Fear Strikes Out (1957)
Fear Strikes Out might be one of the few baseball movies to feature very little baseball. No games are depicted in full; there are no exciting montages of teams winning or losing, and there’s little romantic aggrandizement of America’s pastime. Yet the film also purports to tell the true story of a great ball-player, and deals openly and honestly with the pressure that comes with being a sports star.
Fear Strikes Out tells the story of real-life outfielder Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins), who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1953-58. Piersall had a public breakdown during the 1952 season, entering a mental hospital where he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The film is based on Piersall’s autobiography, and elides over some of the less charming aspects of his personality (including one instance where he spanked a teammate’s four year old child in the Red Sox clubhouse). This is perhaps the story as Piersall would like it to be known, about a talented outfielder beset by familial pressures and mental illness. As such, it might behoove us to take the historical accuracy of the film with a grain of salt.
Passing the sketchy biographical details, what we have left is a drama with a baseball background. The film opens with the adolescent Piersall at home in Waterbury, Connecticut, where he’s already a driven baseball player. He’s both encouraged and dominated by his father (Karl Malden), a former ball player who never made it to the majors. Raised with only baseball on his mind, Jimmy grows up to be a socially awkward young man but a brilliant player, attracting the attention of Red Sox scouts during his senior year of high school. He’s drafted and heads off to Scranton to learn how to play in the majors, where he meets apparently the only positive force in his life: Mary (Norma Moore), who becomes his wife.
As Jimmy moves towards the majors, though, his nervousness and self-criticism (fueled by his father) become more pronounced. Terrified of failure, he also cannot celebrate his own success – he loves baseball, but does not seem to have any fun on or off the field. His constant refrain is that he’s not good enough. He fails to make the Red Sox right out of Scranton, but when he’s finally drafted as a shortstop (instead of an outfielder, which he was trained for), he nearly has a breakdown. The paranoia only increases when he actually becomes a major league player, clashing with his teammates and coaches, constantly frightened of judgement and inadequacy.
The center of the film is of course Tony Perkins, who plays Piersall with the same haunted gaze and tragic aura that would make him so effective as Norman Bates, three years later. Jimmy never seems relaxed, standing or playing with hunched shoulders, his body tight and face taut with controlled emotion. He builds slowly from a nervous boy to a man in the throes of total collapse without overacting the part – and his breakdown, when it comes, is both expected and heartbreaking, as he shrieks into the stands, begging to be told he’s good enough.
Karl Malden as John Piersall has the unenviable task of making a controlling man into more than caricature. He pulls it off though, imbuing the domineering father with a sense of tragedy all his own. The viewer never doubts that he loves his son, or that he is the main actor in Jim’s mental collapse. He and Jim share an intense, co-dependent relationship that luckily never makes one or the other of them overly sympathetic. It would have been easy to turn John Piersall into the villain of the piece, and Malden helps to keep that from happening.
The women of the film are minor characters, and as such are fairly lackluster. Jimmy’s mother, whose own mental illness is briefly hinted at, is a non-entity, while his wife Mary is both his major supporter and a little too forgiving of all the men around her. One has the impression that she recognizes the over-dominance of the father early on, but seems incapable of even suggesting to her husband that he sever ties.
The only truly glaring flaw in Fear Strikes Out comes when Jimmy finally makes it to the Red Sox. The movie makes it appear as though the Red Sox manager is taking a lot from a rookie ballplayer – a young man who cannot get through a game without insulting or instructing his own teammates, and even begins a fight in the dugout. We’re made to understand that the Red Sox continue to put up with Jimmy because he’s a brilliant ballplayer, but his brilliance is rarely in evidence on the field. A few longer sequences of Piersall actually playing ball, proving just how good he really is, and it would have been easier to accept that a major league team would keep him for as long as they did.
The flaws of the film could be put down to the relative inexperience of director Robert Mulligan. Fear Strikes Out was his first feature film in a career primarily focused on television. Mulligan would go on to direct some excellent, if maudlin, films, including To Kill A Mockingbird and Inside Daisy Clover. He makes excellent use of aural and visual cues that set the viewer on the field beside Jimmy, focalizing scenes through him in an experience of nerves and paranoia. Unfortunately, his directing does nothing to expand upon an understanding of Jimmy’s talents as well as his fatal flaws.
An early and honest examination of mental illness, in the context of one of America’s most beloved sports, Fear Strikes Out largely avoids maudlin sentimentality or easy answers. It also reminded me that baseball is the most individual of team sports. We focus on stats of individual players as much as we focus on whole teams, and scream to take players out of the game. Attention falls onto a batter, a pitcher, a fielder, and a single mistake can make or break a game (and a career). It’s an aggressive, quiet, strange sport, and aggressive, quiet, strange men have to play it.