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
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
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.