Jimmy Piersall was a funny guy, but there is nothing funny about mental illness

It was in the autumn of 1964 and, as we gathered around our TV set with the black-and-white screen and rabbit ears to watch Hockey Night in Canada, we were puzzled.

Frank Mahovlich, the Big M of the Toronto Maple Leafs, wouldn’t be playing that night.

The Big M, Frank Mahovlich

None of the talking heads (I can’t recollect if it was Foster or Bill Hewitt calling the game, or if it was Ward Cornell or Ed Fitkin as the studio host) provided us with the definitive why and wherefore of the Big M’s absence from the Leafs lineup, except to say something about fatigue. Mahovlich was plum tuckered out. The remainder of the story was a mystery.

How can Mahovlich be tired?” the 13-year-old version of my former self wondered. “The season has just started.”

As history records, the Big M was bedded down in a Toronto hospital that night, a victim of depression. Acute depression. The Leafs and their tyrannical head coach Punch Imlach, later identified as the main source of Mahovlich’s emotional undoing, had to get along without him for a month. And there was always a hush-hushness about his absence. Mental illness, you see, was among the taboo topics of the day. Most folks didn’t talk about their “crazy uncle in the attic.” It was looked upon not as an illness, but a weakness, if not an embarrassment. And, in the case of a National Hockey League star like Mahovlich, any whisper of mental frailty implied a softness, which seldom found favor with fans or media and certainly not Imlach.

The abrupt, abrasive Leafs’ dictator once said this of Mahovlich: “Hockey is a streetcar named desire and too many days Ma-hal-o-vich doesn’t catch the train.”

The Big M, whose life under Imlach seemed so much like a Shakespearean tragedy, managed to flee the tyrant and the Leafs, but not before surviving a second major bout of depression, exactly three years after the first. His escape led him to Detroit, then Montreal, where he played a significant role in two Stanley Cup-winning crusades, then the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Canadian Senate and, by most accounts, a happily-ever-after life.

I thought of Mahovlich when I heard about Roberto Osuna, the Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher who booked off work the other night because he’s been feeling “a little bit anxious, a little bit weird, a little bit lost” and doesn’t know why (been there, felt that). I also thought of the late Jimmy Piersall, the original poster boy for athletes dealing with mental illness.

Piersall was 22 years old and 56 games into his rookie Major League Baseball season when the Boston Red Sox thought it wise to have his head examined, thus they sent him to a mental hospital, whereupon medics probed the young centre fielder’s mind and determined what to do about his bipolar disorder.

Jimmy Piersall ran the bases backwards after hitting his 100th home run in 1963.

Unlike the Mahovlich situation, there was nothing hush-hush about Piersall’s descent into depression. He wrote a book with Al Hirshberg, Fear Strikes Out, which became a TV movie then a feature film, and he followed with his 1985 memoir, The Truth Hurts. People called him an oddball, a kook and a basket case because of his antics and fits of rage that would sometimes lead to fisticuffs. He labeled himself “crazy” and a “gooney bird” and confirmed it by running the bases backwards after hitting his 100th career home run, shimmying up a flag pole during a game and wearing a Beatles wig to home plate.

I remember reading Fear Strikes Out as a teenager and thinking, “Wow, this guy has some serious issues. But he’s funny.”

When his issues struck close to home—visiting a family member in a psych ward and hearing a heavy, metal door clank shut and locked tight—Jimmy Piersall didn’t seem so funny anymore. When I was confronted by my own mental challenges—blackouts from anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation, uncontrollable crying, elaborate mood swings, panic attacks—it wasn’t funny at all.

To this day, I sometimes feel like a recluse because the thought of stepping out of doors can be a serious challenge. Like Roberto Osuna, I feel anxious, weird and lost. Also afraid. And that depresses me.

Osuna is 22. So young, so vulnerable, such a shame. But not helpless or hopeless.

Here’s what Piersall wrote in Fear Strikes Out in 1955: “I want the world to know that people like me who have returned from the half-world of mental oblivion are not forever contaminated. We have been sick. The best way to help us get well and stay well is to treat us like human beings—as I’ve been treated. We don’t have to talk about our sickness in whispers or prowl about on the edge of society with our hands to our ears to block out the whispers of others. We have nothing to be ashamed of. All we want is to be understood by those who have never been where we have. There is no better therapy than understanding.”

I’d like to think people will try to understand about Roberto Osuna, even if they’ve never been where he’s at.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.

About the difference between the Jets and Leafs…Sportsnet talking Stanley Cup in the Republic of Tranna…rapping with Rink Rat Scheifele…two gasbags in Pegtown…a five-year plan…and a thank-you to the media

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

I don’t know about you, but while observing the recently concluded skirmish between the pesky, upstart Toronto Maple Leafs and the accomplished Washington Capitals, I kept asking myself the same question: Why not the Winnipeg Jets?

I mean, shouldn’t the Jets be part of the Stanley Cup derby? What do the Leafs have that the local hockey heroes don’t?

Brendan Shanahan

Well, okay, the Leafs have a team president, Brendan Shanahan, who actually performed in the National Hockey League and won the Stanley Cup (make that plural). The Jets have an executive chairman, Mark Chipman, who once sold cars and whose sole claim to fame as a jock was participating in one Canadian Football League exhibition game before being cut by legendary coach Cal Murphy.

So there’s that.

What else? Well, the Leafs have a general manager, Lou Lamoriello, who has won the Stanley Cup (make that plural). And they have a head coach, Mike Babcock, whose name is also etched on hockey’s holy grail and whose resume includes Olympic Games gold medals (yes, plural). The Jets, meanwhile, have Kevin Cheveldayoff and Paul Maurice, winners of zero Stanley Cups as GM and head coach, respectively.

So there’s that, too.

Anything else? Well, there’s goaltending. The Leafs have it in Frederik Andersen. The Jets don’t.

Oh, one more thing: The Leafs have one pain in the ass (see: Kadri, Nazem) who can also score 30 goals, and another pain in the ass (see: Komarov, Uncle Leo) who’s basically a nasty rash on every opponent’s skin. The Jets most definitely do not have a pain in the ass, never mind two.

What about Auston Matthews you say? The Leafs have him. The Jets don’t. Fine. Except when I looked at the NHL scoring leaders at the close of regular-season business, only six players were ahead of Mark Scheifele and none of them was named Auston Matthews. (The separation between Matthews and Scheifele—today, not 10 years from now—is as thin as the sparse playoff whiskers on the Toronto rookie’s chinny-chin-chin.)

Lou Lamoriello

As for the rest of the on-ice personnel…if you say Jake Gardiner, I say Jacob Trouba. If you say Morgan Rielly, I say Dustin Byfuglien. If you say Nikita Zaitsev, I say Josh Morrissey. If you say Mitch Marner, I say Patrik Laine. If you say William Nylander, I say Nikolaj Ehlers. If you say Tyler Bozak, I say Bryan Little. If you say James van Riemsdyk, I say Blake Wheeler. Etcetera, etcetera.

Clearly, the Jets are more than a talent match, the exceptions being one goaltender and two pains in the ass. So, again, why were they not part of the playoff hijinks this spring like the Leafs?

I’ll let you discuss that among yourselves, but I suggest you start at the top of the totem pole by asking how involved Puck Pontiff Chipman is in the day-to-day operation of the Jets, then work your way down to ice level, specifically behind the bench.

You’ll probably find your answers there.

Only in the Republic of Tranna: The Leafs qualify for the postseason party for the second time in 12 years and Sportsnet, which often reads like a Maple Leafs blog, is already talking about a Stanley Cup in The 416. “Maple Leafs need to strike while in unique Stanley Cup window” is the headline on a piece by Chris Johnson, who advises us that the Leafs “are currently much closer to behaving like a Stanley Cup contender than they’re comfortable admitting publicly.” I believe the last time I heard Maple Leafs and Stanley Cup used in the same sentence, Punch Imlach was still coaching, Humpty Harold Ballard had yet to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and Trudeau the First was still playing second fiddle to Lester Pearson.

Rink Rat Scheifele

Speaking of Sportsnet, they actually managed to squeeze a piece featuring somebody other than one of the Maple Leafs onto their website. True story. Luke Fox had a lengthy and insightful tete-a-tete with Rink Rat Scheifele and, by all accounts, it was a pain-free exercise for the young centre. Imagine that. One of the Jets doing the chin-wag thing without a team PR flack lurking in the background.

Among the interesting nuggets in the Fox-Scheifele to-and-fro was this: “You never sewer a teammate,” said the Jets assistant captain. He might want to mention that to Mathieu Perreault, who doesn’t hesitate to toss his comrades, most notably the goaltenders, under a convenient bus. For his part, the Rink Rat had this to say about the much-maligned men tasked with the duty of stopping pucks for the Jets—Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson: “There’s always something that happens before a goal, and the goalies are just the last line. They take the brunt of the blame because they’re goalies and that’s what they signed up for and they’re crazy like that. But you can’t point the blame at our goaltenders. They both worked hard and never gave up on us. We all have to take blame for our weakness.”

I’m not sure what to make of this, but Kevin Chevldayoff and Paul Maurice are hot-aired gasbags compared to their counterparts with the Maple Leafs. Here’s the scorecard from their season-over chin-wags with news snoops:

Cheveldayoff: 47 minutes, 37 seconds.
Maurice: 26:45.
Lou Lamoriello: 10:36.
Babcock: 8:49.
Combined totals:
Cheveldayoff/Maurice—1 hour, 14 minutes, 22 seconds.
Lamoriello/Babcock—19 minutes, 25 seconds.

I guess the Jets brass had more explaining to do. Either that or they just had a whole lot more smoke to blow up the media’s butt.

Mike Babcock

I find it interesting that Shanahan, Lamoriello and Babcock don’t hesitate to put themselves on the clock. That is to say, Lamoriello went on record as saying the Leafs are operating on “a five-year plan.” In other words, Leafs Nation can expect to see a perennial playoff participant by then (they’re now two years into the plan). Puck Pontiff Chipman and Cheveldayoff, meanwhile, have never dared to offer Jets devotees a similar time frame on their “process.” What are they afraid of?

Here’s another interesting comparison between the outlooks of the two teams: Asked about the Leafs roster next season compared to that which was eliminated in six games by the Capitals, Babcock said, “There’ll be changes.” Maurice answered a similar question by saying next season’s Jets are “gonna look an awful lot like this team but five months older.” Pushing forward in TO, same old-same old in Pegtown.

Got a kick out of Lamoriello’s parting words to the assembled news snoops in the Republic of Tranna: “Thank you for making it an enjoyable year.” I think he was serious. Who in professional sports does that?

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.