, marked a new openness on Jimmy’s part.
Keith himself had become a follow of Jesus Christ at the age of 45. He’d been raised in the church—grandson of a Baptist preacher and part of a family that attended church whenever the doors were open. But in spite of being present when the Gospel was taught, Keith says he simply never heard it.
“Even after sitting through years and years of sermons, I had no idea who Nicodemus was,” Keith admits, “and phrases like ‘you must be born again,’ had no meaning to me at all. My knowledge of the Bible was almost zero. I might have been at church on Sunday morning, but all I was thinking about was wanting to get out of there in time to watch the football game at noon.”
Beyond a general lack of interest in spiritual things, Keith suspects that part of his problem was what’s now known as attention deficit disorder.
“I was a runner as a kid, ran like the wind—high school track was my sport—and sometimes I think it was my ADD that chased me,” he says with a smile. “I was in constant motion. Our small town was built around a courthouse square, and I couldn’t walk around that square without jumping up and touching the signs of each business I passed.”
But one day Keith’s eyes and ears were opened. As president of the church men’s group, he attended a Bible conference in Florida where God’s Word got through to him for the first time.
“I don’t know what it was exactly, but at that conference, Jesus hit me right between the eyes like a hammer blow. God’s Word penetrated me in a way I can’t even explain,” he said.
All of a sudden, Keith had a hunger to learn about the things of God. Wherever he went, he took cassette tapes of Bible teaching, going back through past years of conference speakers, making up for lost time.
“Would you believe,” he asks, “that five years later I was retired from my project management career—dealing with all kinds of contractors and builders—and I was on the mission field, down in Guatemala, helping with a ministry that served earthquake survivors?
“When I learned about the work there,” he said, “I took a trip down to see what was going on. They had groups that were coming down to help, but there was no one to receive them. They were operating on a shoestring, and things were in chaos,” he said. “I heard no audible voice, but it was clear as day that God told me to get my affairs in order because I would be down there the next year. It was one year later that I was on a Pan Am flight to Guatemala City.”
Keith, who spoke conversational Spanish, was a perfect match for the assignment, and with his retirement funds available, he didn’t need to be paid.
It was there in Guatemala that Keith met Diane, a nurse, who was on a short-term mission assignment at a nearby orphanage.
Keith had rediscovered the joy of running after he came to Christ, and training runs up and down Guatemala’s Pan-American Highway* gave him the opportunity to “run into” Diane. Stopping for a drink of water from the orphanage’s well, he introduced himself to the attractive nurse he’d heard about.
*Running down the Pan-American Highway, Keith says, wasn’t too bad, but running up was quite a challenge at the 6,500-foot elevation of the Guatemalan terrain he covered. When Keith later returned to the States, he benefited from that high-altitude training, running at very competitive speeds and winning trophies left and right. He’s run in many marathons over the years, including eight Boston Marathons.
Keith and Diane married and returned to serve together in Guatemala for two additional years. By the time they left, the ministry there had grown from one staff member to fifteen, and Keith felt that the time was right to move on. So he headed home with his new bride. They settled in Wheaton, Illinois, where Diane had a home.
Life was good. “We lived happily ever after in Wheaton,” Keith jokes. But one thing was more difficult here, he says. Living stateside, Keith found it harder to share his faith.
“Down in Central America, we were working with people in need and kids, and I found it easier to talk to them about Jesus in Spanish than to talk to my neighbors here,” he said. “But the older I’ve gotten, I’ve really tried to seek out people to talk to about the Lord—particularly older men like myself. I’m eighty-three now, and I haven’t got a lot of time left. Sure, I’m in decent shape right now, but I know there’s a cut-off day coming, and that’s what nudged me in my conversations with Jimmy.”
“We were neighbors, and we liked each other,” Keith explains. “Jimmy knew we weren’t after anything. We weren’t trying to get him to make some kind of investment deal. We were just neighbors. We were just friends, and over time, he saw us as people who could be trusted.
“Others had told Jimmy that he needed God, but I knew that this guy was highly opinionated, and I thought, If I don’t gain his complete trust, he won’t hear what I have to say.”
It was after that trust was built that Jimmy and Keith began to talk about more serious things. During Jimmy’s hospitalization, Keith would visit him regularly, never leaving without praying for Jimmy at the end of their visit.
It was during an extended hospital stay that the two men had a pivotal conversation.
“When I was there one day, I reminded him that we were both getting older. We’d been born just two days less than a year apart, and I said, ‘Jimmy, I may not have a whole lot of time left, but that’s okay, because Diane and I know we’re going to heaven—and we sure would like to have you there with us.”
Jimmy said he thought he’d probably go to hell “like the rest of my friends.” But Keith could see that Jimmy was thinking about it—processing it, and maybe thinking, Yes, I’d like to be in heaven when I die.
It was about six months after Keith and Diane first prayed with him that Keith had an appointment to go visit with Jimmy, now home from the hospital and doing better.
Before he left home that morning, Keith told Diane that he planned to ask Jimmy that day if he was ready to put his faith in Christ.
“It was December 12, 2012—12/12/12,” Keith recalls. “But when I got there, I found Jimmy completely upset, dealing with a scary medical problem and frantic to get ahold of his doctor. Jan was out, and he was very agitated and upset.”
Keith repeatedly tried dialing each of the phone numbers Jimmy had for the doctor, but each time he reached a recorded message saying they wouldn’t be back in the office until later in the day.
Even as Keith continued dialing, the issue resolved itself, and eventually things calmed down. The two weary men—spent from the ordeal—sat down at the kitchen table.
“Jimmy,” Keith told his friend, “this day didn’t turn out anything like I had hoped.”
“He asked me, ‘What did you hope?’ and I said, ‘We’ve been talking for a while about God and about your having a relationship with Him. I was hoping that today would be the day we could pray and you could receive Christ.’
“I had thought there would be more of a battle,” Keith said, “but he was receptive and he was ready. ‘Let’s do it now,’ he told me.”
By that time, Jan was home. Jan had been a believer for many years, coming to Wheaton Bible Church with friends many years ago, attending when they were in town, but never, she says, with Jimmy.
“He never minded me going, but he had no interest in church or in God,” Jan said. She never thought she would see the day when Jimmy would be ready to put his trust in Jesus. But that December afternoon, she saw it happen.
“The three of us bowed our heads right there at the kitchen table,” Keith said, “and I led him through every part of the sinner’s prayer. I did all I could to make sure that he understood what he was doing—and he did.
“After we prayed, I said, ‘Jimmy, this is a very important day for you, and it’s a day that you should never forget. When I first came to know the Lord, a pastor told me to never forget the day I prayed to accept Christ into my life.’
“‘Find yourself a stake,’ that pastor had told me, ‘and write on there the day that you became a Christian and drive it in the ground. And every time you walk in that area you’re reminded of this.’ So I told Jimmy, ‘We need to get you a stick with today’s date on it. It’s 12/12/12.’ He agreed, so I went home and tried to find a stick, but the best I could do was a paint stirrer. So I said, ‘That’s as good a stick as any. It’s nice and clean.’ So I took a marker and wrote 12/12/12 on there. I added, Jimmy’s day. John 3:16. He told me to put it by the phone so he’d be sure to see it there.”
“I knew I couldn’t just pray the prayer of salvation with Jimmy and then leave him with nothing else, because he wouldn’t know how to follow up,” Keith said. “So we got him a Bible and outlined some of the key verses, like John 3:16, and the salvation verses in Romans.
“As we continued our conversations, Jimmy had a lot of questions, like, ‘Why does God allow children to be killed? Why is our world in such a mess?’ He also asked me things like, ‘I understand about God, but tell me more about Jesus and what He’s got to do with it.’ And that’s when our study started about who Jesus Christ was, what He came to do—His death, burial, and resurrection. And we started from the ABCs, the basics of Christianity,” Keith said.
Keith knew about the Alpha Course that’s offered at church, but since Jimmy wasn’t physically able to go to the classes, Keith brought the video recordings of the Alpha lessons to Jimmy’s home, and they watched them together.
“Jimmy’s a brand-new learner, and he’s learning every day, but we needed to start with the basics, and that’s what Alpha is. For a number of months now, we’ve been watching those tapes. We’d get to the end of a lesson, and he’d say, ‘Here’s what I take away from that.’ And when we got to the end of the series, he said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ So we did. And when we were through the second time, we went on to a study in Philippians.”
Even though Keith and Diane have moved several miles away, Keith still comes over to Jimmy’s house every week, and the questions continue.
As they talked one day, Keith brought up the subject of Baptism. Not surprisingly, Jimmy had questions. “What’s the deal with that? What does that have to do with it? So conversations began about the meaning of Baptism and what it represents.
As he understood, Jimmy agreed—and Jan decided to be baptized as well. The question was how: How would Wheaton Bible Church, a church that practices Baptism by immersion, baptize a man in a wheelchair?
Keith and Jimmy had talked about sprinkling, and after some discussion, the pastors talked and worked out how it could be done. Plans were made for Jimmy and Jan to be baptized during the All-Church Baptism Celebration in September of last year, but in the meantime, Jimmy took a serious fall and ended up in the hospital again.
“As it turned out, Jimmy and Jan were baptized on a Sunday morning service awhile later,” Keith said. “It was a special time for him and Jan, and for many of the people who were there that day.”
A New Creation
One of the changes Jimmy attributes to his new life as a child of God is the way he speaks. Throughout his life, he was known for strong words and “colorful” language.
“One of the things the Lord took away from me is bad language,” Jimmy says. “I feel it when it just gets up to my throat, and I’ll catch it there and I won’t say it because I don’t talk that way anymore.”
“It’s basic stuff,” Keith says, “but these are the kinds of things the Lord means to Jimmy—it’s a whole new ball game.‘I’m not like I was,’ he tells me. ‘Just like the Bible says, I’m a new creation.’”
Jimmy knows he is part of God’s Kingdom now—a fact that’s only growing clearer as he continues to learn about his new life in Christ. His only regret? “I don’t know why it took me so long to find God.”
Keith is thrilled to have been a part of helping Jimmy come to the place where he was ready to put his faith in Christ. “If God didn’t put me on earth for any other reason than leading Jimmy to the Lord,” Keith says, “that’s good enough for me.”