“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1934-1937
WES FERRELL

Right-handed pitcher Wesley Cheek Ferrell was born on February 2, 1908 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Growing up, the chief form of recreation for Wes and his brothers was baseball. This early experience stood the Ferrell brothers in good stead. Four of them, including Wes, went on to play professionally. George, an outfielder, starred in the Piedmont League for several seasons, while Marvin, a pitcher, reached as high as the American Association. The most successful Ferrell brother, however, was Rick, who enjoyed a lengthy major-league career (1929–1947) as a catcher for St Louis, Boston, and Washington, all in the American League.

Like all of his brothers, Wes played for the baseball team at Guilford High School, where he was also a star center on the basketball team. Throughout his high school years he played baseball for amateur teams in the Guilford County League as well. After graduation in 1926 Wes enrolled at the Oak Ridge Institute (now Oak Ridge Military Academy), about 15 miles north of Greensboro, once again excelling at two sports, and attracting the interest of Bill Rapp, a scout for the Cleveland Indians.

The following year, 1927, he played semipro ball in East Douglas, Massachusetts. While there, he was offered contracts by two major-league teams, Cleveland and the Detroit Tigers, but due to Rapp’s influence he opted for the Indians. After signing with them, he spent the last two months of the 1927 season with the team. The next spring, 1928, he made the opening day roster, but was demoted shortly afterwards to Terre Haute in the Three-I League. Recalled to the parent club at the end of September he appeared in two games.

Next season, 1929, Wes made the big leagues for good. In the course of his career, he would play for five other major-league teams in addition to the Indians: Boston (1934–1937), Washington (1937–1938), and New York (1938–1939) in the American League, and Brooklyn (1940) and Boston (1941) in the National, but arguably he was at the peak of his career while at Cleveland. In his five seasons with the Indians from 1929 to 1933 he won more than 20 games four times in a row, only dropping to 11 victories in his final season with the club. In 1930, when he finished up with a 25–13 won-lost record and a 3.31 ERA, even though playing for a fourth-place team with a suspect defense, he was, other than Lefty Grove, probably the best pitcher in the American League.

While at Cleveland, Ferrell became noted for three things. The first, of course, was his pitching. He had an excellent fastball, which he combined with a good curve and a deceptive change of pace. The second notable thing about Ferrell was his batting. He played in an era when good-hitting pitchers were not as unusual as they are today, but even by the standards of that time he stood out for his solid work at the plate, in particular his power and his ability to come through in the clutch, often as a pinch hitter. From 1929 to 1933, his batting average was .274. In his best year at the plate with the Indians, 1931, the right-handed hitting Ferrell compiled a .319 average with 30 runs batted in, 9 home runs, and 6 doubles in 48 games.

The third thing, unfortunately, was Ferrell’s temperament. This became evident as early as the 1932 season. During that campaign, his ire was easily aroused by what he judged to be a bad umpire’s call or a defensive lapse on the part of one of his teammates, of which there were all too many, to the detriment of his pitching. An outspoken, competitive individual, Ferrell did not hesitate to speak his mind when angry. These, in turn, inspired trade rumors, one of which had the pitcher going to the Yankees in an even swap for Lefty Gomez, which never materialized. Matters came to a head during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 30, 1932 when Peckinpaugh walked out to the mound to remove Ferrell, who was pitching poorly, and he refused to hand over the ball. As a result the pitcher was suspended for ten days without pay for insubordination. 

One reason for Ferrell’s temperamental behavior may have been the growing anxiety he felt about his pitching arm. He first experienced pain in his right shoulder while warming up for a game against the Boston Red Sox on May 8, 1931. For the rest of that season he could only throw his fast ball intermittently. Increasingly, he came to rely upon his off-speed pitches. The nature of the ailment affecting Ferrell’s arm is puzzling. In one start he would throw just as hard as he did when he first broke into the major leagues. In the next, he would have absolutely nothing on the ball. No one, least of all the pitcher himself, could predict which Wes Ferrell would take the mound on a given day.

Matters grew worse in 1933, so much so that near the end of the season the Indians experimented with playing Ferrell in the outfield. The experiment was not a success as he had difficulty in fielding the position properly. By this time both Cleveland and Ferrell had probably decided it was time for a change. The team tried unsuccessfully to trade him over the winter.

In March 1934 the pitcher returned his contract unsigned and refused to report for spring training. Finally, on May 25, a trade was agreed with the Boston Red Sox: Ferrell and outfielder Dick Porter were exchanged for pitcher Bob Weiland, outfielder Bob Seeds, and $25,000 in cash. The Boston club, having been purchased by Tom Yawkey in 1933, was in the process of rebuilding after the lean years of the 1920s. Among the members of the team Ferrell was about to join were his nemesis, Lefty Grove, purchased from the Philadelphia Athletics a few months earlier, and his older brother Rick, who had been acquired from the St Louis Browns the previous year.

Ferrell bounced back to enjoy three good seasons in Boston, with his brother as his battery mate in each. No longer a power pitcher, he relied on control and his knowledge of the hitters for success. He ended the 1934 season with a 14–5 record. In 1935 his record was 25–14. The following year, 1936, he won 20 and lost 15. As a result of his mound prowess, Ferrell finished second in the voting for the Baseball Writers Association of America MVP award in 1935, losing out to Hank Greenberg, and finished fifth in the balloting for the Sporting News MVP.

Nor was the Ferrell bat idle during this period, especially in clutch situations. Over the 1934–1936 seasons he averaged .303 at the plate, peaking with a .347 average, 7 home runs, and 32 RBIs in 75 games in 1935. Figures like these would be impressive for a position player, let alone a pitcher.

His temper remained volatile as well. In a game against Philadelphia on August 8, 1934 Ferrell took the mound in the bottom of the third inning with a 10–1 lead but then proceeded to give up six runs on a pair of homers. When the manager, Bucky Harris, came out to relieve him, not only did he refuse to hand over the ball; when he was finally persuaded to return to the dugout he punched himself in the jaw with his fist and slammed his head against a concrete wall. He had to be forcibly restrained to prevent him from doing further harm to himself. During the 1936 season, Ferrell walked off the field in disgust and refused to continue pitching twice in the space of five days, angered each time by his teammates’ defensive shortcomings. On the second occasion he was fined $1,000 and suspended for several days. Ferrell’s reaction was to threaten to punch the manager, Joe Cronin, in the nose.

In 1937, Ferrell’s record fell to 14–19. After a slow start, resulting in a disappointing 3–6 record, he was traded to the Washington Senators on June 11, along with his brother Rick and outfielder Mel Almada, for pitcher Bobo Newsom and outfielder Ben Chapman. He began the 1938 season with Washington. By August 2, he had won 13 games, more than anyone else on the team, while losing only seven. Nevertheless, 10 days later, the Senators released him. His continued temperamental behavior seems to have been the chief factor underlying this decision, although the fact that he had accused the club’s owner, Clark Griffith, of being cheap cannot have helped. Two days later, on August 14, Ferrell signed with the New York Yankees, who were in need of pitching, and finished out the season with them.

Following an operation to remove bone chips from his elbow after the end of the 1938 season, Ferrell spent the next few years trying unsuccessfully to hang on in the major leagues. In 1939 he saw action in three games for the Yankees. The following year he moved over to the National League, where he played in two games for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His career in the big leagues came to an end in 1941, when he took part in only four games for the Boston Braves. His pitching record during this three-year period was an inconclusive 3-3.

Ferrell’s mound record over 15 major-league seasons was an impressive one. He won 193 games and lost 128, giving him a career winning percentage of .601. He gained 20 or more victories six times during his career, performing the feat four times in succession from 1929 to 1932, his first four full seasons in the majors. He pitched a no-hitter against the St Louis Browns on April 29, 1931. His lifetime earned run average was 4.04, with 985 strikeouts in 374 games and 2623 innings. Although his ERA may seem high by today’s standards, during the peak years of his career, 1929–1936, Ferrell only once outside the best ten in ERA in the American League, once (1930) finishing second with an ERA of 3.31. Likewise, he consistently finished in or near the top ten in wins, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, and strikeouts.

This performance is all the more remarkable when one considers that Ferrell never played for a really strong team. Of those teams for whom he played more than a handful of games, the Cleveland Indians finished third, fourth, fourth, fourth, and fourth with Ferrell as a member of the squad, the Boston Red Sox, came fourth, fourth, sixth, and fifth, and the Washington Senators, sixth and fifth. In 1930, 1931, 1932, 1935, and 1936, Ferrell led his club’s staff in innings pitched. Between 1935 and 1937 he topped the major leagues in games started (111), complete games (85), and innings pitched (904 1/3).

Playing for mediocre teams in an era when pitchers were supposed to finish what they started and the specialist relief pitcher had not yet come into existence, it is not surprising that Ferrell was overworked, with the result that his arm wore out. It is a tribute to his intelligence and competitive spirit that he was able to continue pitching for so many years after this had happened. Perhaps he was born too early.