Written by Jimmy Piersall, Ted Berkman, and Raphael Blau
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Today’s parents could take a few lessons from Fear Strikes Out. I’ve seen, all too often, parents who place incredible pressure on their kids at a time when they are participating in sports they should be enjoying. Just this past week we had a hockey group in town for a tournament cancel their reservation at our hotel because they were afraid the boys would be distracted from their tournament by our waterpark. Heaven forbid the kids actually have fun. It’s more important to win than actually enjoy our lives. What sort of message are we sending?
Fear Strikes Out is the story of Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall (portrayed as an adult by Anthony Perkins). Karl Malden is his father, John, who hasn’t had it easy. He drives his young son with an intensity so bad the boy hurts his hands playing catch despite wearing a glove. Even in high school, while the rest of the team is celebrating a state championship, John is pointing out everything he did wrong instead of basking in the victory.
Compounding it all is the guilt. All of John’s hopes and dreams are on his son. When Jim goes skating with friends and hurts his ankle, his father has a heart attack and Jimmy feels he’s the cause.
As Jim feels the pressure on him to make it to the Red Sox following one season in the minors, he begins to act strangely. No one else notices it, not his new wife, Mary (portrayed by Norma Moore), nor his parents, but he begins to experience a sort of psychosis.
Once he does make it to the team, in the shortstop position instead of in the outfield, he gets a reputation for fighting with his teammates and being belligerent. It results in his being benched and suspended. When he returns the pressure is almost unbearable on him and he ends up snapping and having a breakdown in a very famous scene.
Following the breakdown, Jim ends up in a mental hospital and receives electro-shock treatments. He is paranoid about everyone and everything. A visit from Mary is disastrous. His doctor (portrayed by Adam Williams) seems to have a good idea of the source of many of Jim’s problems and prevents John from visiting his son. Eventually, John disregards the doctor’s advice and sneaks into his son’s room. Jim finally lets loose on his father.
Anthony Perkins is marvelous as Jimmy Piersall. It’s no wonder he was later tapped for the role in Psycho as his portrayal of Piersall’s descent into mental illness is riveting. He doesn’t overdo it as the pressure mounts and the illness grows. Instead, the signs are there but it is obvious Jim is trying to suppress them from all. Despite the close relationship he shares with his father, what’s happening is not something he can confide in him.
That’s the center of the story; the relationship between father and son. It would be easy to characterize John Piersall as some sort of monster who drove his son insane, but it really doesn’t come off that way. John believes in his son and wants what’s best for him. That’s the sad part because John truly thinks all his pressure and pushing on his son is good for him. It’s easy to see why Jim forgives him in the long run, and the two manage to work together.
Karl Malden is excellent as John. It would have been easy to have the character descend into a parent easily dismissed as abusive and looking to use his son for his own gain. In the beginning, this does seem to be the case. However, as the movie unfolds, it’s obvious that John does love and care for his son and the problem is more in his ignorance of the effect of his parenting techniques on Jimmy. One of the most powerful scenes for John is when he’s on the receiving end of Jim’s tirade and just the expression on his face when he leaves the institution. It’s a sort of shell shock for the father who had no clue he was being anything but supportive of his son.
The pace of the film is good. Director Robert Mulligan unfolds the events that lead to the breakdown slowly so that the pace leading up to it builds nicely. Jim’s time in the mental institution is also shown to be something that takes time. It’s not a matter of he pops in, has a few conversations with the doctor, and is out playing ball again. There are confrontations he must have, including with his father. Realizations about the pressure that he’s been under come to him slowly during the course of a few conversations with the doctor. Adam Williams portrays the doctor as stoic with his patient, but concerned enough to try to prevent John Piersall from doing more damage.
This is a great film that should be shown to all parents who have their children participating in sports. Unfortunately, the ones who need to hear the message will likely be in as much denial as John Piersall about the effect of their behavior on their children.