Boo Ferriss

By Benjamin Pomerance

May 24, 2011

One second. That’s all it takes to alter a career. A man pitches from the stretch position, throws an overhand curve in a full count at a crucial point in a midsummer’s game. The same motion he’s used ten thousand times, the same thing he’s done for more than 300 innings in two-and-a-half seasons for the Boston Red Sox.

Except this time is different. As he throws the pitch, something pops in his shoulder. He grimaces, jogs to the dugout, comes back out and pitches the next two innings in pain because “that’s just the way the game is played.” The next day, when the team moves on from Cleveland to Chicago, he can’t even raise that right arm above his head. And that’s it. One moment, and everything changes.

Until that moment, everything seemed to be right in the life of David “Boo” Ferriss. In two years, the pitcher from Shaw, Mississippi, had conquered the American League. Cooperstown might as well have started clearing space for his plaque. When the Red Sox called him up in 1945, he won his first eight starts, then went on to win 13 more for a 21-10 record and Rookie of the Year honors.

The following season, he went 25-6 for one of the finest teams Boston has ever seen, a battering ram of a ballclub that won 104 games and the American League pennant. Entering his third season of major league ball, Boo Ferriss was viewed by teammates, opponents, and sportswriters as the most dominant pitcher in the league, if not all of baseball. Then came that cold July night in Cleveland, the evening when a torn labrum effectively tore down a career that seemed destined to become one of the greatest in baseball history.

Yet speak to Boo Ferriss today, and there is no bitterness, no sadness in the elderly man’s voice. Now 89 years old and living in a small Mississippi town just 10 miles from where he was born, the man who has every reason to agonize over the past speaks only with joy and pride of his time, though too short, living out his boyhood dream.

“I’m mighty blessed,” he says. His rich drawl is strong but raspy at times, traces of the asthma that forced his medical discharge from the U.S. Army months prior to the end of World War II still present. “The game has been mighty good to me. When I was growing up, I always wanted to play in the big leagues, if I could. And I was able to do that. I’m mighty blessed to have been able to do what I dreamed of doing.”

Mention that night in Cleveland, and the career-changing consequences at a time when team doctors didn’t know how to properly treat such an injury, and the answer is always the same. “The Lord just had other plans for me, I guess,” the ex-ballplayer says. “That’s all just water under the bridge now.” Spending hours gritting his teeth over what might have been is simply not his nature. Boo Ferriss has long since packed up and moved on.

He moved on to coaching, first as the pitching coach of the Red Sox for four years and then in college ball, where he spent 26 seasons transforming Division II Delta State University from a marginal baseball program into a national title contender. He compiled a record of 639 wins and only 387 losses over those two-and-a-half decades at Delta State, earning three NCAA regional titles and three trips to the College World Series before retiring in 1988.

“Those were great years,” he states of his time as a college coach. “I loved being able to work with young ballplayers and watching them develop into fine young men. We’re fortunate to live in a great area for baseball talent, and I was fortunate to have so many great ballplayers come play for me at Delta State.”

The former coach still keeps close tabs on his old recruits. He rattles off names and statistics in rapid-fire succession, pointing out how successful many of his players have become in their post-Delta State careers. One of them, catcher Eli Whiteside, even has a World Series ring, a member of last season’s championship-winning San Francisco Giants team. The players still keep close tabs on their skipper, too. “Hardly a day goes by without hearing from a player or two,” Ferriss says. “That’s really nice. So many of them are so good about keeping in touch with me, and I appreciate that.”

Most of those players have families of their own now, he laughs. Many of them are grandparents. Yet they still find time for a letter or a phone call or a visit to their old coach, the man who says his favorite statistic of his coaching career is the graduation rate of his players – an astonishing 92 percent – because “that’s what they were here for: an education.”

This is what dulls the pain of that career-shortening injury decades ago in Ohio. The man who was always regarded as one of the true gentlemen of the game is still surrounded by friends. And to hear him speak, you get the distinct impression that those friends are more valuable to him than any shutout he ever pitched, any victory he ever had.

Yet there were plenty of victories, and plenty of shutouts, too. The first wins came on a vacant lot near the family home in Shaw, where Ferriss' father, William Douglas Ferriss, farmed cotton and taught baseball. William Douglas Ferriss immersed himself in the game as a player, coach, and umpire throughout several counties, and often took his boys with him to watch him work. Still, Boo Ferriss never recalls his father pushing him into playing the game of baseball. If any pushing was done, he remembers, it was of his own making.

“Of course, there was no organized Little League then,” he says. “So my friends and I would go to the open lot by my home, and we’d chose up sides and play.” Often, he continues, if he couldn’t rally the other boys into a game, he’d uncork fastballs at the front steps of his parent’s house, imagining that he was throwing from a mound in the major leagues.

His nickname was born during those formative years, too. “So the story goes,” he says, “I was trying to get my older brother’s attention. This was when I was still awfully young, a toddler. And I couldn’t pronounce the word ‘Brother.’ I was trying to say it, but it came out ‘Boo.’ And I was known as Boo ever since.” He laughs. “I don’t think many people even know my real name anymore.”

In eighth grade, Ferriss began playing regularly for his high school team. A prodigious hitter, he quickly earned a starting job at second base. Then, in his sophomore year, the coach needed a new pitcher, and decided to see how Ferriss fared in a game. The results were more than encouraging. “That was how my pitching career all began,” Ferriss says. “But on days when I didn’t pitch, I still played the infield. I always loved to hit.”

After two more impressive years of high school ball, major league scouts began soliciting Ferriss' services. The Yankees were hot on his trail, as were the New York Giants. “I could’ve signed right out of high school,” he remembers. “Finally, my daddy told all the scouts that they were wasting their time, because I was going to college. That was a good move. I wasn’t ready to play pro ball yet.”

It became an even better move when Ferriss was offered a full scholarship to play at Mississippi State College, the first full ride the program had ever offered to a baseball player. In 1938, with Mississippi still economically crippled by the Great Depression, such an offer was unheard of. “Naturally,” Ferriss laughs, “I accepted. I think I would have been crazy not to.”

He quickly repaid the college’s trust in him. In the classroom, he was an honor student. On the ballfield, he played every day, pitching right-handed and playing first base left-handed. Then, in his senior year, the Japanese military attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the fray of World War II.

Ferriss knew he was likely to be drafted into military service, and realized that time spent at war was also time lost on preparing for his professional baseball career. So he left college one year early, signing with the Red Sox but vowing to finish his degree at a later date – a promise that he kept. “I had to go back to school in the off-season,” he recalls. “But I finished my degree.”

After spending one year pitching for the Red Sox farm club in the Class B Piedmont League, Ferriss received the draft notice he had been expecting all along. Fortunately for him, military life still provided plenty of opportunity to keep his pitching arm in shape. Assigned to Randolph Field in Texas as a physical training instructor in the Army Air Corps, Ferriss was allowed to join a team in the Army Service League, where he was coached by ex-major leaguer Bibb Falk.

The games were fiercely competitive, many of them featuring major league ballplayers who had enlisted or been drafted into the armed forces. Ferriss remembers playing against future Hall of Famer Enos “Country” Slaughter in several games during the summer of 1944. What’s more, he edged out Slaughter for the Service League’s batting title, winding up with a .417 average to go along with his pitching record of 20-8.

Then, in 1945, a severe bout of asthma hospitalized Ferriss and led to his medical discharge. Once out of the Army, he contacted the Red Sox and alerted them that he was available again. The Sox assigned him to their farm team in Louisville, but the young pitcher wouldn’t remain there very long. An exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds took care of that. Unbeknownst to Ferriss, the Reds' manager called Boston skipper Joe Cronin immediately after the game and announced that Ferriss should be pitching at the major league level right away. Cronin sent scouts to Louisville, and the reports were all the same: The right-handed hurler was ready for baseball’s biggest stage.

That spring, Ferriss was preparing for his second start of the season for Louisville when the manager told the pitcher that they needed to talk. “He knocked on my door and told me to pack my bags,” Ferriss remembers. “I was very disappointed, because I was sure that I was being sent down to (Class) A ball or some other lower level. Then he told me that I was going to be catching a train to Washington to join the Boston Red Sox, and I almost fell down. Ever since I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to hear someone say to me: that I was going to be given a chance to pitch in the major leagues.”

And the 24-year-old rookie made the most of his opportunity. He started by throwing 22 consecutive scoreless innings, a rookie record that stood until reliever Brad Ziegler of the Oakland Athletics broke it in 2008. He won his first eight starts, and finished the year with 21 wins, one of the most dominant seasons by any rookie pitcher in baseball history. By the end of the season, he was widely regarded as the ace of the staff.

“I wasn’t a Bob Feller by any means,” Ferriss says. “But I could throw in the upper-80s, low-90s, with a live fastball. I could move it around on the hitters, and I had good control. That was the most important thing. I depended on that control a lot.”

He also established a reputation as a workhorse, something which Ferriss says was typical of most starters in the 1940s, an era with no closers or setup men or lefty specialists coming out of the bullpen. “If they give you the ball, you’re supposed to go nine,” he explains.

“That’s the way things were then. I pitched around 275 innings in my first two years with Boston. You don’t see that today. You don’t see so many complete games anymore. But back then, if you went out there as the starting pitcher and you didn’t go nine, you didn’t feel too good, no matter how well you pitched.”

During his rookie season, Ferriss proved to be a rare bright light on a team that finished in seventh place. The following year, however, a number of Red Sox veterans returned from military service in World War II, and the team suddenly looked like a contender again. With Ferriss anchoring the pitching staff, and the lineup bolstered by the return of Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio from the war, the Sox trampled most of the American League teams from the start, winning 104 games and capturing the pennant by 12 games.

“That team just gelled together,” Ferriss remembers. “That whole team just knew how to win.” Even today, a display at Fenway Park honors the 1946 Red Sox as one of the greatest Boston ballclubs of all time.          
Ferriss emerged as the leader of the staff that season, posting a 25-6 record to go with a 3.25 ERA. He also led the team with 26 complete games. Joining him as a 20-game winner was Tex Hughson, who went 20-11. “They called our staff the ‘Big Four,’” Ferriss remembers. “Me, Tex, Mickey Harris, Joe Dobson. Among the four of us, we won 75 games.”

Yet they couldn’t pull out a win in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, and this, not the arm injury the following season, seems to be the greatest disappointment of Ferriss' career. “We came so close,” he says, “but just couldn’t quite do it.”

The Series went seven games, with Ferriss pitching two of them. He recorded a six-hit shutout at Fenway in Game Three, then recorded a no-decision in a well-pitched Game 7 in St. Louis. Dom DiMaggio tied that deciding game in the eighth with a two-run double, but then Enos Slaughter, Ferriss' old Army Service League opponent, scored from first base on a single in the bottom half of the inning in a wild play now remembered as “The Mad Dash.”It was the closest Ferriss – and the Sox – would come to a World Series ring for several years.

The next season, Ferriss began in his usual strong fashion. Then came that cold night in Cleveland – July 14, 1947 – when Ferriss felt the pop in his arm. In an era when there was no such thing as an MRI to diagnose the problem, Ferriss simply continued to try to pitch. Doctors swabbed his arm with rubbing alcohol and told him to be sure to wear a coat. He took two weeks off, hoping to reduce the numbness in his arm. When this failed, he went back to work, pitching in the rotation for the rest of the season.

He finished a respectable 12-11, but could tell that something was missing. “You either pitched or went home,” he remembers, “so I kept pitching and did the best I could. But I was never the same after that. A torn labrum, I guess that’s what they said it was. I never had that live fastball anymore. But life had to go on.”

It went on as a pitcher until 1950, the year Ferriss made his last appearance in the major leagues. He patched together a couple of seasons as a spot starter and a reliever with a mixture of control and guile. At the end of the 1949 season, though, his arm feeling like a limp piece of spaghetti, he knew the end was near.

“My pitching arm just went completely dead,” Ferriss remembers. “That was the signal for me.” He finished his major league career with a record of 65-30 and an ERA of 3.64…and a truckload of lingering questions of what might have been.

Yet Ferriss quickly embraced his new life as a coach. For four years in Boston, he served as a teacher to a pitching staff that included many of his old teammates. He also was able to spend plenty of time watching Ted Williams, a player Ferriss still describes in admiring tones.

“Ted was a great teammate,” he says of the famously mercurial Teddy Ballgame. “He was always willing to help someone out. And he was a perfectionist. He had tremendous God-given ability, but he also worked harder than just about anyone I’ve ever seen. He studied every pitcher in the league, and knew how each of them wanted to pitch to him. I’ll tell you – it was great watching him come to the plate every day.”

The true rejuvenation of Boo Ferriss, however, seems to have occurred when Delta State recruited him as the small college’s new baseball coach and athletic director. It provided a challenge as great as facing any hitter in the American League. The program was marginal at best, with middle-of-the-road players and poor facilities. “The program hadn’t been developed much,” Ferriss says.

“We had to work on it little by little and build it up.” Twenty-six years later, the program had been accepted into the Gulf South Conference and established itself as one of the conference’s top teams. A new baseball field had been built, largely because of Ferriss' coercing and cajoling. The college even boasted a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility. “Teams love to come here and play now,” Ferriss states. “It’s a small school, but good.” And then, with a note of pride in his voice, “Good enough to beat the bigger schools pretty often.”

In an odd twist of fate, the program was also good enough to cut one particular Mississippi native for poor hitting – an aspiring ballplayer named John Grisham. “He really couldn’t hit,” Ferriss remembers. “So I told him he’d better get with the books.” After some resistance, Grisham complied with his coach’s advice. The results are well-known today. The weak-hitting player is now one of the most famous authors in the world, selling millions of copies of his fast-paced legal thrillers.

“I always tell John Grisham that he made a big mistake,” Ferriss. “He didn’t tell me that he was going to be famous. If he had done so, I never would’ve cut him. Just think about how much he could’ve donated back. We would be playing with a retractable roof on our stadium now.” For the record, Grisham is now one of Ferriss' good friends, and has appeared at several functions to raise money for the baseball program on which he was not good enough to play.

The one thing the program lacked when Ferriss retired in 1988 was a College World Series championship. Living just blocks away from Delta State’s home field, Ferriss continued to attend every home game after his retirement, ever visible as one of the program’s most dedicated fans and fundraisers.

Finally, in 2004, the team broke through. With Ferriss cheering loudly from the bleachers, a Delta State squad led by Mike Kinnison – an All-American shortstop on one of Ferriss' teams – captured a national championship.

As soon as the championship trophy was presented to him, Kinnison took it and climbed over the fence into the grandstand. Then he placed the symbol of the program’s greatest success into the open arms of the man who built it. Boo Ferriss – the man who is able to stoically write off a career-ending injury as “water under the bridge” – cradled that trophy in his arms, and tears came to his eyes.

He still gets emotional talking about the Delta State program today, and still never misses a home game. And he vigorously touts the success of his old professional club, too. “We swept the Yankees this weekend,” he announces over the phone at the start of our conversation. “Make sure you mark that down.”

Boston still remembers their one-time ace well, inducting him into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2002 and inviting him back to many ceremonies at Fenway Park. Proudest for Ferriss, though, is the trophy from the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame that bears his name, awarded to the state’s top collegiate baseball player every year.

“I’m really honored by that,” he says. “Of all the great ballplayers who have come through this state, to name that trophy after me is something else.” He stops for a moment, coughs hard. “As I’ve said,” he finally continues, “I’ve been mighty blessed with this game.”

Which proves that if one second can change a career, it doesn’t necessarily need to change a life. Sixty-four years after an injury cut short one of the most promising starts in major league history, Boo Ferriss seems to be doing just fine.

Benjamin Pomerance has written more than 350 published articles, including profiles of Johnny Podres, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and Mike Marshall. His article on Jackie Robinson’s time with the Montreal Royals, including interviews with Rachel Robinson and George “Shotgun” Shuba, can be read at http://www.apnmag.com/fall_2009/pomerance_JackieRobinson.php. He can be reached by email at bpomerance@albanylaw.edu.


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