If you're looking for a good baseball movie, don't get your hopes up for "Fear Strikes Out," the 1957 biopic staring Anthony Perkins as Boston Red Sox shortstop and outfielder Jimmy Piersall. The baseball scenes are OK — sports cliche piled upon sports cliche, so it's all comfortably familiar — but the film's depiction of Piersall's struggles with bipolar disorder is embarrassingly dated and glaringly unenlightened.
At one time, the movie could have been recommended just for being daring enough to address a topic most people in the 1950s would have preferred to keep in the shadows. People with profound mental illness were misunderstood, shunned and mistreated, so the afflicted kept silent out of a sense of shame, and the condition was a dirty secret nobody wanted to talk about. It took some courage even to make the movie.
But it gets so much so wrong. For example, it blames Piersall's father, a driven, unyielding man, for pushing him into mental illness with his relentless demands for Piersall to excel. Certainly there can be triggers for mental illness, but to blame it on a relationship makes as much sense as blaming diabetes on sibling rivalry. Mental illness is caused not by other people, but by chemical imbalances. It's a brain disorder, not an emotional condition or personality defect.
That's why a scene late in the movie between Piersall and his father (played by Karl Malden) is so cringe-inducing. The father sneaks into Jimmy's room and tries to persuade him to leave:
"What's the sense of hanging around here when you've got a family that can give you everything you need? C'mon, Jim, you stick around here and they'll make you an invalid for life. You've got to fight this thing, Jim, just fight it. Start feeling sorry for yourself and you're through. That's what the sports writers are saying, that you're through. That you're washed up."
Shake it off. Get over it. You're tough, so just fight it. You're better than this, so don't let us down or embarrass us. Look at us, we're all normal, and you can be, too, if you just try hard enough.
Sadly enough, that is not just a 1950s response to mental illness. I know from my friends and loved ones who have struggled with the disease that such a reaction is still common. Too many people today still seem to feel that being mentally ill is somehow a choice and that, therefore, one can simply choose not to be mentally ill as well. Sure, and just go shake off that broken arm, too — we know you can do it!
Jimmy Piersall died Saturday at the age of 87, and the sportswriters all note his "brilliant but erratic" career. Most note his "prickly" character that led to a lot of on- and off-field "antics" and a few even try to understand the depths of his despair. He was "an outrageous clown as a rookie in 1952 with the Boston Red Sox. He mocked opposing players, made bizarre gestures while running the bases, harangued umpires and fought with his teammates."
One of the youngest players in baseball, "Jimmy began to hit his stride in 1952 but his unpredictable personality (a shy, nervous nature combined with a quick temper and raging ego — he liked to refer to himself as 'The Waterbury Wizard') constantly aggravated his teammates and management and it finally resulted in a complete mental collapse."
Piersall played just 56 games before checking into a mental hospital. "He was diagnosed with manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, and treated with shock therapy and lithium. He would go on to play 17 seasons in the majors, still edgy and antic at times, but never as troubled again as during that first rookie year."
In 1955 he made the courageous decision (especially for that time) to go public with his condition, writing the book on which the movie was based. He wanted people to understand that mental illness is "just that — an illness — and not a shameful personal defect." He wanted people to know it can be treated, managed and even cured.
His courage helped pull mental illness out of the shadows and began the long process of removing the social stigma attached to it.
Alas, that task is still not finished. There are still people today — in this enlightened year of 2017 — who are deathly afraid that their mental illness will be discovered at work, because they know they will be fired if it is. Oh, the company will get creative and find a more legitimate-sounding reason for the termination,l but everyone will know the truth: Mental illness is still a fireable offense. You probably have worked (or are still) with some of those silent sufferers.
So maybe I should upgrade my review of "Fear Strikes Out" from a lukewarm two stars to a "nice try" three stars. It got a lot wrong, but it was a pioneer, and pioneers often go in the wrong direction. But at least their fearlessness can inspire their progeny to keep looking for the right direction.