The summer of 1980 was brutal.
A heatwave swept across the southeast which resulted in nearly 150 deaths across seven states. From Alabama to Texas and up to Missouri, people looked for any relief they could find. The search became more difficult when temperatures caused roads to buckle in many states. Wichita Falls reached a record 113 degrees and Little Rock, Arkansas saw temps of more than 100 degrees as well, which was cited by the Poultry Foundation as the cause of death for nearly two and a half million chickens.
Perhaps the only thing hotter than the weather was the temper of White Sox broadcaster and part-time outfield coach Jimmy Piersall. Prior to the Sox July 2nd home game against the Angels, Piersall sought out Arlington Heights Daily Herald writer Bob Gallas to “discuss” his story about Piersall’s dismissal as the a part-time unpaid outfield coach.
As a player, Jimmy Piersall had a much-publicized mental breakdown that became the basis for the 1957 film, Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony Perkins. A two-time All-Star selection, Piersall’s mercurial behavior made him tough to deal with for both teammates and management.
Tony La Russa and the Sox felt it was a conflict of interest for Piersall to coach players and then go to the booth and criticize their play, so after polling the players he informed Piersall of the decision.
Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Sox Owner Bill Veeck had been trying to get rid of Piersall as a broadcaster because he felt he was too critical of the players. Piersall responded that he could say whatever he wanted, including taking shots at Veeck’s wife, Mary Frances, on a local radio show, calling her “a colossal bore” and suggesting she should stay in the kitchen.
Piersall was upset about losing his coaching position but when Gallas’ article made it public knowledge, Piersall confronted him in the clubhouse and the two exchanged words. Piersall backed away as if to leave, then spun and started choking Gallas.
“Jimmy jumped him; I saw it because it was right in front of the trainer’s room,” said Sox trainer Herm Schneider. “Gallas started turning blue in the face. Ross (Baumgarten)… and a security guard finally pulled Piersall off. Gallas certainly didn’t swing first. He was taken completely by surprise.”
Jimmy Piersall’s troubles didn’t end there. Once Veeck was informed of the incident, he sent his son, Mike to the broadcast booth to confront Piersall.
“When I walked in, I gave him a dedicated introductory statement as to my intentions,” said the younger Veeck. “I didn’t want it to look like Cowens’ sneak attack on Farmer. I said I wanted him to look at someone his own size.”
No sooner did Mike Veeck enter the booth and “announce his intentions” were he and Piersall involved in a scuffle that took Piersall’s broadcast partner Rich King and two writers to break up. In addition to potential embarrassment to his father’s baseball team, Mike Veeck’s intensity was most certainly ratcheted up by Piersall’s comments about his mother.
Piersall left the stadium and spent the night in a local hospital with what Sox officials termed, “exhaustion.”
The first half of the season was not kind to Daily Herald baseball writers. In spring training, Dave Kingman dumped a bucket of ice water on Daily Herald writer Don Friske. Kingman called the incident “a joke,” but Friske didn’t take it as such.
About the only person not affected by the pregame fracas was Baumgarten. After breaking up a fight in the clubhouse, he then threw a one-hit complete game shutout. The only hit Bumgarten surrendered was a seventh inning single off the bat of Rod Carew, who was given a reprieve after left fielder Wayne Nordhagen dropped his foul pop fly.
“It hit me in a bad spot,” said Nordhagen. “Right in the hand – U.S. Steel.”
The outing proved to be a highlight in an otherwise dismal season for Baumgarten, who finished the year 2-12. It wasn’t a good year for Veeck and the White Sox, but there was often a lot of excitement on the South Side.