Directed by Robert Mulligan
The late Yogi Berra once said, in a fashion only the legend was capable of, “90% of the game is mental. The other half is physical.” While this particular Yogi-ism may sound…not exactly right, he is absolutely right! Having the physical gifts to play the game of baseball is a pre-requisite to a stint in the Major Leagues. However, what separates ball players at that level is often the mental game, and for that reason Yogi was absolutely right. Sure, there are some players like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and today Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, who are just physical freaks that no player can rival. So with so much of the game of baseball played in your head, what would it be like to essentially be locked inside of your own head while trying to play?
For Jim Piersall, that is what he had to deal with. Piersall (Anthony Perkins) was a talented Waterbury, CT outfielder who was constantly pushed by his father to keep getting better. Making a great play or winning the game was never enough for Mr. Piersall (Karl Malden), and as such it was never enough for Jimmy. Piersall drove himself to greatness and on the way he also drove himself to madness. Signed by the Boston Red Sox, his childhood dream, Piersall spent seasons in Scranton, where he met his wife Mary (Norma Moore), and Louisville before being called up to the big club in Boston. Piersall changed positions at the Major League level, moving from outfield to shortstop. Soon, the pressures of the Majors, of his father, of winning, took a toll on Jimmy and he broke.
Suspended in order to seek help from a doctor, Piersall went through more than the common major leaguer and I’m not sure there was a better choice than Anthony Perkins to play the role. Known for his tremendously creepy performance as the mentally disturbed Norman Bates in Psycho, Perkins on screen seems inhibited by the same demons as Piersall. The dynamic between Piersall, his wife, and his father was certainly an important part of his mental breakdown, but the film treatment from Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) seems to attenuate this dynamic into relationships that would be seen in mediocre primetime dramas today. Certainly this can be seen as a comment to the advancement of the network TV drama (even though the best television is now on cable), but in reality it makes a film like Fear Strikes Out seem, well, somewhat standard, which is a shame given the remarkable story of Jim Piersall, his condition, and how he faced it.
The seeds are planted to suggest at the cause for Piersall’s breakdown (most fingers seem to point to the pressure his father placed on his to excel from a very young age). There seems to be no “wow” about this film though. There is nothing to dig into and say “Yea, that was great!” Even the baseball action seems lacking behind some of the other entries in this marathon to this point. There is very little baseball here, with the main focus of the story being the mental development/breakdown of Piersall. What the film does make me think about, as it was released just a few years following Piersall’s breakdown, is the effect of pressure and mental states of players in today’s game. For instance, Zack Grienke, who is in line to perhaps win the NL Cy Young Award as the league’s top pitcher, only a few years ago went through serious bouts of anxiety while in Kansas City.
What kind of pressures do players today put on themselves, what kind of outside pressures are put on them by friends, family, coaches, fans? I think the greatest question in sports today is fantasy owners. In a day and age where fantasy sports has completely blown up, fans are often too passionately (and sometimes monetarily) involved in the sport to rationally cheer and/or sympathize with the players. It has done wonders to grow the different games (yes, football is the biggest, but baseball is the original and still very popular), but I also wonder how much detriment it has done to the psyche of not just the players, but also the fans themselves.