Boney, Hank

Player Name: Boney, Hank
Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Wallace

First, Middle Names:  Henry Tate
Date of Birth:  Oct. 28, 1903   Date and Place of Death: June 12, 2002, Lake Worth, FL
Burial: Wauchula City Cemetery, Wauchula, FL

High School: Undetermined
College: University of Florida, Gainesville, FL

Bats: L Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 176
Debut Year: 1927        Final Year: 1927          Years Played: 1
Team and Years: New York Giants, 1927

Career Summary
G          W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
3          0         0          0         2.25     4.0       0          0.1

Hank Boney was 23 years old and fresh out of college when he stepped onto a big-league pitching mound for the first time on June 28, 1927. Professional baseball was less structured then and its players little more than talented chattels. A manager, like the New York Giants’ John McGraw, could pluck a promising kid from college for a pittance to fill a roster hole, throw him into a game or two, and then discard him like yesterday’s newspaper if he didn’t work out. For the rest of his life, though, the kid would likely thank his manager for giving him a chance.

Down 7-3 to the Philadelphia Phillies in the eighth inning, McGraw figured it was a suitable time to see what the rookie could do. Boney didn’t disappoint by retiring the three batters he faced. He gave up a single in his next outing two days later, a 6-1 loss to the Boston Braves, and then one run in a couple of innings against the Cincinnati Red two weeks after that. And then he was gone for good, though his professional resume of a sole run in four innings would seem to have warranted a longer stay.

Boney kicked around the minor leagues for a few seasons and then settled down in Florida for a long life. He raised cattle, grew oranges, became a leader in his church, and ran companies that distributed fuel along the state’s Gold Coast. He outlived three wives in the process. He died just a few months shy of his 99th birthday.

The Boney name is an old one in Duplin County, North Carolina. After the American revolution, William Boney owned much of the land that is now the town of Wallace in the southern end of the county.[1] Most of his holdings were included in a grant from England’s King George II. William Tate Boney was born in 1903 into a particularly large contingent of the clan. His parents, Jacob and Julia, worked a farm near Island Creek north of Wallace where they raised eight children.

The family moved to Wauchula in central Florida sometime in the 1910s where Jacob continued to farm. Henry likely attended old Wauchula High School, but no existing records confirm that. He also likely pitched, either in school or for local semipro teams, because he was on the starting staff for the University of Florida in Gainesville in the mid-1920s. Boney apparently dropped out of school when he was signed by the Giants in 1927.

After his brief stay in New York, he pitched for minor-league teams in New Jersey and Connecticut. He returned to Florida in 1935 to live with his mother who owned a boarding house in Wauchula. His father had died six years earlier.

He married Viola Smith in 1938. Known as Brownie, she came from Wauchula’s most-prominent family. Her father was one of Hardee County’s first citrus growers and its largest landowner. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, a private, women’s school in Georgia, Brownie was a talented singer and became a local celebrity. For most of her life, she was in high demand as a vocalist, singing at veterans’ memorials, social-club meetings, and holiday celebrations. In fact, she is more likely to turn up in searches for “Henry Boney” in Florida newspapers than her husband.

The couple moved to Lake Worth on Florida’s east coast in the late 1930s where they both worked for a company that distributed oil and gasoline. He was its manager; she was its bookkeeper. Boney would remain with Atlantic Fuel Company for more than 30 years, rising to become its president. He would also own a company that distributed propane.

A leader in the Presbyterian Church, Boney was a ruling elder at his local church and a member of the national board that published the annual church histories.

He didn’t seem to dwell on his former life as a professional baseball pitcher. There are no newspaper clips of his talks on the subject, no stories about him throwing out the first pitch at a local minor-league game. About the only remnant of his former life that pops up is a boxer puppy named Muggsy, the nickname for McGraw that the manager detested. Boney took out classified ads in several newspapers asking readers to be on the lookout for his lost dog. There’s no record that the errant Muggsy found his way back home.

Brownie died in 1966. Boney remarried. When that wife, Lida, died, he married again. Reta left him a widower for the third time. He had no children.

Boney died in June 2002 in Lake Worth.

Footnote
[1] For a small, rural town, Wallace is the home of a surprising number of professional athletes. M.L. Carr starred in the American and National basketball associations and was the head coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics in the NBA. Wray Carlton and Javonte Williams were running backs in the National Football League and Nate Irving was a NFL linebacker. Wallace was also the birthplace of the scion of North Carolina’s most-famous athlete, James R. Jordan Sr., the father of Michael Jordan.

 

 

Bibby, Jim

Player Name: Bibby, Jim
Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Franklinton, NC

First, Middle Names:  James Blair
Date of Birth:  Oct. 29, 1944   Date and Place of Death: Feb. 16, 2010, Lynchburg, VA
Burial: Briarwood Memorial Gardens, Amherst, VA

High School: B.F. Person-Albion High School, Franklinton, NC
Colleges: Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, NC; University of Lynchburg, Lynchburg, VA

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-5, 235
Debut Year: 1972        Final Year: 1984          Years Played: 12
Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1972-73; Texas Rangers, 1973-75; Cleveland Indians, 1975-77; Pittsburg Pirates, 1978-81, 1983; Rangers, 1984

Awards/Honors: All-Star, 1980

Career Summary
G          W        L          Sv        ERA     IP           SO         WAR
340    111      101     8          3.76     1722.2  1079    19.4

Jim Bibby was a late bloomer. He was nearly 28 years old when he debuted in the major leagues and almost 36 before he became a consistent, winning pitcher. Just as he was on the cusp of stardom, though, his right arm failed him. The surgery was successful; the comeback wasn’t. He spent his later years teaching minor leaguers how to pitch and took great pleasure when one of his kids made the big time.

On the sports pages, he was “big” Jim Bibby. He stood six-foot, five inches and weighed more than 230 pounds. Only teammate Dave Parker was as physically imposing in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ clubhouse. Not even Parker, though, could hold eight baseballs in his hand. Bibby’s size contributed to the wildness that marked much of his professional career and delayed his development into an effective pitcher. “Bibby has hands twice as big as you or me,” Harvey Haddix, one of his pitching coaches, once explained. “A baseball feels to him like golf ball would to us. It’s easy to see how it would get lost in his hand.”[I]

Even as a youngster growing up on a farm in Franklin County, North Carolina, Bibby was a commanding figure at the dinner table. “Jim’s the only guy I’ve ever known who has to have two plates in front of him – one for the meat, one for the greens,” his older brother, Fred, remembered.[II]

Born in 1944, James Blair Bibby was the second of Charley and Evelyn’s three sons. All were athletic. Fred played college basketball and coached in high school. The youngest, Henry, was an All-America point guard on consecutive NCAA championship teams at UCLA in the early 1970s and then starred in the National Basketball Association.

Along with athletic talents, the boys also shared chores on the family’s 150-acre farm outside Franklinton. The work seemed never ending, Bibby remembered. “The three boys, we all had a lot of work to do with the tobacco, corn, cotton, the animals. There was no need to lift weights,” he said. “Farm work’s terrible – I hate it – but we were never poor. We had everything we wanted. We never had to make ends meet.”[III]

His small, segregated high school, B.F. Person-Albion, didn’t have a baseball team, but Bibby was an intimidating presence on the basketball court.[1] He followed Fred to what’s now Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on a basketball scholarship in 1962.[2] There, they discovered his fastball, and baseball became his primary sport.

During his junior year, Bibby attended a New York Mets’ tryout near Franklinton and threw a few pitches before it started to pour. Team scouts saw enough, however, and signed him to a minor-league contract that paid $500 a month, or the equivalent of $4,500 today. That he decided to quit school to pursue a baseball career didn’t sit well with Evelyn. “My mother had the old-fashioned idea that you went to school to study, even if you were helping work your way through college,” Bibby later explained.[iv] He would fulfill his mother’s wish by finishing college more than a decade later when he received a degree in physical education from the University of Lynchburg in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The Mets sent Bibby to their Rookie League team in Marion, Virginia, where he joined Nolan Ryan, another raw fireballer, on the starting staff. “I just threw one fastball after another, and I was always wild,” Bibby remembered. “Neither one of us knew a damn thing about baseball. We were both ungodly wild.”[v]

He was drafted into the Army in 1966 and spent part of his hitch driving a truck in Vietnam. “We hauled everything from dead bodies to plastic forks back and forth to the front lines,” he later explained. “My unit never got hit. We stayed on the main road and were home before dark. It was scary at first, but after a while you got used to nothing happening.”[vi]

Bibby was back with the Mets after his discharge in 1968. He made stops that year in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Memphis, Tennessee, where he struck out 115 in 122 innings, before being promoted to the Mets’ top farm club, the Tidewater Tides, in Portsmouth, Virginia. The Mets called him up to New York late in that miracle season of 1969, but he didn’t get into a game. Though he wasn’t on the playoff roster, he took part in the celebration when the Mets clinched their division and was the batting practice pitcher while they beat the Atlanta Braves for the National League pennant. The Mets paid him $100 ($800).

After the euphoria of a pennant came the dread of the operating room. Doctors in 1970 diagnosed Bibby’s chronic back pain as a congenital flaw that required surgery. They took a piece of bone from his hip and attached it to his spine, fusing the first and second lumbar vertebrae. They gave him a 50-50 chance of ever pitching again. “Some days lying there in bed, I wondered if I’d ever walk again,” he recalled. “I was sure I’d never pitch again. I figured I had it in baseball.”[vii]

First, he stood up. Then, he took a few steps. Finally, he started throwing again.

Bibby was back in Portsmouth for the 1971 season, his career sidelined for two years by military service and surgery. He won 15 games but walked 109 in the process. The Mets traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals in October.

He pitched well for the Cards’ Class AAA team in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the following year, winning 13 games while walking just 76. Called up to St. Louis late in the season, Bibby was credited with the victory in his debut on Sept. 4, 1972, an 8-7 win over the Montreal Expos. The first half of the following season was uninspiring, though – an 0-2 record as a spot starter while walking a batter an inning. The Cardinals traded him to the Texas Rangers in June.

The Rangers were in their second season as the transplanted Washington Senators. The team had lost 100 games in its inaugural run and would lose 105 the second time around. Bibby knew he was joining one of the worst teams in baseball. “But then it occurred to me that this was going to be the best thing that ever could happen to me,” he said, looking back on the trade a few years later. “It was the first time anyone had given me a chance to pitch regularly in the big leagues.”[viii]

On his 10th start for his new team, Bibby showed what he could do with that fastball when he knew generally where it was going. He no-hit the world champion Oakland As in their home park. Though he walked six that night, he fanned 13, throwing exclusively fastballs to a lineup that included the likes of Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, and Gene Tenace, hitters who normally feasted on fastballs. Jackson struck out on one in the ninth. “That last one was the best pitch I ever saw,” he said after the game. “Well, really I didn’t see it, I heard it.”[ix]

Over in the A’s dugout, Jim Hunter was rooting for his fellow North Carolinian. “But only in the ninth inning when we didn’t have a chance to win,” he admitted. “I know how the kid felt. I’ve been there myself.”[x] Hunter had pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in 1968.

That Bibby was the author of the first no-hitter for the Rangers wasn’t good enough for some sports scribes, who mangled history by reporting it was only the third in the 75 years of the Senators-Rangers combined lifetime. The Senators’ great Walter Johnson, they noted, was the last to turn the trick on July 1, 1920.[3] “Man, that’s fast company,” Bibby responded. “Just to get your name mentioned in the same breath with Walter Johnson is really something. Now they want my cap and the ball for Cooperstown. Can you imagine that? I never pitched a no-hitter at any level, and I never thought I would. There’ll never be another night like this.”[XI]

Bob Short, the Ranger’s owner, gave his new star a $5,000 ($33,000) raise on the spot. “Things are looking up,” Bibby said.[XII]

Though he won 19 games in 1974, he also lost that many. Bibby noted that there was a weird symmetry to the season. “Seemed as though everything went in cycles,” he said. “I’d pitch well in three starts and then wouldn’t make through the third inning in the next three.” [XIII] The numbers tell the story: He had 2.50 earned-run average, or ERA, in his wins and a 9.23 ERA in the losses.

The Rangers traded Bibby and two other players in June 1975 to the Cleveland Indians for fellow North Carolinian Gaylord Perry. The Indians needed the money, and Perry didn’t get along with Cleveland Manager Frank Robinson. Used as a spot starter and reliever, Bibby was 30-29 during his three seasons as an Indian, but he distinguished himself as a loyal teammate. Duane Kulper, Cleveland’s second baseman, was furious with Rod Carew of the Twins for spiking him while breaking up a double play at second. Bibby said he’d take care of it, but the opportunity didn’t arise until years later during an exhibition game in Japan. Bibby drilled Carew in the ribs. “That’s for Duane Kulper,” he yelled from the mound.[XIV]

He became a free agent in March 1978 after the Indians failed to pay him an incentive bonus and signed a six-year contract with the Pittsburg Pirates nine days later for $700,000 ($3 million). The Pirates used him mostly out of the bullpen and saw him as a replacement for Goose Gossage, their All-Star closer who had departed as a free agent. “I don’t want you to classify me as a Gossage,” Bibby told reporters. “I’m Jim Bibby, a whole different person. Maybe for one day I played the role that Gossage played last year, but I’m not trying to fill anybody’s shoes.”[XV]

Under the watchful eye of Haddix, who constantly preached the importance of mechanics, Bibby matured as a pitcher. He pulled a muscle in his rib cage that sidelined him for a couple of weeks at the start of the 1979 season, but he went 12-4 the rest of the way with a 2.81 ERA for a pennant winner. He pitched six splendid innings in a 5-3 win over Montreal on July 28 that put the Pirates in first place. “He’s more of a pitcher now,” said Manager Chuck Tanner. “In the American League, he was just a guy who threw a lot of heat.”[XVI]

Bibby pitched well down the stretch, winning big games in the final weeks’ drive to the pennant. He shut out the Cubs in Chicago, striking out 11, and then beat them a week later 6-1 in Pittsburg. Sports writers started referring to him as a “money pitcher,” a guy the team could rely onto to win big games. “I’ve never been in a pennant race before, so I don’t know,” he responded. “I was with Texas and Cleveland, and we were always 30 games out. I just hope to keep pitching well through the playoffs and the World Series.”[XVII]

He did. He had two starts in the playoffs and two more in the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, including Game 7 won by the Pirates. He had no decisions but pitched effectively, allowing four runs in about 17 innings of work.

Bibby finally came into his own in 1980. He had proven to himself that he could be a consistent winner. “When I came to the Pirates, I didn’t know if I could win a big game,” he said soon after the season began. “I had never been in one.”[XVIII] He had his best season, going 19-6 with a 3.32 ERA — and was an All-Star for the first time. Though the Pirates finishing third in their division, Bibby angled for a raise. Pete Peterson, the club’s executive vice president, refused, noting that he didn’t try the cut Bibby’s salary after his 6-7 season in 1978. Bibby got the message and dropped the demand.

He seemed to be on the way to another dominant season the following year when, in May, he allowed a leadoff single and then retired 27 in a row in a 5-0 win against the Atlanta Braves. He threw just 93 pitches. “I was more consistent tonight than in my no-hitter,” he said.[XIX]

A players’ strike interrupted the season on June 12. Bibby made four starts when play resumed in early August before going down with what was originally diagnosed as a sore pitching shoulder. He didn’t pitch again that year. Surgeons the following April removed bone fragments from the shoulder, and Bibby sat out the season,

Though he was optimistic about a comeback, Bibby was awful in 1983 – 5-12 with a 6.99 ERA. He became a free agent in November.

He re-signed with the Rangers in February and made the club in the spring, but Texas released him in June. The Cardinals took a another chance on him and sent him to their Class AA club in Louisville, Kentucky. They cut him loose in July. Bibby finished the season as a coach for the Bulls in Durham, North Carolina.

By then, Bibby had lived for more than 15 years in Lynchburg, Virginia. He had married a local girl, Jacqueline “Jackie” Jordan,  in 1968. The couple settled in Lynchburg, where they raised two daughters.

In 1985, he signed on as the pitching coach for the Mets’ local team in the Class A Carolina League. “I miss the big-league atmosphere and the money,” he noted at the time, “but I came to accept that one day my time in the big leagues was going to end and that I would have to resort to something else. I’m just glad to get the opportunity to stay in baseball.”[XX]

He remained with the Lynchburg Mets for the next 14 years, becoming a mentor to many young pitchers, including Dwight Gooden and Aaron Sele who went on to star in the majors. “When I see guys make it to the bigs and have success there, that’s more gratifying to me than anything else,” he said.[XXI]

Bibby was the pitching coach for the Pirates’ top farm club in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2000 when he underwent surgery to replace both knees. He retired.

He died 10 years later of bone cancer in Lynchburg.

Footnotes
[1] Clergyman Moses A. Hopkins started Albion Academy, a co-educational African American school, in Franklinton in 1879. It became a public normal and industrial school, or trade school, before eventually becoming a graded school. It merged with the B.F. Person School in 1957 to become B.F. Person-Albion High School. When schools were fully integrated, the upper grades consolidated with Franklinton High School in 1969. B.F. Person-Albion High School was renamed Franklinton Elementary School.
[2] Founded by the Freedman’s Bureau in 1867, the school is one of 10 historically Black public universities in North Carolina. It was one of the first public colleges in the South to train Black teachers. It was a college during Bibby’s time and became a university in 1969.
[3] Good copy, maybe, but bad history. The team that Johnson pitched for was in Minnesota. The original Senators were one of the eight charter members of the American League in 1901. It moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1960 and became the Minnesota Twins. A new Senators’ team started play in Washington in 1971. That was the team that moved to Texas.

References
[I] “Jim Bibby.”  Pittsburg (PA) Press, March 21, 1980.
[II] Costello, Rory. “Jim Bibby.” Society for American Baseball Research, 2016, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jim-bibby/.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Broeg, Bob. “Control Is Big Problem for Birds’ Sweet Bibby.” St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, March, 7, 1972.
[V] Costello.
[VI] Donovan, Dan. “The Road Up Has Been Long Grinds for Bibby.” Pittsburg (PA) Press, March 2, 1980.
[VII] Heryford, Merle. “Ranger Bibby Rides No-Hit Rings Around A’s.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), Aug. 18, 1973.
[VIII] Thompson, John. “Bibby Big Man in Ranger Plan.” Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram, Feb. 27, 1975
[IX] Heryford.
[X] Lowitt, Bruce. Associated Press. “No-Hitter Worth $5,000.” Abilene (TX) Reporter-News, July 31, 1973.
[XI] Heryford.
[XII] Lowitt.
[XIII] Thompson.
[XIV] Costello.
[XV] Donovan, Dan. “Bibby: I’m No Goose.” Pittsburg (PA) Press, May 2, 1978.
[XVI] Smizik, Bob. “Jim Bibby Finds His Place – First.” Pittsburg (PA) July 29, 1979.
[XVII]Donovan, Dan. “You Bet Your Bibby It Was a Big Buc Win.” Pittsburg (PA) Press, Sept. 29 1979.
[XVIII] “Jim Bibby.”
[XIX] Costello.
[XX] Bullla, David. “Bibby’s Back in Carolina League; This Time as Met Pitching Coach.” Winston-Salem (NC) Chronicle, May 9, 1985.
[XXI] Costello.

 

 

 

 

Ferrell, Rick

Player Name: Ferrell, Rick
Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Durham

First, Middle Names:  Richard Benjamin
Date of Birth:  Oct. 12, 1905  Date and Place of Death: July 27, 1995, Bloomfield Hills, MI
Burial: New Garden Cemetery, Greensboro, NC

High Schools: Guilford High School, Greensboro, NC; Oak Ridge Military Academy, Oak Ridge, NC

College: Guilford College, Greensboro, NC

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 160
Debut Year: 1929       Final Year: 1947          Years Played: 18
Teams and Years: St. Louis Browns, 1929-1933; Boston Red Sox, 1933-37; Washington Senators, 1937-41; Browns, 1941-43; Senators, 1944-45

Awards/Honors: National Baseball Hall of Fame, 1984; N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1965; All Star, 1933-38, 1944

Career Summary
G            AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1884  6028   1692 687    734     28       .281     .378     .363     30.8

Rick Ferrell, one of seven North Carolina natives in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was an unassuming farm boy from Guilford County who spent much of his time in the big leagues crouching in the shadows of some of the sport’s legendary catchers.[1] While contemporaries like Mickey Cochrane, Ernie Lombardi, Gabby Hartnett, and Bill Dickey dominated the sports pages, Ferrell quietly went about his 18 years in the majors, acquiring a reputation as a durable, defensive catcher and a smart handler of pitchers. Unlike most good-glove catchers, Ferrell could be dangerous with a bat in his hands. He could coax a timely walk and would hit around .300 each season. A seven-time All-Star, he caught the entire inaugural game for the American League in 1933 while the great Dickey sat on the bench. He ended his playing career with more games behind the plate than any other league catcher, a record that stood for almost four decades.

Only two other North Carolina major leaguers played more seasons than Ferrell. Only seven appeared in more games. He was cagey hitter with a deft feel for the strike zone, striking out only 277 times in more than 6,000 at bats. Always among the league leaders in walks, he ended his career with a .378 on-base percentage, higher than all but four other natives with at least 1,000 lifetime at bats. He is still among the leaders in a dozen career offensive categories.[2]

After retiring, he spent more than 40 years as an executive and scout for the Detroit Tigers. He became a respected elder whose opinions shaped the team. “In all the years I was with the Tigers, I don’t think I ever made a deal without discussing it with Rick,” said Jim Campbell, his friend and longtime Detroit general manager. “We didn’t always agree and if there was a disagreement, Rick usually won.”[I]

The baseball establishment finally recognized Ferrell’s skills when he was a surprising and controversial choice in 1984 to be the third North Carolinian inducted into the Hall of Fame. His bronze plaque now hangs on the wall with all those other great catchers who cast those long shadows. North Carolina had chosen him for its hall of sports luminaries 19 years earlier.

His younger brother, Wes, was a big-league pitcher whose plaque seemed destined to hang beside Rick’s before a bum arm intervened. “Brother or no brother, he was a real classy catcher,” said Wes, who played with Rick on two teams in the majors. “You never saw him lunge at the ball. He never took a strike away from you. He got more strikes for a pitcher than anybody I ever saw because he made catching look easy.”[II]

A  Baseball Family
Richard Benjamin Ferrell was born in 1905 in Durham, North Carolina, the fourth of seven boys that Rufus and Clara raised on the family’s 160-acre dairy farm in Friendship, a community in western Guilford County founded by Quakers. A talented sandlot player, Rufus helped his sons fashion a diamond in a pasture on the farm and passed along the baseball gene to most of them. Aside from the two sons who made it to the majors, there was Marvin, a promising minor-league pitcher whose arm went dead, and George, a brilliant hitter in the minors who might have been the best of the clan, but he never wanted to stray too far from home. The remaining boys — Basil, Kermit, and Ewell — followed other lights

All the brothers attended Guilford High School, but the four athletes among them transferred to nearby Oak Ridge Institute because of its respected baseball program.[3]

Rick in 1923 entered Guilford College, a private school in Greensboro, North Carolina, with Quaker roots and a reputation as another baseball powerhouse.[4] He played baseball and basketball and was included in the first class of inductees to the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1970.

To pay for classes, Ferrell boxed professionally as a middleweight, winning 18 of 19 bouts. His only loss was to a lighter, faster welterweight, who knocked him down. “How sweetly the birds did sing to me as I lay there on the canvas,” he recalled later. “They had to carry me to my corner, but I left the ring under my own steam.”[III]

The Tigers signed him for $1,500, or about $23,000 when adjusted for inflation, after he graduated in 1926. He spent the next three seasons in the minor leagues, honing his skills while showing those who controlled his destiny that he wasn’t just another dumb, Southern farm boy, a hayseed they could tag with the nickname Rube. Like all professional baseball players before the dawn of free agency in the early 1970s, Ferrell was contractually bound to his team for life. He could be traded from one team to another with no control over where he eventually landed. Without the ability to negotiate with other teams, the only leverage he had during yearly salary negotiations was to walk away and spend the season on the farm. The men who controlled baseball had all the advantages, and they usually took them. It started in the minor leagues, where owners often ignored the rarely enforced rules and colluded with their brethren in the bushes to stockpile promising youngsters to keep them from the clutches of competitors.

A vast universe of teams independent of the major professional associations stretched across the continent by the time Ferrell signed his first contract. Only big-city newspapermen called them “the minor leagues.” Fiercely loyal fans filled the little ballparks in big cities and small burgs. They rooted and they booed, and they spent money with local businesses whose signs plastered the outfield fences. Opening day was a gala occasion with a parade and speeches by the owner and manager about the virtues of this season’s nine. The teams competed in leagues with letter designations that signified whether they were a step up from college – Class D — or a step down from the big time – Class AAA – or somewhere in between. They existed by selling talented kids to the majors or to teams higher up the ladder for cash or for more players.

Ferrell reported to Kinston, North Carolina, in the spring of 1926 to play for the Eagles in the Class B Virginia League. The team’s owner likely had a legal agreement with Detroit to play the 20-year-old rookie. The Tigers continued to pay his salary and would control where he went next and when. That would be Columbus, Ohio, where Ferrell played the following season with the Senators of the Class AA American Association. It was a big jump to one of the premier minor leagues in the country, one that in a few years would produce three Mount Olympians: Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays.

Then, something happened. It’s not clear from this distance whether the Tiger front office screwed up and let Ferrell’s contract lapse without renewing it or, more likely, exceeded what the rule stipulated was the maximum number of times a player could be moved to another minor-league team, or “optioned,” without being promoted to the majors. Ostensibly, the rule was meant to advance the kids’ careers, but it was all wink-and-nod stuff. For whatever reason, the Tigers didn’t have room on their major-league roster for Ferrell when the 1928 season began. Frank Navin, the team’s president, worked out a deal with Joe Carr, owner of the Senators, to “cover up” Ferrell and return him to Detroit later. Navin, though, didn’t know that the kid wouldn’t be so easily manipulated and didn’t anticipate that he would hit .333 that season, make only eight errors, and become an All-Star and hot commodity.[IV]

Kenesaw to the Rescue

Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s commissioner, had a soft spot for the powerless, like minor leaguers.

When the season ended, Ferrell took a train to Chicago, Illinois, to see the authoritarian commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. See the profile on Lindsay Deal for a more detailed look at Landis and his battle with owners over a minor-league system that he knew took advantage of young players. He was a trust-busting federal judge before he took the job as baseball czar, and he had a soft spot for the powerless. He used his unquestioned authority over the owners and players during his 25 years as commissioners to free hundreds of kids by declaring them free agents.

While Landis was considering Ferrell’s complaint, Navin had heard that Carr planned a double cross, that he was going sell his young, All-Star catcher to the Cincinnati Reds despite their hand-shake agreement. It was likely that Navin also knew that the commissioner’s hammer was about to fall. A confession might soften the blow. The Tigers’ owner called Landis, who cut Ferrell loose in November. “I was very popular with players, but not with owners,” Ferrell said.[V]

He was popular enough, however, to attract eight bids for his services. Ferrell chose the St. Louis Browns because their contract included a $25,000 ($400,000) signing bonus. He gave some of the money to his father to pay off the farm.

He debuted on April 19, 1929 as the second-string catcher and hit only .229 in 64 games. He was the starter the following season and was recognized as one of the premier catchers in the league by 1932, when he hit .315 with 65 runs batted in while having the second-highest number of assists (78) of any catcher in the league.

Ferrell was relieved by the assist he got from the official scorer during a game in Cleveland on April 29, 1931. Wes was pitching for the Indians on his way to a 25-win season. He had a no-hitter with two outs in the eighth when his brother stepped to the plate. Rick ripped a liner that shortstop Bill Hunnefield somehow knock down, but his wild throw pulled Lou Fonseca off the bag at first. The official scorer originally ruled it a hit. “I never saw anybody run harder than Rick did going down that line,” Wes said at the time, “and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”[VI]

Wes set the Browns down the rest of the way, and the official scorer thought better of his ruling and charged Hunnefield with an error, preserving the no hitter. “I didn’t want a base hit, but I had to get up there and try my best,” Rick recounted a few days later. “Even if it hadn’t been my brother, I’d rather not get a base hit at that stage of the game. Ball players are like that – most of ’em. They know they got all summer to get them base knocks, but a no-hit game – well, they only come once in a lifetime.”[VII]

Ferrell wasn’t nearly as magnanimous at contract time. The Browns were a bad team during his first go-round in St. Louis, never finishing higher than fourth place in the American League. Old Sportsman’s Park was nearly empty most days. Lagging attendance and a deepening economic depression combined to panic owner Phil Ball, who responded by cutting salaries. Ferrell returned his contracts unsigned in 1932 and ’33. He eventually agreed to terms after his short holdouts persuaded Ball to lessen the cuts, but Ferrell told the press after the last dispute that he wanted to be traded to a team that could afford him. Ball complied by selling him and a pitcher to the Boston Red Sox for $50,000 ($1 million) in May 1933.

The Battery of Brothers

Wesley, left. and Rick Ferrell were the Boston Red Sox’s battery of brothers. Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

A year later, his brother joined him. Rick had been encouraging Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey to acquire Wes, a contract holdout who was pitching semi-pro ball back in North Carolina that spring after vowing not to return to Cleveland. For the next three seasons, Boston boasted a battery of brothers.

The Ferrells were always close but quite different in appearance and demeanor. Rick was slight but muscular with dark hair. Wes was bigger – 6-foot, two inches and 195 pounds – and was Hollywood handsome with thick, wavy, hair and a big, welcoming smile. While Rick was quiet, mild-mannered, and led by example, Wes was loud, outspoken, and hotheaded. Both were extremely competitive but loyal to each other. They roomed together and got along well.

Rick had his best years in Boston. He established himself as one of the premier defensive catchers in baseball, whose strong arm was respected by base runners. He also became an accomplished hitter, who batted over. 300 through most of the season until the heat of summer conspired with wool uniforms and the normal physical rigors of catching to drag his average down in September. Even so, he hit over .300 five times during his career and ended with a .281 lifetime average, good for 16th place among North Carolina natives with more than 1,000 career at bats.

A perennial All-Star while with the Red Sox, Ferrell was chosen to represent the American League in the first recognized All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1933. An exhibition game in the middle of the season wasn’t popular with team owners, who worried about injuries to their star players. They tried to downplay the entire affair. The players arrived by train the night before the game and left as soon as it was over. “I think we got a ring worth about $25,” Ferrell said years later.[5]

Given those circumstances, it’s not a stretch to assume that Joe McCarthy, the manager of the New York Yankees, prevailed on his buddy Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics’ skipper who managed the American League team, to limit the playing time of Yankees’ star Dickey, who was the only other catcher on the team. His team, McCarthy might have argued, was fighting for a pennant while Boston was mired in seventh place. Ferrell caught the entire game while Dickey sat. His team won 4-2 after the Yankees’ Babe Ruth hit two home runs.

The Red Sox traded the Ferrell brothers to the Washington Senators in June 1937. Rick left Boston as the best catcher in franchise history, having set team records at the position in batting average, home runs, doubles and runs batted in.

Knuckleball Hell
Ferrell played his last 10 years with two teams that were regular tenants of the American League’s second division. The Senators traded him to the Browns in 1941 and got him back three seasons later because they needed his defensive skills. He was one of the few catchers in the game who would have had any chance with the four knuckleballers in the team’s starting rotation.[6] Such pitchers rarely know where the erratic pitch is going, and catching one is a nightmare. Bob Uecker, part major-league catcher, broadcaster, and humorist, once summed it up. “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up,” he quipped.

Ferrell was approaching 40 when he took on the task. Though he led the league in passed balls in 1944 and ’45, “Pops,” as the players called him, did a credible job. “I know the knuckleball makes me look bad at times,” he said. “But what the hell? As long as we get men out and win games, what’s the difference? The ones I can’t catch, I’ll run down.”[VIII]

In one of those games in July 1945 while he was running down errant knuckleballs, Ferrell broke Ray Schalk’s American League record for most games caught (1,722). He would end his career with 1,806 games, a record that would stand until 1988 when the Chicago White Sox’s Carlton Fisk surpassed it. Ferrell would be in the stands that night.

All those fluttering pitches were too much, however. Ferrell retired in 1946 to become a Senators’ coach but came back the following season when all the knuckleballers were gone. “Shucks, I could sit in a rocking chair and catch these other fellows,” said Ferrell, who would be 42 at season’s end.[IX] He played every fourth or fifth day and was the team’s leading hitter with a .303 average. “He’s done an amazing job for us,” said Manager Ossie Bluege. “I’d like to put him in the lineup more often but it wouldn’t be fair to him.”[X]

He retired for good at the end of the season and became a Senators’ coach. He signed on as a scout for the Tigers in 1950, the start of a 45-year career with the team that first signed him and tried to screw him. He became director of the team’s minor leagues in 1958, then assistant general manager a year later.

That job required that Ferrell and his wife, Ruth, move from their longtime home in Greensboro to Detroit, where they would finish raising their four children.

A Controversial Choice

Jim Campbell, the Detroit Tigers’ general manager, lobbied to get his friend in the Hall of Fame. Photo: Detroit Free Press

On March 4, 1983, Ferrell was in Clearwater, Florida, for a Tigers’ spring-training game when he got a call from his boss, JIm Campbell, the team’s general manager. Ferrell was by then Campbell’s trusted advisor and what the team called a “super scout.” Campbell broke the news: Ferrell had been elected to the Hall of Fame. “It came as a surprise to me,” Ferrell said at his induction ceremony the following year in Cooperstown, New York. “I hardly knew how to answer.”[XI]

Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were equally surprised, and they weren’t shy about responding. The writers have picked most Hall of Famers since the first class in 1936.  The screening and voting processes have been tweaked several times. In the 1980s when Ferrell was elected, retired players remained eligible for as long as 20 years after their retirement if they got at least 5 percent of the ballots cast each year. If he didn’t meet that minimum threshold for three consecutive years, the player was disqualified. Then and now, it takes 75 percent of the ballots cast in any one year to make it into the hall.

There is, however, a back door. In Ferrell’s day it was called the Veterans Committee, 15 people selected by the Hall of Fame who considered players the writers had rejected or team executives, umpires, journalists, managers, and other non-players who weren’t included in the normal voting process. Campbell had been lobbying committee members to let his friend in.

The charge of cronyism arose after almost every committee selection: Old buddies selecting old buddies based on things other than stats and quality of play. The Ferrell selection, the writers charged in a strongly worded letter to hall officials, was the worst of the breed. They reminded the officials that Ferrell received a total of three votes in the three years he was eligible. That he got one vote a year suggests that it might have been cast by the same writer. Ferrell shrugged off the criticism. He was proud that was selected by peers, by people who played against him and knew him as a player. “I really appreciate it coming from that group,” he said.[7][XII]

Well into his 80s, Ferrell continued working. He’d report to his lavish office each day at 11 a.m. He’d eat lunch, take a nap, and go home. The old man finally retired in April 1995, He died that July in a nursing home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, three months shy of his 90th birthday. He was the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame.

Footnotes
[1] The other state natives in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and their induction year: Luke Appling (1964), Jim Hunter (1987), Buck Leonard (1972), Gaylord Perry (1991), Enos Slaughter (1985), and Hoyt Wilhelm (1985).
[2] Here are Rick Ferrell’s lifetime stats, as compiled by Baseball Reference, and his place among N.C. major leaguers: Seasons, 18, 3 (tie); walks, 931, 4; one-base percentage, .378, 5; games played, 1,884, 6; wins above average, 33.7, 6; at bats, 6,028, 7; hits, 1,692, 7; runs batted in, 734, 7; doubles, 324, 8; triples, 45, 10 (tie); runs, 687, 14; batting average, .281, 16 (tie).
[3] What’s now called Oak Ridge Military Academy occupies a prominent place in the history of baseball in North Carolina. The private school, which traces its roots to the 1850s, was considered one of the best prep schools in the state in the late 19th century. Under coach Earl Holt, the school’s baseball program during the first decades of the 20th century developed more than a dozen major-league players, including Jackie Mayo, Dick Burrus, Al Evans, Pete Shields, Chubby Dean, Max Wilson, the Hayworth brothers (Red and Ray), and the Ferrell brothers.
[4] Twelve players from Guilford College have made it to the majors, according to Baseball Reference: Bill Lindsay (1911), Ernie Shore (1912-20), Tim Murchison (1917, 1920), Tom Zachary (1918-36), Luke Stuart (1921), Rufus Smith (1927), Rick Ferrell (1929-47), Bob Garbark (1934-45), Stu Martin (1936-43), Boyd Perry (1941), Bill Bell (1952, 1955), and Tony Womack (1993-2006).
[5] The game on July 6, 1933 pitting the best players of the National and American leagues was part of the Chicago World’s Fair. Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, came up with the idea. The game was intended to be a one-time event that would accompany the fair and that could also boost morale during the Great Depression. Ward decided that the fans would select the starting nine players and the managers the other nine. The Tribune called it the “Game of the Century,” and 55 newspapers across the country ran the fans’ ballots. The Tribune estimated the attendance at 49,000. Net gate receipts of about $45,000 ($970,000 when adjusted for inflation) went to a charity for disabled and needy major league players.
[6] The Washington Senators knuckleballers were: Dutch Leonard, Mickey Haefner, John Niggling, and Roger Wolff. It is the only starting rotation in baseball history to feature four pitchers who threw mainly knuckleballs.
[7] Though the Veterans Committee was abolished and replaced by five Eras Committee, charges of cronyism still haunts the selection process. See this analysis in Baseball Prospectus: https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/19799/prospectus-hit-and-run-the-curious-case-of-freddie-lindstrom/.

References
[I] Hoogesteger, John. “Friends, Family Pay Respects to a Legend.” Detroit (MI) Free Press, Aug.1, 1995.
[II] Ferrell, Kerrie, “Rick Ferrell.” Society of American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/rick-ferrell/.
[III] Edwards, Henry P. “Rick Ferrell Had Boxing Ambitions.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Jan. 16, 1931.
[IV] “Phil Ball Snatched Rick in Cloak-and-Dagger Deal.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), April 22, 1959.
[V] Tiede, Joe. “Ferrell’s Attention Turns From Field to Front Office.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Aug. 9, 1984.
[VI] Thomy, Al. “Rick Ferrell, the Consummate Receiver.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), June 4, 1984.
[VII] Stahr, John W. Associated Press. “Here’s Really Good Yarn About Ferrell Brother.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), May 3, 1931.
[VIII] Freedman, Lew. “Knuckleball: The History of the Unhittable Pitch.” Sports Publishing: New York, 2015.
[IX] Hawkins, Burton. “Ferrell Would Resume Catching Role; Nats Tackling Tigers.” Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 13, 1947.
[X] Hawkins, Burton. “Ferrell at 40 Finest Catcher in League, Nats’ Best at Bat.” Evening Star (Washington, DC), Aug. 5, 1947.
[XI] “Rick Ferrell 1984 Hall of Fame Speech.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cMGwLmsYzU.
[XII] Tiede, Joe. “Ferrell Is Unaccustomed to Attention He’s Getting.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Aug. 9, 1984.

 

 

 

 

Crowson, Woody

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Fuquay Springs

First, Middle Names:  Thomas Woodrow
Date of Birth:  Sept. 9, 1918   Date and Place of Death: Aug. 14, 1947, Greensboro, NC
Burial: Springfield Friends Meeting House Cemetery, High Point, NC

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 185
Debut Year: 1945        Final Year: 1945          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Athletics, 1945

Career Summary
G          W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR

1           0          0          0        6.00     3          2           0.0

It had been a meaningless game – even in August — between two teams heading nowhere. The dismal, hometown A’s of Martinsville, Virginia, were destined for last place in that 1947 season of the Carolina League, a lowly Class C congregation of eight teams, most in North Carolina, that had formed two years earlier to compete in the subbasement of the minor leagues. The fifth-place Patriots of Greensboro, North Carolina, were little better. The A’s won 9-4 that night, but the outcome made little difference in the final league tally. A game of no athletic significance would however have tragic human consequences.

Long bus rides along dark, country roads were staples of life for minor leaguers back then. They were endured but rarely enjoyed by the 15 Patriots who boarded the team bus for the 50-mile trip back to Greensboro. Third baseman James “Sheepy” Lambe slipped behind the wheel, while the others settled into their seats. Some likely cracked open bottles of beer. A few played cards or read. Many tried to follow Woody Crowson’s example and take a nap. He chose the long seat at the back of the bus to stretch out. By all later accounts, he was fast asleep by the time the bus pulled out of town.

If a fifth-place team could claim a pitching ace, Crowson, with a 12-13 record and the lowest earned-run average among the starters (3.51), was it. At 28, he was also one of the oldest Patriots. He had pitched six years in the minors, preceded by several more seasons in the industrial leagues that flourished amid the textile plants near his home in High Point, North Carolina. He was also the only player on the team who had pitched in the big leagues. It was only a few innings in one game, but the big leagues all the same.

Thomas Woodrow was born in Fuquay Springs in southern Wake County in 1918 to Sam and Alberta Crowson.[1] The family, which included an older brother, Milton, moved to Sam’s family farm in adjacent Harnett County a couple of years later. By 1930, the Crowsons, which included an infant daughter, were living in High Point where Sam was a police officer.

Wooddy Crowson married Ruth Wood of High Point in 1938 and worked in area hosiery mills while pitching for their teams, once hurling 21 innings in a 6-5 loss. He signed his first professional contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1940 and spent the next five seasons in the low minors. Signed by the Athletics in 1945, he started the season in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Manager Connie Mack hoped he would bolster a pitching staff that had been depleted by World War II. He sent Crowson out on April 17 to start the sixth inning of a game against the Washington Senators that his team was already losing 10-2. Crowson gave up two more runs in three innings, and Mack shipped him back to the minors within days.

Steve Laney knew none of that history, of course. He very likely had never heard of Woody Crowson or the Greensboro Patriots for that matter. He was from Pageland, South Carolina, and worked for a trucking company owned by the town’s most-famous son, Van Lingle Mungo. A retired All-Star pitcher, he was a ballplayer most fans had heard of.[2]

Laney that night of August 13 was driving one of Mungo’s trucks loaded with watermelons to customers in Virginia. Sometime just before midnight on a curve in US 220 near the town of Mayodan, North Carolina, Laney and his watermelons heading north met the Greensboro Patriots on their bus going in the opposite direction. One of the vehicles strayed across the center line, which one would become a matter of dispute. They sideswiped each other. Metal crunched and glass broke before the bus and the truck came to jarring halts on the road’s shoulders. Laney was unhurt. The players filed out of the bus, some bruised, some cut by flying glass, but no one with serious injuries.

Woody Crowson wasn’t among the dazed players gathering outside the bus. He lay unconscious inside on the floor where his teammates tried unsuccessfully to revive him. Rushed by ambulance to Wesley Long Hospital in Greensboro, Crowson died early the next morning of a compound head fracture, the only serious injury in an otherwise minor accident.

His widow later sued Mungo, claiming his driver caused her husband’s death by crossing the center line. Some writers claimed, but without offering evidence, that Mungo had never properly insured his trucks and was forced to close the trucking business because of legal claims arising from the accident.

Footnotes
[1] Named for one of its early settlers, Fuquay Springs was incorporated in 1909. It merged with the nearby town of Varina in 1963 to become the modern Fuquay-Varina.

[2] Van Lingle Mungo pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants from 1931-1945. The five-time All-Star led the National League in strikeouts in 1936. He achieved legendary status in Brooklyn where he was the most-colorful and most-talented pitcher on terrible teams. Many of the stories centered around his carousing after games or his sour disposition during them. One of his managers and a colorful character himself, Casey Stengel, once famously said of his combative pitcher: “Mungo and I got along just fine. I just tell him I won’t stand for no nonsense, and then I duck.” (“Van Lingle Mungo” by David Frishberg, Baseball-Almanac.com, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/vanlinglemungo.shtml)

 

Narron, Sam

Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Emit (Johnston County)

First, Middle Names:  Samuel Woody
Date of Birth:  Aug. 25, 1913  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 31, 1996, Raleigh, NC
Burial: Antioch Baptist Church, Middlesex, NC

High School: Wakelon School, Zebulon, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 180
Debut Year: 1935        Final Year: 1943          Years Played: 3
Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1935, 1942-43

Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
24        28       8          0          1            0          .286     .310     .286      0.0

 

Sam Narron expected to be paid $125 a month after signing his first professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1934. He could use the money. Though only 20, he was the head of his family after the death of his elderly father. He had a mother and three siblings to care for back on the farm in Johnston County, North Carolina. This was his first job that paid real money, at least while the baseball season lasted.

He found himself in Albany, Georgia, to start the following season, however, catching and playing third base in a Class A league. His monthly pay was cut $35, but Narron didn’t squawk. He vowed instead to improve and convince his coaches that he deserved a promotion to a higher and better-paying league.

The famed tightwad Branch Rickey took notice. No one could squeeze a dollar harder than the Cardinals’ general manager, particularly if it was meant for one of his players. “Rickey believes in economy in everything except his own salary,” a sports columnist at the time quipped.[I] He could also be a bible-thumping moralist who regularly raged against the evils of Communists, liberals, and liquor. He had a fondness for oratorical excesses that could, noted The New York Times’ venerable Arthur Daly, make a hitter’s batting line sound like the Gettysburg Address. As a baseball executive, however, Branch Rickey was a man far ahead of his time, a pioneering innovator in an industry of plodding money men. With the Cardinals, he remade baseball by building the first modern minor-league system. With the Brooklyn Dodgers a decade later, he helped reshape America by bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. In his players he valued loyalty above all else, and in Sam Narron, Rickey believed he had found a loyal man.

When minor-league play ended in 1934, Rickey promoted Narron to the big club for the final three weeks of its season. That the burly farm boy had led the Georgia-Florida League with a .349 batting average was a powerful recommendation, but his bat apparently wasn’t needed in St. Louis because Narron appeared in only four games. He was, however, paid $100 a week. “Nobody told Sam Narron that Branch Rickey had given him that $300 September assignment with the Cardinals as a reward for having a fine disposition in the spring,” wrote a St. Louis sports columnist. “But it actually was that.”[II]

From then on, Rickey looked after Narron. He was the one who had suggested that he switch positions from third base to catcher to improve his opportunities in the big leagues. Though he made the switch, Narron remained in the minors for most of his playing career, but Rickey brought him back up as the third-string catcher on two pennant-winning Cardinals’ teams in the early 1940s. Narron followed Rickey to Brooklyn, New York, where he became the Dodgers’ bullpen catcher after he retired as a player. He ended his career as the Pirates’ bullpen chief when Rickey moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In both places, he coached on pennant-winning teams.

Though his major-league playing career consisted of a mere 24 games spread over three seasons, Narron could count more than 30 years in professional baseball when he finally returned to the family farm for good. He raised tobacco and became a baseball ambassador. In retirement, he was a tireless promoter of the sport, especially in Eastern North Carolina, where he spoke at meetings of hot-stove leagues and attended high-school, American Legion, and college games, proudly showing off his World Series rings. If a guy like him could wear one, he’d tell the kids, so could they if they worked at it. Having a benefactor like Branch Rickey somehow didn’t figure into those inspirational bromides.

Narron’s kin seemed to provide living examples of dedication’s fruits. His son, also named Sam but called Rooster, played in the minor leagues. His grandson, another Sam, pitched briefly in the majors before becoming a pitching coach. His nephew, Jerry, also a catcher, played eight years in the majors and managed for five more. Since the mid-1930s, seven other family members played organized ball, making Sam Narron the patriarch of one of North Carolina’s most-prolific baseball families.

Most of his people came from Emit, a farming community in northeastern Johnston County. Middlesex, about six miles up the road in neighboring Nash County, is the closest place of any size and where the mail was likely postmarked. Baseball references can be forgiven, then, for mistakenly listing it as Narron’s birthplace.

He was the youngest of five kids. Their father, Troy, was 50 when he married their mother, Rachel, who was half his age. He was 65 when Narron was born and he died when the boy was 11.

Like his older siblings, Narron worked in the family’s tobacco fields and grew into a stout teenager by the time he attended Wakelon School in nearby Zebulon, North Carolina, in the early 1930s.[1] He played baseball, basketball, and football at the high school and would in old age fondly recall the boys changing into their uniforms before games at Kermit Corbett’s barbershop downtown.

Annie Rose Southerland was one of those beloved teachers that all schools at the time seemed to cultivate. According to Narron’s later telling, she recognized that the boy could play and in 1934 wrote a letter to Rogers Hornsby to tell him so. Hornsby was, at the time, with the St. Louis Browns, at the end of an illustrious 17-year career that would earn him a berth in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. More importantly to Southerland, Hornsby was a parttime instructor at the Ray Doan Baseball School in Hot Springs, Arkansas, then the place where several big-league teams went to get in shape each spring.[2]  Schools that employed big leaguers to instruct kids who aspired to professional careers weren’t uncommon in the towns where the teams trained. They would proliferate when spring training later shifted to Florida.

Hornsby replied that the school would welcome her former student. “I shall always be indebted to Miss Southerland,” Narron said more than 20 years later. “It was through her inspiration and help that made it possible for me to attend the Ray Doan Baseball School. She truly had a hand in helping to shape my future.”[III]

No scholarship offer came with the letter, however, and Narron didn’t have the tuition money. His former classmates, though, came to his aid. “Oh, they were great. They got together and began to play benefit basketball games,” he remembered. “The proceeds went to help pay for my tuition at the baseball school. I shall always be grateful to these fellows.”[IV]

With the donated tuition money in his pocket, Narron stuck out his thumb in the spring of 1934 and hitchhiked the 600 miles to Little Rock. He did well enough at the school to attract the attention of a Cardinals’ scout, who invited Narron to a tryout camp in Greensboro, North Carolina. The team signed him to that first contract after his performance there and sent him that summer to play with its farm team in Martinsville, Virginia.

After his reward callup to St. Louis a year later, Narron was warming up a pitcher on September 15 when Bill DeLancey, the Cardinal’s starting catcher and a fellow Tarheel, ran out to the bullpen to fetch him. Manager Frankie Frisch wanted him to pinch hit. Narron made his debut that inning against the New York Giants’ future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. “I was so nervous, excited and scared that I would have probably swung if Hubbell had made a pick-off attempt toward first base,” he remembered.[V] He grounded out.

Desperate to fill the roster hole created when DeLancey had to unexpectedly leave the team because of a lung ailment, the Cardinals had all their catching prospects in training camp before the 1936 season. Among them were Narron and Cap Clark, a North Carolinian from Alamance County. An emergency appendectomy in March dashed any hope Narron may have had in making the team, and its lingering effects limited him to just 57 games that season for the Cardinals’ farm club in Sacramento, California.

He spent the next five seasons in the minor leagues, including a summer playing for the Tourists in Asheville, North Carolina. Rickey called him up to the majors in June 1942 to be the third-string catcher on a team heading for a pennant. Though he appeared in only 10 games and not at all in the World Series, his teammates voted him a full winning share of $6,192.53. Narron also spent much his time in the bullpen the following season as the Cardinals won 105 games and cruised to another pennant. He did get into the Series that year, appearing as a pinch hitter in Game 4, a 2-1 loss to the New York Yankees.

The Cardinals assigned him to their farm club in Columbus soon after the Series, but Narron chose to retire instead. He spent the following season at home on the farm raising tobacco.

Rickey had left the Cardinals at the end of the 1942 season to become the president and general manager of the Dodgers. He signed his old catcher in 1945, and Narron spent three seasons in the minors before retiring as an active player in 1949 and becoming the team’s bullpen coach and catcher. He did the same for the Pirates after Rickey became their general manager in 1951. He retired for good in 1964 with 28 at bats in the major leagues but with four appearances in the World Series – two as a player with the Cardinals and two as a coach, one with the Dodgers in 1949 and other with the Pirates in 1960.

He put that all behind him and returned to Emit. That’s where his roots were, where he and his wife, Susie, raised their two children. He got back to growing tobacco and started promoting the sport that made him who he was. He suffered from Alzheimer’s late in life and died of congestive heart failure in 1996.

Two years later, the family started a scholarship fund and an awards program in his honor. The Sam Narron Award has been given each year since to the Johnston County high-school player who best exhibits the skills, desire, and determination needed to succeed in baseball. Some scholarship money accompanies the award.

“He was a baseball purist,” a prep coach who knew Narron noted upon his death. “He had great faith in young people and continued to follow the game and teach it as he thought it should be.”[VI]

Footnotes
[1] Wakelon School opened in 1908, one of the nearly 3,000 schoolhouses built in North Carolina in the first decade of the 20th century as part of Gov. Charles B. Aycock’s crusade for public education. The town later used the handsome brick-and-stone building as an elementary school. A drug manufacturer bought the building in 1986 and used it for office space. Voters in 2007 approved repurchasing Wakelon for a new town hall. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
[2] Ray Doan, a sports promoter, ran the school, also known as the All-Star Baseball School, in Hot Springs, AR, from 1933-38. Some baseball players were instructors, including Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean, Burleigh Grimes, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Rogers Hornsby. At the height of its popularity, the school attracted as many of 200 students a year. Doan moved the school to Mississippi and then to Florida where it eventually faded amid the abundance of similar schools. Critics charged that schools like Doan’s merely pocketed tuition fees from teens with big dreams but little talent. Sam Narron is the only school attendee who made it to the major leagues.

References
[I] McCue, Andy. “Branch Rickey.” The Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/branch-rickey/.
[II] Stockton, J. Roy. “Extra Innings.” St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, February 9, 1936.
[III] “Earpsboro Scribblin’s.” Zebulon (NC) Record, July 19, 1955.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Futrell, Brownie. “The Gas House Gang Rides Again in Tar Heel Memory.” Washington (NC) Daily News, September 11, 1973.
[VI] Ham, Tom. “Baseball Loses Fine Ambassador.” Wilson (NC) Daily Times, January 3, 1997.