I can’t think of another actor more apt to play this version of Jimmy Piersall’s story than Anthony Perkins. History reflects a more multifaceted even complicated individual. By other accounts Piersall could be a real cut-up; here the story is very singular-minded in how it portrays its protagonist. It’s played for the drama which it no doubt was but you get to wondering if Piersall had written the script it might have turned out to be more of a comedy.
Robert Mulligan’s film suggests there are arguably the two most important people in Piersall’s life. The first is his father (Karl Malden) who from an early age instills his boy with the onus of making it to the big leagues. That’s the goal and his father watches proudly as his boy becomes a high school star while never letting his son rest on his laurels or let down his guard. He must be constantly vigilant, continually thinking ahead, all in an effort to land a contract with the Red Sox.
He starts out in the minor leagues and there he meets a pretty nurse, the relatively unknown Norma Moore playing the ingenue and his first wife Mary. She makes him deliriously happy and vice versa as they begin to build a life together.
But the conflict at the core of the biopic is Piersall’s own bouts with undiagnosed nervous breakdowns which would be now categorized as bipolar disorder. Put in the context of the era where mental disorders were more often than not left stigmatized and misunderstood, this is actually a fairly fearless film for taking on such source material. But, of course, much of the credit must begin with Piersall himself for being willing to acknowledge it all, to begin with.
Particularly foundational to this film is Jimmy’s ongoing relationship with his father. The scenario happens so often it seems like a cinematic trope but sadly it’s also very close to the truth. It occurs between a parent and their child when they get so vicariously invested and demanding and controlling of their child’s life that they heap so much pressure on them that it becomes nearly an unbearable weight to succeed. Compounded by the fact that these parents are usually trying to realize their own failed talent and never seem to find it within themselves to give their children a pat on the back or a word of encouragement.
You get the sense it was a vicious cycle. Their father never did it for them and so they wind up having a hard time showing any amount of their affection to their kids. It’s something, in this case, that must be earned on the ballfield or in Brian Wilson’s case earned with how many hit records he churned out and composed. Maybe it’s why a parent a la LaVar Ball seems to cherish the spotlight, commanding the media’s attention even more than his boy. Whatever the outcome is, it never seems enough.
It’s purely a testament to Karl Malden’s quality as an actor that he makes Piersall’s father into a nuanced man who is not a holy terror. In fact, even when he doesn’t say it outright we know full well he is proud of his son and he even loves him. He’s not a bad man by any means. That doesn’t make measuring up to his standards any less daunting or his behavior any less damaging.
Though tender and tortured in the everyday moments, Perkins performance on the ballfield feels artificial but you can hardly blame him for lacking the posture or the swagger of a ballplayer where hitting and fielding come as second nature. He looks too much like he’s playing at it — he’s too wooden — not like he’s actually played it his entire life.
Almost uncannily it seems that I find myself at certain movies only after the subjects are gone. Piersall was still a young man in the midst of a baseball career when his story and the subsequent film was made. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 87.
Whether this story is completely true or sensationalized, there’s still an essence of something meaningful here. That we should not be ashamed of our fears and we cannot live life in pursuit of what will earn us the affection of others. It will only succeed in running us into the ground.
That’s why the moment at the end of the film is so fitting, showing Piersall playing a lazy game of catch with his dad. There’s no agenda. No pressure. You simply get the joy of throwing that ball rhythmically again and again perfectly in sync with the person across from you. I’ve done it many a time with my own father and I permanently retired from the game after being little league champions in middle school. Still, I love baseball for those very simple pleasures that it offers.