It’s over 15 years since Rick Ferrell died, a few months shy of his 90th birthday.
Time hasn’t dimmed my memories of the dignified gentleman and Hall of Famer who worked in and for baseball until he was 87. The first time I met Ferrell was in 1983 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. It was the 50th anniversary of the very first All-Star Game, held in 1933 in the very same ballpark. All living members from the 1933 American League and National League squads who were healthy and able came to the festivities.
Ferrell, who caught all nine innings of the inaugural event, was the Red Sox representative and batted in the same lineup that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He wore a Red Sox uniform that sunny day in 1983 for the old-timers game held the day before the All-Star Game.
We had a short chat and Ferrell posed for a picture. I didn’t know it then but it would mark the first of hundreds of conversations we’d have and the picture would be used in a biography published in 2010 titled Rick Ferrell, Knuckleball Catcher.
Ferrell was a baseball lifer. He had a stellar career as a catcher for the St. Louis Browns, Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators from 1929 through 1947. He called the pitches against and crouched behind the greats – Ruth, Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg.
Irwin Cohen took this photo of Rick Ferrell a day before
the 1983 All-Star Game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park
After his playing career, during which he posted a .281 average and was a defensive great, Ferrell took several positions with the Detroit Tigers. He stayed in uniform as a coach and then moved into the front office. He scouted, became head of the minor leagues and, eventually, general manager.
When I met him, Rick had the title of executive consultant for the Tigers. On the last day of December1992, Rick, 87 at the time, resigned.
I had joined the Tigers front office at the end of 1983, after about 10 years of covering the game and its people, and it was then that I really got to know Rick.
On days he wasn’t out of town scouting for possible trades or getting information on opposing hitters to convey to Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, Ferrell would be one of the early arrivals at Tiger Stadium.
Department heads would gather in the second floor dining room of the three- floored front office building attached to the stadium’s right field corner. About ten of us from the baseball and business side would gather around the large round table for the morning shmooze fest. Topics would include politics, current events and baseball.
I usually parked near or next to Ferrell on the days he’d be there. Many times before others arrived, I had him one-on-one. He never boasted, bragged or brought up the old days. I had to steer the conversation in that direction.
One morning I asked him about what kind of person Moe Berg was. Berg, if you recall, was also a catcher in the 1930s and later spied for the United States while on a baseball tour of Japan. Berg, who became the subject of several articles and books, was always known as baseball’s mystery man.
“I roomed with Moe while we played for Boston,” Ferrell recalled. “He was the smartest man I ever met. We didn’t have air conditioning in the hotels in those days and we’d be outside most of the time. Not Moe; he’d stay in the bathtub as long as he could and had a bunch of newspapers on the rim to read. He didn’t want anyone to touch the papers before he read them. As far as friends on the team, he hung around the writers more, but we all liked him. He would have made a great coach as he was good at giving instruction to young players.”
Ferrell saw a lot of history while in uniform. He was a member of the visiting Washington Senators when Lou Gehrig made his famous goodbye speech at Yankee Stadium in 1939.
“When Lou finished and walked off the field,” Ferrell said, “he asked me, ‘How’d I do?’ I said, ‘You did great.’ I had tears in my eyes at the time. We all did, for Lou was such a wonderful man.”
Ferrell was the third base coach for the Tigers in 1951 when Eddie Gaedel, the little person who stood at 3-foot-seven, batted for the St. Louis Browns and walked on four pitches. While fans loved the publicity stunt cooked up by Browns owner Bill Veeck, Ferrell didn’t. “It was a travesty of the game,” he said.
Out of uniform, as the general manager of the Tigers in 1959, Ferrell swapped American League batting champ Harvey Kuenn to Cleveland for home run leader Rocky Colavito. The following year, Ferrell was behind the trading of Tigers manager Jimmie Dykes to Cleveland for Indians manager Joe Gordon.
The baseball world was shocked – it was, and still remains, the only time teams have traded managers. Some 30 years later I asked Ferrell about and he explained the logic of it.
“Bill DeWitt was my boss at the time,” he said. “He was tossing names around with Cleveland’s general manager Frank (Trader) Lane. I suggested they trade managers and they loved the idea. Our manager, Jimmie Dykes, was an old friend of mine and I knew DeWitt would let him go after the season. By going to Cleveland, Dykes would get another year or two.”
I always thought Ferrell’s life story would make a great book. Finally, a delightful lady from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Rick’s daughter, Kerrie Ferrell, wrote one. (Check out www.mcfarlandpub.com.)
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Ronald Mayer has authored The 1923 New York Yankees (like the Ferrell bio, this book is published by McFarland), a great read about the team and the times.
The ’23 Yanks won the first of the franchise’s 27 World Championships and Mayer paints a beautiful picture of the players as the year progresses. Lou Gehrig made his debut in June, and, of course, that was the year Yankee Stadium opened.
During each of the three previous seasons (1920-1922), the Yankees had topped the million-attendance mark while their New York Giants landlords at the Polo Grounds did not. Babe Ruth was the main reason as he blasted 148 home runs during that span. Ruth out-homered the entire Giants team in two of those three years.
Sportswriter Fred Lieb tagged the colossal triple-decked new home of the Yankees “The House That Ruth Built.” Ruth responded by batting .393 in 1923 and blasting 41 home runs, a tremendous feat in the dead ball era.
As we follow the fortunes of the Yankees as they march to their first World Series victory, we learn that the average salary in the United States was $1,393 per year. Mayer also tells us that a first-class postage stamp in 1923 was two cents. A copy of the New York Daily News cost four cents, a loaf of bread was nine cents, a quart of milk 14 cents and a dozen eggs 24 cents.
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Speaking of books, Maury Allen, best known in his role as sportswriter for the New York Post, died recently at age 78. Allen, who wrote 38 sports related books, was one of my columnists in the late 1970s when I operated a national baseball monthly.
Maury, a real mensch, gets a big mention in my upcoming book about my time in the press boxes, clubhouses and front office.
Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, hopes to have his eighth book ready for you within two months. Cohen, who already is working on book number nine, is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul. He can be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.