Jimmy Piersall’s “Williams Shift”

July 23, 1960


Following in the long tradition of baseball clowns that stretches back to Al Schacht to Germany SchaeferJimmy Piersall‘s seventeen-year tenure in the big leagues spanned the spectrum from the ridiculous to the sublime. To wit: while he is perhaps best remembered for running the bases backwards to celebrate his 100th home run, Casey Stengel once ranked Piersall’s outfield glovework above that of the great Joe DiMaggio.

Piersall burst on the scene with the Boston Red Sox in 1952, employing a grab-bag of antics that alternately amused fans and infuriated opponents. An early victim of Piersall’s shenanigans was St. Louis Browns hurler Satchel Paige, who took a 9-5 lead against Boston to the ninth only to face Piersall, who loudly announced he was going to bunt. Not only did Piersall make good on his promise; he beat the throw to first and began to mimic the crafty righthander’s every move. When Paige wound up, Piersall wound up, and each time Paige released the ball Piersall let out a piggish squeal loud enough to be heard in both teams’ dugouts. Completely distracted, Paige surrendered six runs and the ballgame.

INSTITUTIONALIZED AFTER SUFFERING A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN late in the season, Piersall returned in 1953, silencing a hostile crowd with a 6-for-6 outing in his first game back. After cracking a lineup that had temporarily lost Ted Williams to the Korean War, the quirky outfielder’s defensive smarts helped him became a Fenway Park fixture even after Williams returned at the end of the season.

Unlike Piersall, Williams took baseball extremely seriously. His credo was to leave a legacy as “the greatest hitter who ever lived” and as such he treated each at-bat as if his career depended on it. Knowing that Williams was at his best when he pulled the ball to right field, many managers employed the “Williams Shift” invented by Lou Boudreau in 1946.

When Piersall moved on to the Cleveland Indians in 1960, he decided to try a new type of “shift” on his former teammate. Playing centerfield at Fenway Park thirty-nine years ago today, Piersall scurried back and forth across the outfield while Williams was at bat. The umpires didn’t appreciate the strategy and ejected Piersall for trying to distract the batter.

Piersall, who had already been fined, suspended and ejected five times that season, sprinted in from the outfield to argue plate umpire Ed Hurley’s decision, slamming his glove, cap and sunglasses to the ground during the 10-minute argument. Cleveland manager Joe Gordon and coach Mel Harder joined Piersall in arguing that he had a right to change his position in the field, but soon followed the outfielder to an early shower.

AFTER THE GAME, GORDON TOLD REPORTERS that a $500 fine with which he had previously threatened Piersall would not apply to this incident. Williams finished the day 1-for-3 and socked his second homer in as many days (the 508th of his career) — the next day, 30,415 fans showed up at Fenway to boo Piersall during a Sunday doubleheader.

The Red Sox swept the Indians 10-6 and 7-6, but Piersall put on the biggest show. “Piersall had at least three arguments with the umpires in today’s double-header and during one delay in the game, hid behind the flag pole in center field,” the Associated Press reported. One of the arguments happened when Piersall, the on-deck batter, joined in a dispute over a called strike between teammate Marty Keough and umpire Hank Soar. After narrowly avoiding his second consecutive ejection, Piersall returned to the on-deck circle and announced to the crowd, “and they say I’m crazy,” before taking a few practice golf swings with his bat.

AL President Joe Cronin took notice of Piersall’s behavior over the weekend, and, according to the same AP report, fined him $100 for making an obscene gesture towards the crowd during Saturday’s game. (Piersall later denied the allegations.) Piersall finished the season with a .282 batting average to go with his 18 homers and 66 RBI, winning his second Gold Glove in 1961. He made stops in Washington, Los Angeles, and New York before his retirement in 1967. Piersall worked for a time in the broadcast booth for the White Sox, but his outspoken criticism of club management led to his dismissal.

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