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.

 

 

 

 

Tyson, Turkey

Position: Pinch hitter
Birthplace: Elm City

First, Middle Names: Cecil Washington        Nicknames: Turkey
Date of Birth: Dec. 6, 1914     Date and Place of Death: Feb. 17, 2000
Burial: Cedar Grove Cemetery, Elm City

High School: Undetermined
College: Oak Ridge Military Institute, Oak Ridge, NC

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-5, 225
Debut Year: 1944       Final Year: 1944          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Phillies, 1944

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1          1          0          0          0          0        .000     .000     .000     0.0

Turkey Tyson had one day in the big leagues. He pinch hit in the ninth inning of a meaningless game and popped out to third. It was a brief interlude to a 15-year career down on the farms. Tyson bounced around minor-league clubs, from Tallahassee, Florida, to Utica, New York, accumulating a .300 career batting average and acquiring a reputation as a boisterous, fan favorite. After a very public feud with Cuban opponents that had a nasty, racial overtone, Tyson wore out his welcome up North and returned to North Carolina where he became a minor-league legend as a player and manager.

George and Jennie Tyson named the first of their two children Cecil when he was born in December 1914 in Elm City in Wilson County, but everybody called him Turkey most of his adult life. Some said it was because he once visited the country of that name with a baseball team. Others claimed it was the gobbling sound he made whenever he got a hit.[I]

Tyson began playing baseball at an early age on teams representing Elm City. “We would play teams from different communities, and a lot of times the teams would end up fighting among themselves,” he remembered many years later.[II]

The games certainly got more structured and less violent when he entered Oak Ridge Military Institute in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1932, probably to finish high school and then to enter the junior-college program that the school offered. His real motivation, however, was to play ball. The private school was something of a baseball factory, having sent a number of its students to the major leagues.[1]

A year after graduating in 1936, Tyson was chosen to play and teach baseball in England.[2] The now-defunct U.S. Baseball Congress, which supported amateur baseball, sponsored the trip as a way to lobby for the sport’s addition to the Olympics

Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers when he returned home, Tyson played his first professional ball for Dodgers’ farm teams in Tallahassee and Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938. They were the first of the nine different minor-league clubs that he would play first base and manage over the coming decade. His solid hitting, all that gobbling as he ran up the first base line, and his full-throated arguments with umpires made him a favorite of hometown fans wherever he went.

Tyson was in Utica in 1944, playing for the Phillies’ Class A Blue Sox, when he was called up to Philadelphia. The 29-year-old rookie had his one at bat on April 23 and was back in a Utica uniform a couple of days later.

The Blue Sox won the Eastern League pennant the following season but not without controversy. Many ballplayers were in military uniforms that year, America’s third in World War II. To fill rosters, the league had encouraged the signing of players from Cuba. Their numbers had increased dramatically since the start of the war, creating tension with some American players and coaches in the league. Resentment toward the Cubans was becoming a major problem, noted Louis Pickelner, the sports’ editor of the newspaper in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a league city. “Abuse of Cuban players is reaching a point which requires drastic action to save the game we reverently call our ‘National Pastime’ from being smeared by unsportsmanship ,” he wrote in July 1945.[III]

If the problem had a face, it would have looked a lot like Turkey Tyson’s. It’s hard to know how it all started and who should shoulder the burden of blame from 70-year-old newspaper accounts. Clearly, though, the Cubans were a bit brash. Maybe they thought they had something to prove to these Yanquis, but they played a brand of ball that Ty Cobb would have found familiar. They slid hard into bases, sometimes with spikes high. They barreled into catchers on plays at home and, when pitching, threw at batters.

Tyson seems to have been a favorite target, probably because he griped and complained to umpires and angrily confronted the offenders. The league’s owners fined and suspended him twice for his public displays. His second and longest suspension of 15 games came after he charged the mound with a bat during a game with Williamsport’s Rebels. Constrained by teammates, Tyson returned to the dugout without inflicting any physical harm, though he may have shouted the “N” word at the Cubans several times during the short journey. At the end of the inning, Dan Parra, a Rebels’ Cuban pitcher, charged across infield with two bats to confront Tyson. Again, teammates interceded and a truce was called with no one getting hurt.

Parra’s more lenient sentence from the league – a three-day suspension – triggered even more resentment among some of the league’s American players, coaches, and sportswriters who publicly proclaimed their support for Tyson, one of their own, while ridiculing the foreigners’ faulty English and even their food preferences. Pickelner, however, wasn’t among them. “A guy like Turkey Tyson, a double offender of the code of fair play, can very well wreck the entire structure of the Eastern League if not put in his place once and for all,” he wrote.[IV]

Little wonder, then, that Tyson expressed relief when he signed with the Durham, North Carolina, Bulls in 1947. The Class C club was a couple of steps down from the Blue Sox, but he was home again. “I didn’t like it up there, and I wanted to get back down home,” he said.[V]

He had his best year with the Bulls that season, hitting .349 and driving in 105 runs. He also set a Carolina League record with 74 assists at first base. It formed the foundation of a reputation Tyson would build over the next five years playing or managing four different minor-league clubs in North Carolina. He was colorful, quotable and considered a smart baseball man. At the end of his career when he was old enough to be the father of many of the youngsters he managed, Tyson was the wizened sage of the diamond.

He returned to Elm City in the offseasons where he was the most-famous man in the town of 800. He hawked tobacco as an auctioneer and swapped mules. “I’m a mule trader in the winter months,” he said in 1948. “I’ll buy mules and I’ll trade mules.” Most farmers around Elm City told reporters that Turkey could drive a hard bargain.[VI]

There was no reason to leave town after 1952, the year Tyson quit as manager of the local Leafs in Rocky Mount, a Class D team that occupied the lowest rung in the minor-league hierarchy. The team wasn’t very good and was going nowhere and the old mule trader couldn’t inspire them to do better. He abruptly quit in the middle of the season.

Tyson settled in with Hester, whom he had married in 1950, as Elm City’s famous son. He was elected as a town alderman in 1963 and served five terms. His brother, George, was mayor for much of that time.

He died in 2000 at age 85.


Footnotes
[1] What’s now called Oak Ridge Academy occupies an important place in the history of baseball in North Carolina.  The 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, and the Hayworth brothers (Red and Ray).
[2] Pitcher Max Wilson of Haw River, North Carolina, also made the trip. He made brief appearances in the major leagues in 1940 and 1946. See his profile for a more information.

References
[I] Temple, Bob. “Elm City, 1,000 in Population, has many Distinguishing Features.” Sunday Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), February 12, 1950.
[II] Cockrell, Bennett. “Cecil ‘Turkey’ Tyson Has Fond Memories.” Nashville (NC) Graphic, November 16, 1990.
[III] Pickelner, Louis, “A Little Extra.” Williamsport (PA) Sun-Gazette, July 20, 1945.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Quincy, Bob. “Leafs’ New Pilot Stopped Show at Coronation of Britain’s King.” Evening Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), January 30, 1948.
[VI] Ibid.

 

Wilson, Max

Position: Starting pitcher, relief pitcher
Birthplace: Haw River

Date of Birth:  June 3, 1916    Date and Place of Death: Jan. 2, 1977, Greensboro
Burial: Pine Hill Cemetery, Burlington

High School: Burlington High School 
College: Oak Ridge Military Institute, Oak Ridge, N.C.

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-7, 160
Debut Year: 1940       Final Year: 1946          Years Played: 2
Teams and Years: Philadelphia Phillies, 1940; Washington Senators, 1946

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
12        0          1          0          9.15     19.2     11        -1.1

 Max Wilson was a star in high school and a statewide sensation by the time he graduated from college. He was the “famous” Max Wilson in newspapers by then. Because shameless excess was the hallmark of good sports writing at a time when the reading public wasn’t so easily insulted, “marvelous Max” was also the “midget,” the “half pint,” the “tiny tosser.” Writers marveled that such a little guy – young Max was 5-7 and maybe 155 pounds soaking wet – could throw so hard.

Regardless of his size, there was no denying Wilson’s talent. The boy could pitch. In high school, in college, for the mill teams that flourished around his home in Burlington, among the hand-picked amateurs sent to England to showcase the American sport, even for the Navy during World War II, Wilson was always the best pitcher on the squad, usually leading his teams to championships.

Where it counted though, in the big leagues, Max Wilson was a dud. He made two trips to the majors, six years apart. In a dozen games and almost 20 innings, Wilson compiled an embarrassing 9.15 earned-run average, walking as many as he struck out. See, said the doubting scouts at the time, the “tiny southpaw” is just too small. Maybe. More likely, like so many promising kids before him and since, Max Wilson for the first time faced the best hitters on the planet. Johnny Mize or Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams didn’t play on the Tower mill team or make the trip to England.

Born in 1916, Max was the eldest of Earl and Veta Wilson’s three boys. They grew up in Haw River in Alamance County where Earl was a superintendent in a knitting mill.

Wilson pitched his Burlington High School team to consecutive state championships in 1934-35. He struck out 20 batters in a game his senior year, starting a streak of 66 Ks in 38 innings.

When school ended for the summers, Wilson worked in the mills and pitched for their very competitive baseball teams.

The summer of 1937 was the exception. The now-defunct U.S. Baseball Congress invited Wilson and about 100 other amateurs to Miami that spring to try out for teams that it would send to England to promote the sport. The organization, which supported amateur baseball, was lobbying for baseball to be added to the Olympics. Wilson made the cut and went 13-0 in England that summer.

His fame was solidified back home in Guilford County, at what is now Oak Ridge Academy.[1] After returning from England, Wilson enrolled in the private military school’s junior-college program. By then, the school had acquired a reputation as a baseball incubator, having graduated a number of major leaguers. Wilson threw a perfect game against Wingate Junior College in 1938, striking out 25 of the 27 batters. Only one hitter managed to put the ball in play. Nine days later, he pitched a no-hitter, striking out 18. Wilson yielded just four hits in a 10-1 win in his next outing, fanning another 18. He led Oak Ridge that year to the state junior college baseball title.

He became the “famous one” in newspaper accounts, and major-league teams considered signing him despite the misgivings about his size. Connie Mack, a shrewd judge of baseball talent as the longtime manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, wrote to a friend in North Carolina who knew Wilson that he “would like to take a chance with this youngster and am wondering if you could see him and have him get in touch with me pertaining his joining our club.”[I]

A cocky Wilson told a sportswriter in 1938 that he intended to play major-league ball after graduating from Oak Ridge in the spring. “It just wouldn’t be worth my time to fool with the minor class of ball,” he said, “but I fully realize that my size is a handicap if I do get in the majors.”[II]

Wilson, of course, had no say in the matter. The Cleveland Indians beat Mack and signed Wilson after graduation,  assigning him to their farm team in Springfield, Ohio. Though it was a Class C league, the lowest in the minors, Wilson didn’t gripe and considered his 8-4 record a success. “And the other reason is that I proved to myself and a lot of other guys that a little fella can stay in there with the rest of ‘em,” he said.[III]

The Indians, though, apparently had second thoughts. They traded Wilson to the Philadelphia Phillies after the season. He won 35 games over the next two years in the minors and was called up to Philadelphia at the end of the 1940 season. In three games that September, the 24-year-old lefty gave up 10 runs in seven innings.

It was back to the minors. Wilson had his best season in 1941, going 19-9 with a 2.39 ERA in a Class B league. Who knows what would have happened if Japan hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor that December.

Wilson enlisted in the Navy soon after the attack. As a petty officer third class, he pitched spectacularly during the 1943 Norfolk Navy World Series, winning three games, two by 1-0 shutouts. Wilson pitched again in the service’s World Series two years later while stationed in Honolulu, throwing a 4-0 one-hitter in the second game.

He was 30 when the war ended, and his best pitching days were behind him. Wilson fared just slightly better in his second call up to the majors, this time with the Washington Senators in 1946. He gave up another 10 runs in almost 13 innings of relief. His career was over.

Wilson and his wife, Emogene, moved to Greensboro in the 1950s where they raised their two sons and Wilson worked for S&W Distributors. The boys, Robbie and Max, would later pitch for N.C. State University. Their dad never missed a home game.

Wilson died in 1977. He was only 60.

Footnote
[1] Oak Ridge Academy occupies an important place in the history of baseball in North Carolina.  The 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, the Ferrell brothers (Wes and Rick), and the Hayworth brothers (Red and Ray).

References
[I] Hayden, Wesley. “They’re Taking Notice.” Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), May 13, 1938.
[
II] Beerman, William L. “Pardon Me, But…” Daily Tar Heel (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC), May 13, 1938.
[
III] Bedingfield, Gary. “Max Wilson.” Baseball in Wartime, April 24, 24 2008. http://baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/wilson_max.htm

 

 

Anderson, Fred

Position: Starting pitcher, relief pitcher
Birthplace: Calahaln

Full Name: John Frederick
Date of Birth:  Dec. 11, 1885  Date and Place of Death: Nov. 8, 1957, Winston-Salem
Burial: Salem Cemetery, Winston-Salem

High School: Oak Ridge Academy, Oak Ridge, NC
College: Davidson College, Davidson, NC; University of Maryland-Baltimore

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 180
Debut Year: 1909       Final Year: 1918          Years Played: 7
Teams and Years: Boston Red Sox, 1909, 1913; Buffalo Buffeds, 1914-15; N.Y. Giants, 1916-18

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
178      53        57        8        2.86     986.1   514      3.4

Dr. Fred Anderson was a spit-balling dentist, certainly the only one in the history of baseball. For parts of seven seasons during the second decade of the 20th century, Anderson made baseballs do funny things by legally lathering them with his saliva. In the off season, he reached into patients’ mouths to practice his other craft.  

That made Anderson unusual in another way. Unlike most players of his era, he wasn’t a slave to autocratic team owners wielding contracts that gave them complete control over their hires’ careers. He could afford to be independent. If he didn’t like the money an owner offered for his services, Anderson had the option of being a fulltime dentist or a collegiate baseball manager instead or even jumping to another major league.

He actually did all of those things before retiring from baseball with a 2.86 earned-run average, or ERA, third-best among North Carolina pitchers with more than 500 major-league innings. Anderson settled in Winston-Salem, not too far from his ancestral home, where he practiced dentistry for almost 30 years.

Andersons’ ancestors had helped found Calahaln, a small community in western Davie County. John Frederick was born there in 1885, the youngest of four siblings. Their father, John, was a pioneering physician in the area who died when little Freddy was less than a year old. He and the rest of the family lived with an older sister, first in Mocksville, the county seat, and then in Statesville in Iredell County.

Fred attended a private school in Boone, North Carolina, and then Oak Ridge Military Institute east of Greensboro, North Carolina, where he started pitching for the school team. It was at Davidson College, in the town of the same name near Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1906 that Anderson began lubricating the ball. Many young pitchers at the time were experimenting with spitballs in the hopes of imitating “Big Ed” Walsh, a Pennsylvania coal miner who would dominate the American League for the next seven seasons by throwing spitters.[1]

After graduating from Davidson in 1907, Anderson played for semipro teams. That May, he married Mary Coiner of Statesville. They would have a daughter, Elsie, born in 1909, but the couple broke up three years later. Mary married another ballplayer and moved to Tennessee, taking Elsie with her. Anderson would marry Clementine Tise in 1921. They would have no children.

Anderson finished dental school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore in 1909 and then signed his first professional contract with the Wilson, North Carolina, Tobacconists of the Eastern Carolina League. Though it occupied the lowest rung of the ladder to the majors, the Class D league would become famous because on the nearby Rocky Mount team that season was Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. His two seasons with the Railroaders would exact a heavy toll after Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympic Games. He was stripped of the medals because his time in Class D baseball violated amateur rules. The medals would be restored to the Thorpe family in 1983.

Though no Jim Thorpe, Anderson was a pretty good specimen himself at 6-2 and 180 pounds. He won 10 games by July for Wilson when the Boston Red Sox signed him. Anderson made his major-league debut on Sept. 25, 1909 in the second game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns. He yielded just three singles but left in the eighth inning trailing 3-1 because of two costly errors. The Sox would come back and win the game in extra innings.

The Red Sox likely didn’t expect a guy who pitched in just one major-league game to be so demanding, but Anderson wouldn’t accept the contract that the team sent him for the 1910 season. He wanted more money. Ballplayers then rarely won such disputes. Their first contracts legally tethered players to their teams for life and they couldn’t offer their services to other major-league clubs. Without that freedom, players had little leverage in contract negotiations. All they could do was hold out, usually for a few weeks. Most eventually signed on the owners’ terms. Dr. Anderson, however, had other, equally lucrative, skills. He hung up his shingle in Statesville, started seeing patients and sat out the year. In retribution, the Red Sox sold his contract to minor-league Sacramento for the 1911 season. Anderson didn’t show up in California when the season started and spent another year as a fulltime dentist.

Finally, in 1912, the Red Sox and their independent-minded pitcher agreed on a contract, and Anderson reported to the team’s training camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas., that spring. He didn’t make the team, however, and spent two seasons in the minors. The Red Sox gave him another look in August 1913, but Anderson was awful, losing six games while giving up almost six runs a game.

With his future as a ballplayer looking bleak, Anderson took a job after the season as the baseball manager at what is now North Carolina State University. He would direct the team for the next three seasons. Anderson hinted to the newspapers when he took the job that his playing days were over.[I]

If he was seriously thinking about quitting, Anderson changed his mind in 1914 when the Buffalo Buffeds of the renegade Federal League made him an offer. He said the money was too good to turn down. [II] The league had started as a minor league but declared war on baseball in 1913 by actively recruiting players from the two established major leagues by offering higher salaries and the freedom to move from team to team.  Many made the switch. [2]

Anderson pitched well for Buffalo, winning 19 games during the league’s last season in 1915, but he had his best years when he rejoined established baseball with the New York Giants. Anderson had a great first half for the Giants in 1916 and a dismal final few months when he was the least effective pitcher on the team. He attributed it to a sore back, but John McGraw had other ideas. The wily Giants’ manager had watched from the bench as Anderson’s erratic spitter fooled opposing batters for a few innings, but they would usually got the measure of it the more they saw it. McGraw started limiting Anderson’s exposure by using him more and more as a relief pitcher. The strategy worked. Pitching mostly from the bullpen in 1917, Anderson led the National League with a 1.44 ERA. He was almost as good the following season, which was shortened by America’s entrance into World War I.

Anderson joined the Army’s aviation corps at the end of the year, but the war was over by the time he finished training in late 1918.

His baseball career was also done. Another contract dispute played a part, but so did changing times. Anderson may have sensed that his days were numbered. Spitballs had always been controversial. Doctoring the ball, many thought, wasn’t very sporting.  A ball stained by tobacco spittle and mud could also be dangerous. Batters had a hard time seeing such balls, especially late in games in the failing light on unlit fields. Ty Cobb thought there was another reason why the spitter was falling out of favor in the dawning era of Babe Ruth and the slugger. “Freak pitches […] were outlawed when the owners greedily sold out to home runs,” he wrote in his autobiography.[III]

Team owners voted after the 1919 season to limit spitball pitchers to two per team. After a Carl Mays’ spitter struck Ray Chapman in the temple and killed him in August 1920, the owners banned the spitball but exempted the 17 pitchers who threw them. When they retired, the spitter would be illegal. Burleigh Grimes, the last spitballer, retired in 1934.

Anderson left after the 1918 season. He was a dentist in Charlotte for a short time but was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two years later. He and his new wife, Clementine, settled in the South Fork section of Forsyth County, and Anderson practiced in the city until his retirement in 1948.

Suffering for two years with an undisclosed illness that was likely terminal, Anderson shot himself in 1957.

Footnotes
[1] Walsh spent all but the final season of his thirteen-year career with the Chicago White Sox. Throwing primarily a spitter he won 195 games during his career, including 40 in 1908. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946.
[2] Anderson was one of four North Carolina natives who played in the short-lived league, which folded after the 1915 season. For a more complete description of the league and its effects on major-league baseball, see the Ducky Yount
profile.

References
[I] Nowlin, Bill. “Fred Anderson.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/fred-anderson/.
[II] “Anderson Signs With Federals.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), March 15, 1914.
[III] Cobb, Ty with Al Stump. Ty Cobb: My Life in Baseball. New York: Doubleday, 1961.

 

 

 

Burrus, Dick

Position: First base
Birthplace: Hatteras

First, Middle Names: Maurice Lennon   Nicknames: Dick

Date of Birth:  Jan 29, 1898    Date and Place of Death: Feb. 2, 1972, Elizabeth City, NC
Burial: New Hollywood Cemetery, Elizabeth City

High School: Elizabeth City High School, Oak Ridge Academy, Oak Ridge, NC
College: N.C. State University, Raleigh, NC

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-11, 175
Debut Year: 1919       Final Year: 1928          Years Played: 6
Teams and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1919-20; Boston Braves, 1925-28

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
560     1760    513      206      211      11       .291     .247     .373     0.9      

Cornelius McGillicuddy, the manager and part owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, was a hard man to impress. Few men would ever match Connie Mack, as he was known to all, as a judge of baseball talent. He would remain in the game for more than 50 years as a player, manager or owner, acquiring nicknames along the way that reflected what his contemporaries thought of his acumen — The Tall Tactician, the Tall Tutor and the Great Old Man of Baseball.

Mack traveled down to Columbia, South Carolina, in June 1919 to check out a talented, 21-year-old minor-league first baseman. Dick Burrus got five hits that day and fielded his position with the grace that reminded Mack of Hal Chase, a peerless first baseman who was in the last year of a 15-year career. Reserved by nature and calculating in his evaluation of talent, Mack was reduced to a gushing suitor.[I]

“When I signed Burrus, I believed I was getting the greatest first sacker the Athletic club ever had,” Mack later remembered. “I said he wouldn’t be just a good player, but a player who will get big, black headlines.”[II]

Mack bought Burrus from the Columbia Comers in the Class C South Atlantic League for the unheard price of $5,000, or about $75,000 in current dollars. He later said he would have gone as high as $25,000, or almost $400,00 when adjusted for inflation.

It was real money, more than most men in Hatteras saw in a decade of fishing. Maurice Lennon Burrus grew up in the remote fishing village on an island of the same name that was a day’s sale from the N.C. mainland. Hatteras Island had yet to be marketed to the world as a part of the famed Outer Banks. Burrus would be the only person from the region to play in the major leagues.

He was the youngest of seven children. Their father, Capt. Dozier Burrus, was a well-respected elder who had been the keeper of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the mid-1870s, soon after it got its famous black and white stripes. Their mother, Achsah, died when Burrus was five. The family moved to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on the mainland in 1909 so that the kids could get a better education.

A teacher at the local high school, where Burrus first showed real talent on the baseball diamond, suggested he transfer to Oak Ridge Academy in Guilford County, more than 300 miles west. The private military school had become something of a cradle for major-league players.[1]

Burrus finished high school at Oak Ridge and received a partial athletic scholarship to attend what is now N.C. State University. He arrived in Raleigh in 1916 intending to study textile engineering, but World War I intervened. Burrus was drafted into the Army and spent two years at a base in Georgia.

He returned to State to play the last three games of the 1918 football season — he was on the team that Georgia Tech humiliated 128-0. Burrus played the entire baseball season the following spring and was signed by Columbia when it ended.

Within a few weeks of his signing, Dick Burrus from a far-off fishing village on the North Carolina coast, was heading to Philadelphia as a major leaguer. Mack wanted him at Shibe Park for the first game of a Sunday doubleheader, but Burrus got off the train at the wrong station and arrived during the second game. He walked into the A’s dugout just as George Burns, the team’s star first baseman, launched a deep home run. Mack intended to move Burns to the outfield to make room for his promising rookie.

“Burrus’ first words were, ‘What a hit that was. Who was the batter?’” Mack remembered. “When he was told the hitter was George Burns, the player he had been signed to succeed, his face fell. I will always believe that this entrance licked him. He had been signed to take the place of a man who in his first view of a major-league ball game had hit one of the longest homers he had ever seen. ‘What chance have I?’ he must have thought.”[III]

Burrus hit a respectable .258 that season for a hapless team that lost 104 games. His average, however, dropped more than 70 points after 71 games in 1920. Mack had seen enough and shipped Burrus back to the minors. “He was no more like the Burrus I saw at Columbia than a harmonica resembles a piano,” he said.[IV]

During the next four years, Burrus built a strong minor-league resume. His .365 average and near flawless play at first base in 1924 led the Atlanta Crackers to the Class A Southern Association pennant.

Having earned another shot at the majors, Burrus seemed to be reaching the potential that Mack envisioned. Playing in all 152 games for the Boston Braves in 1925, Burrus hit .340, ranking third in the National League. He rapped out 200 hits, including 50 for extra bases, and drove in a career-high 87 runs.

Hernias, not a destroyed psyche, stopped him. He played another three years in Boston, but hobbled by abdominal hernias, his playing time and numbers decreased each year. Though he hit .318 in 1927, Burrus played in less than half of the Braves’ games. He played two more years in the minors before being released in 1930. His .291 lifetime batting average ranks as ninth among North Carolina players with at least 1,000 at bats.

Burrus owned a restaurant in Atlanta for a time before moving with his wife, Beck, back to Hatteras. He was an oil distributor and fish dealer on Hatteras Island and was elected to the Dare County commissioners.  Burrus died of lung cancer a few days past his 74th birthday in 1972.

His daughters, Dixie Burrus Browning and Mary Burrus Williams, are prolific writers and artists. Dixie Browning has written more than 100 romance and historical novels, mostly about life on the Outer Banks. The sisters have collaborated on several works of fiction under the pen name Bronwyn Williams, a combination of their married names.

Footnote
[1] Oak Ridge’s Coach Earl Holt had already sent pitchers George Suggs, Dixie Davis and Jakie May to the majors. Wes Ferrell and his Hall of Fame brother, Rick, would come later.

References
[I] “Mack Very Fond of Dick Burrus.” Charlotte (NC) News, June 23, 1919.
[II] Ison, Wade. “The Isonglass.” Charlotte (NC) News, April 6, 1931.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Ibid.