THERE were seven of us boys in the family, and we learned farming before we learned anything else. My father owned 150 of the prettiest acres in North Carolina, or anywhere else for that matter. We raised hay, wheat, corn, and tobacco too, of course; and we raised that old sorghum molasses, which they cook down here in this part of the country. And we had livestock too, about sixty or seventy cows. But more than anything else, we raised ballplayers on that farm.
Brother Rick was my catcher. We were always real close. Slept together, ate together, went rabbit hunting together. We always said we were going to make baseball players of ourselves. And it happened so doggone fast. It seemed that one day I was thinking about my boyhood hero, Babe Ruth, and then almost overnight I was standing on the mound in Cleveland trying to strike him out. Overnight isn't far from the fact, either. Spring of '27 I was still living on the farm, and in the fall I pitched a few innings for Cleveland. Eighteen years old.
After high school I went to a military school in Oak Ridge, not far from home. I was playing ball too, and some college boys told me I ought to go up to East Douglas, Massachusetts, and pitch for that club in the Blackstone Valley League. Semi-pro ball. So I did that. I was getting $300 a month, plus free lodging and free food. That was in the summer of '27.
I did okay up there, because I got a letter from a Cleveland scout named Bill Rapp. He asked me if I would sign with Cleveland and how much I wanted. I told him $800 a month and $3000 to sign a contract. Pretty fancy figures for those days, particularly for a kid who'd only pitched a few months of semi-pro ball. But he wrote back and said I should see E. S. Barnard, who was president of the club at that time.
So here I go, still a little old country boy with a drawl thick as molasses, getting on the train and heading out to Cleveland. When I got oft the train I asked somebody how to get to League Park. They put me on a streetcar and I told the conductor where I wanted to get off. It was quite a long ride. and finally he said, "This is it." I looked up and there's this great stone structure. Biggest thing I ever saw in my life. They called this a ball park? I couldn't believe it. Then I heard a little noise in the back of my mind: Major Leagues. The sound of those two words was like instant education.
When I walked into Mr. Barnard's office I saw this sharp-eyed, half-bald guy. I introduced myself and we shook hands.
"I understand you want eight hundred a month and three thousand to sign a contract," he said.
"Yes, sir," I said.
"Son," he said, "look down there." He had a window, and looking through it you could see the ball field. "See that center fielder? He's a regular on this ball club, and he's not making eight hundred dollars a month. Now, I don't know if you're good enough to make this club, or that we even want you. I don't know. But I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you three thousand to sign a contract and five hundred a month, for two years. And if after that time we retain you, we'll give you an additional three-thousand-dollar bonus."
I mulled it over and said, "I'll take it."
The next spring I went to spring training with Cleveland down in New Orleans. I pitched good ball. Hell, I was as good as anybody they had on that club. Then the season opens and I can't get in there. They've got me throwing batting practice for two weeks. Finally I got sick of it. So the next day I went into the outfield and stood there. Next thing I know they're calling me.
"Get in there and throw some batting practice."
"The hell with you." I said. "I didn't come up here for that."
That startled them. Here's this kid telling them what he's not going to do.
So they sent me to Terre Haute, which was fine with me. I won myself twenty ball games. I came back to Cleveland the next year, 1929, and I stuck. First club I got in against was the Tigers. They had a great ball club. Harry Heilmann, Bob Fothergill, Dale Alexander, Charlie Gehringer. Hitters. I was sitting in the bullpen. Just a kid, still scared at seeing so many people in the stands, still feeling more like a spectator than a player.
It was a cold day, and I've got the horse blanket covering me. I figured I'd be the last guy in the world to be in that ball game. But then our pitcher started getting in trouble and Roger Peckinpaugh, the Cleveland manager, starts waving down to the pen. Glenn Myatt, the bullpen catcher, got up.
"Hey, Wes," he says. "Come on."
'What do you mean?"
"You're first relief pitcher."
"Me?" I said. "What are you talkin' about?'
I was scared. I didn't want to get out there in front of that big crowd. But I loosened up fast, cold or no cold. They finally got our pitcher out of there and here I go, walking in across that green grass—I don't think I even touched it. I get out to the mound and look around and there's all those people staring at me. Hell, boy, I told myself, here you are. Do the job or go home.
First guy I faced was Harry Heilmann standing up there with that big bat like a tin soldier, feet close together. I threw that ball by him so fast he never did see it. Got him out, got them all out. Two innings of shutout ball. Throwing the ball harder than I ever dreamed I could. I guess I was so excited or maybe I just grew into it all of a sudden.
They made me a starter after that. Had a good year, right along. But I'm still making only $500 a month, playing out the second year of that contract. That's around $3000 a year. We had this pitcher with us, Johnny Miljus, used to be with the Pirates. He liked me. He told me, "If you don't get ten grand next year I'm gonna beat your brains out."
They called me up into the office in the middle of August. I'd won about sixteen by that time. Billy Evans was the general manager. "Wes," he said, "I want to sign you up for next year. We want to give you a two-thousand-dollar bonus and five hundred a month."
"Mr. Evans," I said, "I don't care anything about a bonus. I'll tell you what you do. You give me eighty-five hundred for the year and I'll take it."
"You'll never get it," he said.
We went on a long road trip, and every day Miljus is saying to me, "You get that ten grand next year." Then it was near the end of the season and I'm a twenty-game winner. My rookie year this is.
I was shagging flies in the outfield before a game when Mr. Evans waved me in. "Wes," he said, "we're gonna give it to you."
"Mr. Evans," I said, "I want more money now."
Doggone if I don't get my ten grand, and an additional three thousand for retaining me for two years.
The next year I won twenty-five and they gave me a two-year contract calling for $15,000 and $18,000. I won ninety-one games my first four years: four twenty-game seasons—twenty-one, twenty-five, twenty-two, twenty-three. Nobody's ever done that, before or since.
What would I be making today with that record? You name it. But $18,000 was a lot of money in those days. That was during the Depression, and things were bad. After my fourth straight twenty-game season, I got cut $7000. The ball club was barely surviving.
THE glory can't last forever, of course; but I'll tell you, while it does, there's nothing like it. Being a big league star at so early an age was exciting. I was going to the best hotels in the biggest cities and meeting the most famous people. You were always a star in somebody's eye, you were popular, you were known. You never waited in line, you never wanted for service, wherever you went. You never looked for that sort of thing, it just naturally came your way.
It builds your pride; at least it did mine. I wanted to look better, to dress better, to be a better guy. You stop to think that here are people who have driven maybe three hundred miles to see you pitch a ball game, and then they hang around and want your autograph. It's very flattering. And if you're lucky and take it in the right spirit, it makes you a better person.
You know, off the field I was shy. On the field I gave the impression that I was mean. After all, this was my job, my livelihood. So I put an act on. I'd look wild warming up. I'd stomp and storm around out there like a bear cat, fight my way through a ball game, fight like the devil, do anything to win. And I got that reputation for being temperamental and mean, and it stuck, even with people who should have known better.
Of course the game was tougher then, in my opinion. When I first came up, just a kid, they'd tell me to throw at a hitter.
"What do you mean, 'throw at him'?" I asked.
"Throw at his head," they said.
"I'll kill him," I said.
"That's an order, Ferrell. You throw at him."
I'm in Philadelphia one time, and a fellow named Hale is playing third base for Connie Mack's club. Peckinpaugh tells me I've got to throw at Hale. So I powdered one at him and his feet went up and his head went down. Damn near took the button off his cap. When he got up he was white as a sheet. They took him out of the ball game—which is what Peckinpaugh wanted.
They had the art of hitting in those days. There were so many good hitters, you just had to go out there and take command. A team had a string of guys in the lineup hitting .390, .330, .340. Like facing machine-gun fire. When a guy hit a home run, the next two hitters went down. They knew it was coming. Once, in a game in Detroit, somebody hit a home run off me, and up comes Fothergill. A real hitter. I lowered the boom on him putting it right over his head. He gets up, dusts himself off, and I get him out. Next fellow comes up—I forget his name his name—and lies down flat on his back in batter's box.
"Hey, Wes " he yells, "I'm already down. You don't have to throw at me."