Friday, June 02, 2006

Movie Review: Fear Strikes Out

by Matt Sandler

We are now accustomed to behaving as armchair psychologists for noted baseball players. We sense the insecurities that Alex Rodriguez harbors—even his visits to a sports psychologist have been well documented. Barry Bonds certainly has his share of paranoia and a persecution complex for sportswriters to fill up many columns. The game, as are all sports, is now covered with such a fine-toothed comb that no aspect of a player’s personal life is left uninvestigated. One of the first movies to address the psychological dimensions of an athlete was Fear Strikes Out (1957), based on the true story of Red Sox outfielder Jim Piersall’s nervous breakdown and subsequent recovery.

Piersall (Peter J. Votrian as a child) grows up in a lower middle-class household in Waterbury, Connecticut as a diehard Red Sox fan. His father, John (Karl Malden) is extremely overbearing in pushing his son towards a major league career even at a very young age. His mother (Perry Wilson) is a very high-strung woman, and it is mentioned that she has had certain time “away” from the family, implying stays in mental institutions. With the genes of his mother and the pressure of his father, it is no wonder that Jim’s head becomes a pressure cooker.

Nevertheless, he is a talented ballplayer, and we see him grown up as a high schooler (Anthony Perkins) drafted by his beloved Red Sox. Instead of showing pride and joy, his father puts relentless pressure on him to make the majors in one year and not to “rot in the minors.” When John visits Jim for the first time in Scranton, where the Red Sox have a minor league team, Jim tells him that he is third in the league in average. “Well, it’s not first,” John replies. John also has the strange habit of constantly using the word “we” in regards to Jim’s playing career, as in “We’re going to make it to the majors.” Of course, when Jim is perceived to have failed at something, it is no longer “we,” but “you.” Malden does a terrific job with what could be the stock role of the pushy father. He is certainly crazed some of the time, but he often engages in his overbearing behavior calmly, with a smile in his face. This is just the way he thinks a son should be raised, and it will take a breakdown to see how wrong he is.

We start to see some mental instability in Jim early in the movie. He never seems entirely comfortable around his teammates, and the director, Robert Mulligan (in his debut film) carefully builds evidence that there is something seriously wrong with him. We see slight grimaces or headaches in what should be happy moments. Then we see how certain noises burrow themselves in Jim’s head. He meets a nurse named Mary (Norma Moore) at the ballpark one day. Despite a very stilted courtship, he manages to win her over and they marry and have a baby daughter. The sound of his baby crying is used as an added element of stress in his life. Other ominous noises include his neighbor’s radio loudly playing reports of the high expectations that the Red Sox have for their local boy, and the crowd noises during his major league debut at Fenway Park. Also adding to the pressure on him is that Red Sox manager/general manager Joe Cronin (Bart Burns) wants to move him from his natural position in the outfield to shortstop. It is around this time that Jimmy starts to show serious signs of mental illness, combining some of the obsessive repeating of words we saw from Howard Hughes in The Aviator and the paranoia of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. He gets into a fight with one of his teammates after berating him for not being a productive player, exhibiting some of the same behavior as his father.

Cronin benches and then suspends Jim for the fight, and to lessen the pressure on his obviously high-strung player, reinstates him as an outfielder. The breakdown occurs, in a frightening scene, after an inside-the-park home run, when he manically circles the bases, and then starts wailing, “Was it good enough for you?” over and over as he scales the netting behind home plate. (In real life, according to Wikipedia, his breakdown was not this dramatic; this was one of the distortions of fact that caused the real Piersall to disassociate himself from the movie.) Teammates and then policemen restrain him, as his wife and parents look on in fear. He is placed in a mental hospital, under the care of the firm but competent Doctor Brown (Adam Williams). At first, he is a twitching mess, but after some electroshock treatments (in the pre-One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest days) and therapy sessions with the doctor, he starts to improve.

John realizes what a horrible father he has been, and Jim, with the help of his loyal wife, finds the strength to soldier on. He recovers and returns to the majors. Jim Piersall played 15 more seasons in the majors, including making two All-Star teams and finishing in the Top 10 in MVP voting five times (according to

The best part of this very good film is the amazing performance by Anthony Perkins as the adult Jim. He does such a good job of conveying the constant stress that he feels both from others and within himself. We can see why Perkins was chosen three years later to play the most unhinged character in movie history, Norman Bates in Psycho. Now, mental illness is less of a taboo, but in the staid 1950s, even addressing this subject was a way to make waves. For this reason, the movie’s relatively unvarnished look at what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder makes it an important achievement even to this day.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan," appears alternate Fridays.


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