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FEAR STRIKES OUT (director: Robert Mulligan; screenwriters: from the book by Albert S. Hirschberg & Jimmy Piersall/Ted Berkman/ Raphael Blau; cinematographer: Haskell B. Boggs; editor: Aaron Stell; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Anthony Perkins (Jimmy Piersall), Peter J. Votrian (Young, Jimmy Piersall), Karl Malden (John Piersall), Norma Moore (Mary Piersall), Adam Williams (Doctor Brown), Perry Wilson (Mrs. John Piersall); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alan J. Pakula; Paramount; 1957)
“Harkens back to a simpler time in baseball, where there were no steroids just eccentric players.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Harkens back to a simpler time in baseball, where there were no steroids just eccentric players. In 1960 Anthony Perkins played a deranged motel clerk in Psycho, but a few years before that he took batting practice for that role by playing a deranged ball player in the 1957 Fear Strikes Out. It’s based on the true story of Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins), a star centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox. It makes an error on the baseball part such as getting the Red Sox manager wrong — falsely telling us Joe Cronin is the manager instead of Pinky Higgins (Cronin was the general manager). But it gets its melodramatic story right of a child growing up in a needy Waterbury, Connecticut Catholic household with a domineering father John (Karl Malden), whom he wanted to please at all costs, and a mentally unstable mother (Perry Wilson).

Interestingly enough, the film came out in 1957 in the prime of Piersall’s illustrious fifteen year baseball career (Piersall’s breakdown took place in 1952 and he fully recovered in 1953 after being institutionalized; in 1954 he became the regular centerfielder taking over for Dom DiMaggio). The great fielder and fiery ballplayer finished his career a much looser person. His career was characterized by numerous zany stunts, including hiding behind the monuments at Yankee Stadium while with the Indians and running backward around the bases after hitting his 100th career homer as a Met in 1963. Upon retirement he became a baseball announcer for the Chicago White Sox, but the outspoken and controversial Piersall was ultimately fired for criticizing management.

Robert Mulligan (“Up the Down Staircase”/”Bloodbrothers”) makes his film debut after doing TV dramas. He makes this baseball tale into a clinical drama involving a father and son conflict, with heavy Freudian Oedipal implications over the son’s delicate psyche and the father’s tyrannical behavior of never easing up from pressuring him to succeed in baseball. It’s based on the autobiography of Jimmy Piersall as written by sports journalist Al Hirschberg; the writers are Ted Berkman and Raphael Blau. It was the first of seven Mulligan collaborations with Perkins, though the two worked together previously on TV.

It traces Jimmy’s childhood days of dedicating his life to improving his skills in baseball, following his father’s dreams to play for the Red Sox, getting signed to a minor league contract by the Red Sox, while with the Scranton club marrying local girl nurse Mary (Norma Moore) and getting called up to the Bigs by general manager Cronin. Piersall freaks out when told by Cronin he’s to play shortstop because the team has too many good outfielders. The pressure finally gets to Piersall and he goes ape on the field after hitting a homer. Treated at the mental institution by Dr. Brown, it’s uncovered that his battle with schizophrenia is due to his father’s aggressive and autocratic behavior. It only points out the obvious and probes no further, but it was well-acted by a sensitive Perkins and was entertaining.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”