Ferrell, Rick

Player Name: Ferrell, Rick
Primary 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

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

Awards/Honors: National Baseball Hall of Fame, 1984; N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1965; All Star, 1933-38, 1944; Boys of Summer Top 100

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. Thirteenth on the list of the state’s Top 100 players, 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.

Narron, Sam

Primary 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.

 

Hamby, Jim

Primary Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Wilkesboro

First, Middle Names: James Sanford             Nickname: Cracker
Date of Birth:  July 29, 1897   Date and Place of Death: October 21, 1991, Springfield, IL
Burial: Camp Butler National Cemetery, Springfield, IL

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 170
Debut Year: 1926       Final Year: 1927          Years Played: 2
Team and Years: New York Giants, 1926-27

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
22        55        10        6          5          0          .182     .274     .218     -0.5

The only player from Wilkes County to make it to the major leagues, Jim Hamby appeared in 22 games over two seasons for the New York Giants. Though his big-league career was forgettable, Hamby was a respectable catcher during his 12 years in the low minor leagues. He retired to Springfield, Illinois, where he worked in a brewery. He was among the oldest former major leaguers when he died in 1991 at age 94.

Hamby was born in 1897 to a large farm family near Wilkesboro. He was the fifth of Jackson and Julianna’s nine children. All but one was a boy.

He was inducted into the Army in September 1918 and likely did his basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. World War I ended before he completed training, and he was discharged in December.

Fueled by the phenomenal growth of its tobacco and textile industries, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was booming when Hamby moved there in 1921. According to the census that year, he lived in a boarding house and worked at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the largest tobacco manufacturer in the world and the city’s biggest employer.

Hamby played his first professional baseball two years later when he hit .278 in 33 games for the Twins, the city’s entry in the Class C Piedmont League. He was the starting catcher by 1923, when he led the league with a .332 average. He continued his torrid hitting as he moved up the lower minor league — .301 for Rocky Mount, Virginia, in 1925 and .332 for Norfolk, Virginia, the next season. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname Cracker, a common moniker for any rural player, especially those from the South.

Looking for catching help, John McGraw, the manager of the Giants, signed him, and Hamby made his major-league debut on Sept. 20, 1926. He went hitless in three at bats and, worse, made two errors behind the plate. That was the only game he played that season. McGraw, though, had him back the next year, though, as his backup catcher. Hamby appeared in 22 games and hit .192. McGraw had seen enough. He shipped him back to the minors.

He played six more years in the low minors before injuries forced his retirement in 1933 at age 35. In almost 1,000 games over a dozen minor-league seasons, he hit .300 and was considered a solid defensive catcher.

Springfield was one of his many stops. He played for the city’s Senators in 1929 and ’30 and may have met and married a local woman, though no online records exist. In the 1940 census, though, Hamby is listed as a widower living with his brother-in-law and working at a brewery. He later married Julia Hamby. There are no records that he had children.

 

Watlington, Neal

Primary Positions: Catcher, pinch hitter
Birthplace: Yanceyville

First, Middle Names: Julius Neal
Date of Birth:  Dec. 25, 1922  Date and Place of Death: Dec. 29, 2019, Yanceyville
Burial: Yanceyville Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Yanceyville

High School: Bartlett Yancey High School, Yanceyville
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0. 195
Debut Year: 1953       Final Year: 1953          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Athletics, 1953

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
21        44        7          4          3          0        .159     .213     .182     -0.3

Neal Watlington went off to war in 1943. Unlike other ballplayers of his generation, Watlington actually fought the enemy. He didn’t play ball to entertain the troops. He was one of them who slogged through France and Germany. He went back home to Yanceyville in Caswell County when it was all over with a Purple Heart for wounds he would always pass off as mere “nicks.” He later played a few weeks in the big leagues and then settled in to become a pillar of his hometown. He died in 2019, a few days past his 97th birthday, as one of the oldest-living ballplayers.

Born on Christmas Day in 1922, Julius Neal Watlington was the only son among Julius and Laura’s seven children. As a teenager, he worked in his father’s general store and played baseball and football for the local high school.

He signed his first professional baseball contract with the Mayodan, North Carolina, Millers of the Class C Bi-State League. “Back in 1941 when I was 17 and just out of high school, a team of the old Bi-State League ran out of catchers,” Watlington explained later. “They asked if I’d catch a few games. I caught two games, got my release and forgot about it. So did everybody else. But a couple of years ago somebody went through some records, discovered those two games and added six years to my career.”[I]

That career was interrupted by war. Watlington joined the Army in 1943 and arrived in Europe with the 89th Infantry Division two years later. He spent six months on the front driving a Jeep and operating a machine gun as the division fought its way from northern France into Germany. He was hit in the hands and head by artillery shrapnel but told an interviewer in 1953 that the wounds were “nothing worth talking about.” Patched up, Watlington was wounded again but never applied for a second Purple Heart. “What do I need two for?” he once told his son.

Stuart Watlington, his only child who became a lawyer in Yanceyville, once offered to take his elderly father to Europe to revisit the battlefields. “I was so glad to get home,” Watlington said, “why would I want to go back?”[II]

When he arrived home in 1946, he worked at Caswell Knitting Mills in Yanceyville and played amateur baseball. A local fan recommended him to New York Giants’ scout Herb Brett, who signed him a year later to play with the Giants’ Class C Danville, North Carolina, Leafs. He hit .328 with 21 doubles and was one of the team’s offensive leaders.

Watlington was also the pride of Yanceyville. The local Rotary Club sponsored a Neal Watlington Night in Danville and hundreds of his Caswell County neighbors showed up to present him with a pocket watch.

He spent the next five years playing for the Giants’ Triple A farm clubs. He was a tobacco auctioneer in the offseasons and delighted his teammates with demonstrations.

The Philadelphia Athletics acquired Watlington before the start of the 1952 season. Manager Jimmy Dykes called him up from the Class AAA club in Ottawa, Canada, when the starting catcher, Joe Astroth, was injured in the middle of the season. The 30-year-old rookie debuted on July 12 against the Boston Red Sox and singled in his first at bat against Hal “Skinny” Brown, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native.

Watlington appeared in only 21 games and was used mostly as a pinch hitter, ending his only big-league season with a .159 batting average. “Both [Ray] Murray and Astroth only hit .250 in the big leagues, but both of them hit in the .290s that season,” he explained. “Both of them had good years, and there just wasn’t any place for me. You can’t get a better batting average by pinch-hitting.”[III]

After five more years as a solid Class AAA catcher, Watlington retired from baseball in 1958 and returned home to run the department store that he and his wife, Katherine, had bought five years earlier. Watlington’s on the Square was a downtown fixture for more than 50 years.

During that time Watlington became one of the most-respected men in town. He coached youth baseball teams and was the president of the Rotary Club, a board member of the Chamber of Commerce, an elder at the Yanceyville Presbyterian Church, and a charter member of the local Veterans of Foreign War post.

At 75, Watlington decided to plant a few fruit trees in his back yard. Within two years, he planted more than 200 apple, peach and pear trees and worked the orchard until his late 80s.

At the time of his death, he and Katherine had been married for 67 years. She died about six months later.

References
[I] Obituary: Neal Watlington (1922-2019).” RIP baseball, https://ripbaseball.com/2020/01/06/obituary-neal-watlington-1922-2019/
[II] Ibid.
[III] Diunte, N. “Neal Watlington, Former Philadelphia Athletics Catcher Dies at 97.” Baseball Happenings, January 6, 2020, https://www.baseballhappenings.net/2020/01/neal-watlington-former-philadelphia.html

 

DeLancey, Bill

Primary Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Greensboro

First, Last Names: William Pinkney
Date of Birth:  Nov. 28, 1911 Date and Place of Death: Nov. 28, 1946, Phoenix, AZ
Burial: St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, Phoenix, AZ

High School: Bessemer High School, Greensboro
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 185
Debut Year: 1932       Final Year: 1940          Years Played: 4
Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1932, 1934-35, 1940

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
219      598    173      79        85        19       .289     .380     .472     4.0

At age 22, Bill DeLancey was a promising rookie and a fiery leader on the famed Gas House Gang that won a World Series. At 23, he was bed-ridden in a hospital and wracked with pain from a serious lung disease. At 35, he was dead.

Everyone who saw DeLancey play during his brief major-league career agreed that he was one of the game’s best young catchers. The kid had it all: a potent bat, a powerful throwing arm and the leadership skills that can’t be taught. “The greatest young catcher baseball ever looked at,” Frankie Frisch, DeLancey’s manager on the St. Louis Cardinals, told Grantland Rice, the legendary sportswriter. “Another Dickey, Cochrane or Hartnett. Maybe better.”[1][I]

William Pinkney DeLancey was born in 1911 to a large Irish family that eventually numbered 14 children. His parents, William and Rosa, ran a boarding house in Greensboro and worked in cotton mills.

DeLancey played baseball at old Bessemer High School on teams that starred his older brother, Jimmy, who was also a catcher.[2] Bill would take over when his brother moved to first base. He didn’t land the regular catching job until his senior year.[II]

After graduating in 1930, DeLancey played briefly for semipro teams near home and then for several independent minor-league clubs. The Cardinals signed him in 1932 and sent him to their Class C affiliate in Springfield, Ohio. DeLancey was the best player on a team that won a pennant. He hit .329 with a .414 slugging percentage, thanks largely to his 20 triples – proof that the kid could run, a rarity for a catcher — and 18 home runs. He also knocked in 110 runs to lead the team.

The Cardinals called DeLancey up at the end of the season. He made his debut on Sept. 11, 1932 at the Polo Grounds in New York and singled off Carl Hubbell, the Giants’ Hall of Fame pitcher.

After an equally impressive year the following season with the Cardinals’ top farm team in Columbus, Ohio, DeLancey was slated to back up veteran catcher Virgil “Spud” Davis on the big-league club in 1934. This, however, was the Gas House Gang, a bunch of talented, hard-nosed players who would win 95 games and the World Series.[3] Made up mostly of veterans, the team featured five regulars who would hit at least .300, a 30-game winner in Dizzy Dean, four All-Stars and seven future Hall of Famers.[4]

Frisch was understandably reluctant to put such a group in the hands of a rookie catcher. DeLancey didn’t get his first start until May 30. He went 4-for-5 with a triple and a homer and knocked in four runs. He also dispelled any doubts his manager had.

DeLancey started almost half the games the rest of the way. He responded by hitting .316, which included 18 doubles and 13 homers. He also threw out almost half the base stealers.

As talented as he was standing at the plate, DeLancey may have been even better behind it. A good defensive catcher, Cardinals’ pitchers preferred throwing to him. It was a varied bunch that included the young, phenom brother duo, Dizzy and Paul Dean, and grizzled veterans Burleigh Grimes and Jesse Haines. They all respected DeLancey’s fearlessness and trusted his judgment behind the plate. “On the field, he knew everything,” Branch Rickey, the Cardinals’ general manager, wrote in his autobiography. “He knew the movements of the baserunner backwards and forwards and learned the hitting traits of batsmen overnight. He anticipated managerial tactics and acted on his judgment. He had a remarkable pitching sense.”[III]

He also had a short fuse. DeLancey could be prickly. He argued with and swore at umpires and even at his manager. Frisch, at the tail end of a Hall of Fame career, also played second base. He advised the youngster before one game to try and lay off high fastballs because he was popping them up. On his next at bat, DeLancey deposited a high fastball on the roof of the Cardinals’ Sportsman’s Park. “That’s how much you know, you dumb Dutchman,” he snapped when he got back to the dugout.[IV]

It was a measure of the trust that Frisch had developed in his bad-tempered backstop that DeLancey started every game of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. He only hit .172, but that included three doubles and a homer. He also expertly handled the pitching staff through the seven games and angered an umpire.

Mickey Cochrane, the Tigers’ manager and catcher, relayed the details to reporters. Umpire Brick Owens judged the first pitch DeLancey saw in the fifth game to be a strike. DeLancey snapped out a few choice expletives. The umpire told him they would cost him $50.

“Why don’t you make it a hundred, you thieving bum?” DeLancey responded.

Owens did.

“Make it two,” DeLancey screamed.

Owens obliged.

Cochrane then interceded, advising the kid to shut up before he spent his Series money on fines.[V]

Kenesaw Landis, the baseball commissioner, later ruled that umpires weren’t empowered to levy fines. He reduced DeLancey’s penalty to the original $50.

All that aside, the starting catching job was DeLancey’s in 1935, but a nagging cough prevented him from claiming it. Though he appeared in 103 games, DeLancey hit just .279 and often appeared weak.

After the season, DeLancey, a chain smoker, was hospitalized with a lung infection that the newspapers reported to be pneumonia. He didn’t improve, and doctors later said that fluid was accumulating in the lining of his lungs, and they suggested that DeLancey move to the Southwest where the dry climate would aid his recovery. [5]

DeLancey took his doctors’ advice. He and his wife, Frances, a nursing student he had met in Dayton, Ohio, and their baby daughter, Doris Ann, moved to Phoenix, Arizona. DeLancey was so weak when he was released from the hospital that he had to be carried to the train on a stretcher. He was bed-ridden for eight months, and his lungs had to be drained every 48 hours. The Cardinals paid for the training to teach Frances how to perform the task.

He recovered well enough that he managed the Cardinals’ new farm team in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for three seasons, starting in 1937. The club won back-to-back pennants.

DeLancey returned to the Cardinals in 1940. By then, his story had captured the hearts of baseball fans – a World Series hero at 22 and a deathly ill hospital patient a year later. Writer Marlowe Branagan of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah summed it up in the dramatic fashion of the time: The white, hot, penetrating sun of the Arizona wastelands and the dead-game heart of a Mick who was sick combined in 1936 to fight a lonely battle that few survive.”[VI]

There would be no storybook ending this time, no comeback for the ages. DeLancey played in only 15 games in 1940. He retired for good two years later.

He returned to Arizona where he was a salesman for a sporting-goods company. He and Frances had another daughter.

His health worsened, though, and DeLancey died on Thanksgiving Day in 1946. It was also his 35th birthday.


Footnotes
[1] Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett are all in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
[2] The school , which held its first commencement in 1906, was in Bessemer, then a small community near Greensboro. It was merged with Page High School in 1963.
[3]
Though its exact origins are debated, the nickname certainly derived from the team’s general shabby appearance and rough on-the-field tactics. A “gas house” at the time was a factory that converted coal to “town” gas for cooking and lighting. They were common in most cities before the advent of natural gas. Foul-smelling, they were in the worst parts of town.
[4]
The players who were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Pitchers Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Burleigh Grimes and Jesse Haines; infielders Leo Durocher and Frisch; and outfielder Joe Medwick.
[5]
Pleurisy is a symptom of numerous diseases and conditions — viral and bacterial infections, congestive heart failure, autoimmune disease, lung cancer, to list a few – but the exact cause of DeLancey’s was never publicly reported. Newspapers later reported that he suffered from tuberculosis, which can lead to a buildup of fluid around the lungs.

References
[1] Rice, Grantland. “Sportlight.” Ignacio (CO) Chieftain, March 12, 1943
[II] “With N.C. Boys in Majors Yesterday.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), June 26, 1934.
[III] Ayers, Thomas. “Bill DeLancey.” The Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-delancey/.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Associated Press. “Umpire Fines DeLancey $200 for ‘Slander.’” Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times, October 8, 1934.
[VI] Branagan, Marlowe. “Down the Middle.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT), February 18, 1941.