Out of Reach of All the Glory
From 1927 to 1939, Wes Ferrell was a pitcher with Cleveland, the Yankees, and the Red Sox. In this interview he tells what it was like to face some of the great hitters as well as to stand in the batter's box.
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."
I got to laughing so hard I just laid one right in there, and damn if he doesn't knock it back through my legs for a base hit.
I never threw at Ruth, though. You just didn't want to do that. He was baseball. What was it like pitching to him? Like looking into a lion's jaw, that's what. Hell, man, you're pitching to a legend. And you knew, too, that if he hits a home run, he's gonna get the cheers; and if he strikes out he's still gonna get the cheers. You were nothing out there when Ruth came up.
You look around and your infielders are way back and your outfielders have just about left town, they're so far back. And here you are, sixty feet away from him. You got great encouragement from your infielders too. The first baseman says pitch him outside, the third baseman says pitch him inside. They're worried about having their legs cut off. "Take it easy, boys," I told them. "I'm closer to him than you are, and I'm not worryin'." The hell I wasn't. Ruth could swivel your head with a line drive.
But I always had pretty good luck with Babe. He was a guess hitter, you know. I'd watch that right leg; it told me what he was looking for. Sometimes he'd have his back almost to the pitcher, with that right leg pulled around toward the catcher. That's when he was looking for curves or slow stuff. When he was looking for a fast ball he'd place that right leg differently. So I'd pitch accordingly to him. Ruth hit only three home runs off me in the seven years I pitched to him. And he never beat me a ball game.
After Babe had died, I went to an old-timer's game in New York. After the game, we all went to Toots Shor's restaurant for the shindig. Mrs. Ruth was there. I'd never met her, so I went up and introduced myself.
"You're Wes Ferrell?" she said.
"That's right." I said.
"Babe said a lot of things about you."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
'He'd come home and say how tough it was to get a base hit off you. It upset him quite a bit."
Well, that flattered me more than anything in the world.
I had my troubles with Roger Peckinpaugh, you know. But I always worked hard for him, same as any manager I ever pitched for. Starting, relieving, pinch-hitting; I was always on call, happy to do anything to help out the ball club. Hurts my arm today just to think about it.
There was this game against the Athletics, in 1931. It was supposed to be a home game for the Athletics, but there was no Sunday ball in Philadelphia at that time, so we caught the sleeper out of Philly on Saturday and went back to Cleveland. Connie Mack figured there was no sense bringing the whole team for one game, and he left some of his ballplayers home. So he was short of pitchers.
I forget who started for the A's, but we got him out of there in the first inning. Eddie Rommel came in and pitched the rest of the game—seventeen innings. We got about thirty hits off him. Johnny Burnett, our shortstop, set a record that game: he got nine hits. Alva Bradley, the Cleveland land owner, said later it was the most exciting ball game he ever saw. Well, I didn't think it was so damned exciting.
I relieved Willis Hudlin in the seventh and pitched right on into the eighteenth inning before they beat me with a bad-hop base hit. Jimmie Foxx got a single and then Eric McNair hit a line drive to left that took a crazy hop over Joe Vosmik's head. Jimmie came tearing around and I'm beat. I should've won it in the ninth, you know, but Eddie Morgan made an error at first on the easiest ground ball you ever saw and that tied it.
Now, that was just a little relief stint, those eleven innings. A few days later I'm taking my regular turn, against the Yankees in New York. I go out there and I just don't have anything on the ball. They beat me. I'm sitting in the clubhouse after the game and Peckinpaugh comes over and says "Hey, why didn't you bear down out there?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" I said. "I've been winning twenty games a year for you and pitching out of turn whenever you needed me, and you ask me why I wasn't bearing down? I always bear down. I just didn't have anything to bear down with today." Oh, I was steamin'.
Well, that didn't sit too good with him. Then we go up to Boston, and I start another ball game. They get one or two runs off me in the second inning and he wants to take me out.
"Hell," I said. "I ain't coming out. I just got in here."
Finally I had to leave, and the next thing I know I'm suspended. They called it insubordination or something like that. I went back to Cleveland and sat around doing nothing for fourteen days, in the middle of one of my finest years. What a waste of time.
Couldn't get along with Peckinpaugh, no matter what. The guy hardly ever spoke to me. He got fired in 1933, and Walter Johnson came over to manage. Here was a fine guy, nice as could be. Religious type of person, a real gentleman. He had some drawbacks as a manager, though. He wasn't all that articulate, had trouble expressing himself. He'd hold a meeting and you'd hear him say,
"Now, dadgummit, confound it, I want you boys doggonnit, to get out there and get 'em." That's how he'd tell you. Never profane though. A very kind person. Never had any trouble with his ballplayers. Not even with Fiery Wes Ferrell. Fiery Wes Ferrell. Boy, I've got to laugh at that. I guess I've still got the reputation. But reputations aren't always justified. Here, listen to this. I was with the Red Sox and pitching a game in Yankee Stadium, against Monte Pearson. I had them beat going into about the fifth or sixth inning. The Yankees had two men on and DiMagio is up. I walked over to Eric McNair, who was playing shortstop. Cronin, who was the Red Sox manager and the regular shortstop, wasn't playing that day. I forget why.
I tell McNair, "Now, I'm gonna throw him a slider and try to make him hit it to you."
I go back to the mound and make my pitch, get it right where I want, and doggone if Joe doesn't hit it right straight to McNair. But the ball was hit right off the end of the bat and had such spin on it that when it hit the ground it got away from McNair. Two runs scored. I figured I should have been out of the inning, and I got mad. Then a couple base hits followed on top of that.
I look over at Cronin. He's standing up in the dugout with his hands in the air. I thought he wanted to take me out. I look around and my infielders are standing around with their hands on their hips looking at the ground. I figured I'm gone, and I walked off the mound. In those days you had to go through the Yankee dugout to get to the clubhouse. I went right past brother Rick—he was with the Red Sox too, then—and he didn't say anything to me. I was told later that Cronin started to yell at me not to leave, but I didn't hear anything. I thought I was out.
Next thing, I know I'm sitting in my hotel room and somebody calls me on the telephone to tell me I'm suspended, fined a thousand dollars, and a lot of stuff like that. Boy, I nearly hit the ceiling! I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
They had a big meeting that night, and I told Cronin that it was all a misunderstanding, that he knew my record, how hard I worked, how willingly, and that I was the last one in the world to run out on a ball club.
Well, nobody said much. They send me back to Boston and I find the newspapers filled with the story: "Wes Ferrell Suspended. Walks Out Of Ball Game." A lot of crap like that. Two days later I was out pitching again, in my regular turn. Wasn't fined, wasn't suspended. It was all a misunderstanding and was soon forgotten by all concerned. But that's how you get a reputation as being this or that sort of fellow.
Sure, Rick was there with me on the Red Sox. When I got traded over to Boston in 1934, he was already there. We got along real fine. Usually thought alike. Brother or no brother, he was a great catcher and ought to be in the Hall of Fame.
He was a real classy receiver. You never saw him lunge for the ball; he never took a stride away from you. He'd get more strikes for a pitcher than anybody I ever saw, because he made catching look easy.
Well . . . I say we not along real fine, and we did . . . but I'll always remember a game I was pitching against the Detroit Tigers. Brother Rick is giving me the signs, the little old one-two-three for fast ball, curve, straight change. I kept shaking him off; I wanted to throw my change-up curve. Finally he got tired of squatting there and being shaken off, and he got up and walked around in front of the batter.
"Throw any damn thing you please," he said. "You can't fool me no way. I know you well enough."
Boy, that made me mad! Me winning all those games, and he thinks he's going to catch me without signs? I kicked the mound around a little bit, pulled my cap down tight on my head. Then I fired him a curve ball—one of the best I'd ever thrown, I swear—and he just reached down across his body and caught it backhanded with that mitt of his. Showboating. I'd throw him my best fast balls and he'd catch them soft—you know, wouldn't let it pop.
Well, we went through the whole ball game that way. Just a-stormin', and a-throwin'. and a-powderin' that ball. And here's Cronin, standing out at shortstop, wondering what in the world's going on up there—he's not seeing any signs!
I pitched a two-hitter. Beat the Tigers 3-0. One of my finest games. After it's over, I go into the clubhouse and I'm sitting there, Everybody's coming over to shake my hand on the game. And there's brother Rick, sitting two stools away. I keep glancing over, but he won't look. We're pulling our socks and our uniforms off. Finally I glance around again, and now he's looking at me.
"Well," he says, "you pitched a pretty good ball game. But damn you, if you'd listened to me you'd of pitched a no-hitter!"
I'd already had a no-hitter you know, in 1931, against the St. Louis Browns. And guess who almost beat me out of it? That's right, Brother Rick. He came up in the late innings and hit one to Bill Hunnefield at short. Hunnefield came up with it and threw a little high and they called it an error. And I'll tell you, I never saw anybody run harder than Rick did going down that line—and that's the way it's supposed to be.
OF course people always ask me who was the greatest hitter I ever faced. They expect I would say Gehrig or Ruth or Simmons or Foxx. But I don't. I say Gehringer. Charlie Gehringer was the toughest hitter I ever faced. The reason is he'd never offer to hit the first pitch. You could just lob it in there, throw it right down the middle of the plate, and he'd stand there and follow it into the catcher's mitt. Sometimes he'd spot you two strikes. And you say to yourself, "Well, as good a pitcher as I am. I'm gonna get him out." But you couldn't do it, He'd hit that ball. And he'd beat you ball games. Yes he would.
You threw it down the middle to Ruth, he'd knock you off the mound. Gehrig, too, and Foxx and Simmons and Greenberg and DiMaggio. They'd kill you, those fellows. You had to start pitching hard to them, first pitch. Why did Gehringer do that? I don't know. I never asked him.
I didn't have too much trouble with Simmons. He was a great hitter though. Believe that. Foxx was another great one. I'd strike him out three times and then he'd hit a home run so far out of Shibe Park that you just had to stand there and admire it. A man hit a ball that far? No way you could get mad at him. You had to admire it. Foxx was a wonderful guy, too. Always smiling, always looking to have a good time. Loved his golf, like so many ballplayers. In fact, he ran his own course down in St. Petersburg for a while.
Hey, don't forget I was a pretty fair hitter, too. I hit nine home runs in 1931, and that's still a record for pitchers. In 1933, when Vosmik broke his wrist, and my arm was a little sore, they put me in the outfield and I hit close to .300.
One time I was pitching against Hod Lisenbee of the Athletics. He had me beat 1-0 going into the eighth inning, and I hit a home run to tie it. Then in the thirteenth inning I hit another home run to beat him, 2-1.
Another time, when I was with the Red Sox, Grove was pitching and he was getting beat by one run going into the last of the ninth. Now, you know Lefty; he was a great competitor and a hard loser. A very hard loser. He's sure he's lost his ball game and is madder'n hell over it. He goes into the clubhouse. We get a man on base and Cronin sends me up to hit. Tommy Bridges is the pitcher. Well, I hit the first pitch I see and knock it over the left-field fence and we win the ball game.
So we all rush into the clubhouse, laughing, and hollering, the way you do after a game like that. And here's Lefty, sitting there, still thinking he's lost his game. When he saw all the carrying on, I tell you, the smoke started coming out of his ears.
"I don't see what's so funny." he says. "A man loses a ball game and you're all carrying on."
Then somebody says. "Hell, Lefty, we won it. Wes hit a home run for you."
Well, I was sitting across the clubhouse from him, pulling my uniform off; and I notice he's staring at me, with just a trace of smile at the corners of his mouth. Just staring at me. He doesn't say anything. I give him a big grin and pull my sweat shirt up over my head. Then I hear him say. "Hey, Wes." I look over and he's rolling a bottle of wine across to me—he'd keep a bottle of one thing or another stashed in his locker. So here it comes, rolling bumping along the clubhouse floor. I picked it up and thanked him and put it in my locker. At the end of the season I brought it back to Carolina with me and let it sit up on the mantle. It sat up there for years and years. Every time I looked at it I thought of Old Left. He rolled it over to me.
He was my idol. Lefty Grove. Fastest pitcher I ever saw. The greatest.
What was the toughest team to pitch against? Well, I'll tell you how to figure that. You've got to look at their pitching staff. If I'm pitching against the Yankees, it's not Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio I'm worrying about, because I know I can get those boys out often enough to win. It's Gomez or Ruffing I've got to worry about—because they can shut my club out. Same with the A's. It's not Foxx or Simmons, great as they were—it's Grove or Earnshaw that's going to beat me. That's the way you look at it.
I'm with Washington in 1938, winning thirteen and losing eight, and Clark Griffith turns me loose. I was getting a big salary, and I guess he figured he'd save some money. Joe McCarthy called me the next day and asked me to join the Yankees, which naturally I was happy to do. They had a great ball club, with the pennant just about sewed up. McCarthy always liked me. Some years before, when I was still with Cleveland, I'd made some favorable comments on his ability to handle his pitching staff, and Joe never forgot that.
I thought McCarthy was a great manager. Still do. He was all business running his ball club, very professional. You didn't see guys running around all night and then kicking your game away the next day, which experience I'd had.
When I got up to the stadium, he called me into his office.
"We've got one rule around here," he said. "We don't second-guess the manager."
And he meant it. He was very professional. You got up there, you saw why the Yankees were winning all those pennants. They were all business, all baseball.
You know what burned up old Griffith? When he let me go he had to give me ten days' pay. And then I sign up with the Yankees right away. So I'm getting paid double. Well, we went down to Washington a few days later and McCarthy starts me. I beat them in eleven innings—and Griffith is still paying me out. Oh, that did him to a turn, paying money to the guy who's beating him.
You know, something happened in that game which I thought curious at the time, though now, with hindsight, I can understand it. We should've won the game in nine innings, but Gehrig made a bad play on a fielder's choice and let the tying run in. Instead of going to the plate and throwing the man out, he went the easy way, to first base. It was the kind of play you'd never expect him to make. Nobody knew at the time, of course that Gehrig was dying. All we knew was that he wasn't swinging the bat the way he could, nor running the way he could.
The next year, in spring training, it got worse. I was in the clubhouse with him one day down in St. Petersburg. The rest of the team was out on the field. Lou got up on the bench to look out the window to see what was going on on the field. It was some effort for him to do that, and he wasn't too steady. All of a sudden he fell over, right down to the floor. Just like that. He fell hard, too, and lay there for a second, frowning, like he couldn't understand what was happening.
"You hurt yourself, Lou?" the trainer asked.
"No, I'm okay," he said. He got up and didn't say anything more about it. I suppose he didn't know what was wrong, any more than the rest of us. He'd hit a ball into right center, a sure double, and run and run as hard as he could—he always hustled—and get thrown out by a mile. In workouts you'd see him straining and huffing and puffing, running as hard as he could, and not getting anywhere. The fellows would laugh and kid him. "Hey, Lou, you're getting old." That sort of thing. Nobody knew the truth.
I remember one time out on the golf course, it was during the St. Petersburg Open. A lot of us went out to watch the pros. I was following the crowd, and I noticed Lou, walking all by himself along the edge of the woods. I watched him for a while; he was wearing tennis sneakers and was sliding his feet as he went along, instead of picking, them up and putting them down. Looking back now, I realize why. His muscles were so deteriorated that just the effort of lifting his feet a few inches to walk had already become too much. God, it was sad to see—Lou Gehrig having to slide his feet along the grass to move himself.
Yep, there's a lot of things that stay with you as the years pile up. It's all been so long ago now that I find it hard to believe I ever did it, that I was ever there. For a while after you leave the game you dream about it a lot. You dream you're going to pitch and that you can't get your uniform on. You dream you can't get to the park, that you've lost your way. Crazy dreams, huh? But maybe not so crazy after all.
All of a sudden you're out of the big time, out of reach of all the glory you had. You're back where you started.
But still, I've got those memories. I played against a lot of great stars. You name 'em. Ruth, Gehrig, Greenberg, Gehringer, Simmons, Foxx, Grove, DiMaggio, Cochrane, Feller. I saw them all. And they saw me. You bet they did.