Sterling HeightsJuly 24, 2012
Daughter covers the bases on Hall of Fame catcher’s life
By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer
Difficult to hit, catch and throw, the knuckleball is so uncommon that only a single Major League Baseball pitcher currently employs it.
“It’s a slow pitch that’s very unpredictable,” said Kerrie Ferrell. “It has no spin on it. It breaks right in front of the hitter. It can go up, it can go down, sideways. You don’t know what this pitch will do. It’s as hard for a batter to hit as it is for a catcher to catch.”
Even a half century ago, it was something of a rarity, which made what Ferrell’s father, Rick, did as catcher for the Washington Senators all the more notable.
“My father, in 1944 and 1945 … caught four knuckleball starters that used that knuckleball pitch in every game,” said Ferrell. “If a catcher only had one knuckleball pitcher to catch, it was considered monumental.”
Despite the degree of difficulty, the Senators suddenly ascended “from worst to almost first,” she said, noting wryly that the Detroit Tigers “nosed them out” in 1945.
Out of all of her father’s accomplishments, Ferrell latched on to that one for the title of her book chronicling his 66-year career, spanning from the field to the front office.
She’ll discuss “Rick Ferrell, Knuckleball Catcher,” sign copies and deliver an audiovisual presentation during a visit to the Sterling Heights Public Library Aug. 2.
Ferrell — who grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Ann Arbor — never saw her father play; he already was a coach and scout when she was young. But she remembers her first inkling that he might be somebody famous. A stranger approached her family in church one day when she was young enough to be in her dad’s arms.
“He said, ‘Honey, your daddy was a great catcher. … I used to watch your daddy play baseball, and he was just great,’” she recalled.
It was a refrain Ferrell would hear repeated many times over the years, just like she would hear her father and his brothers, Wes and George, also baseball players, constantly swap stories about the sport.
“I grew up with this father and uncles telling their baseball stories at every Sunday dinner, every gathering,” she laughed.
But Ferrell said she never grew weary of it; she relished it.
Starting in the minors in 1926, her father advanced to the majors in 1929 and spent 18 years as “one of the premier catchers of his era” for the Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators and St. Louis Browns, she said.
For five years, he and Wes played on the same teams, making them “one of the only brother batteries” — catcher/pitcher combinations — in the American League, said Ferrell.
In those days, baseball was less glitz, more grit.
“They didn’t have the big salaries they have now,” she said. “They were employed during the Depression, so that was something, and World War II, but it wasn’t particularly glamorous. It was a tough life, baseball.”
They traveled between series by train, treks as long as 26 hours, in quarters so dirty and noisy that it was impossible to sleep, said Ferrell.
Plus, without the protection of a union, “he played injured about half the time,” she said.
In 1950, Ferrell’s father joined the Detroit Tigers as a coach. After four years, he became a scout, then scouting director, before shifting to the Tigers’ front office in 1958.
He was promoted to general manager a year later, and he helped assemble the 1968 and 1984 World Series-winning teams. In 1984, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Prior to his 1992 retirement, he was vice president and a consultant. For 20 years, he also served on the playing rules committee, helping decide such issues as designated hitters and strike zones.
Growing up immersed in baseball, it’s not surprising that Ferrell harbored dreams of becoming a star herself.
“I just sort of followed suit, became a really good baseball player,” she said. “I figured I’d show everybody how good I was, and they’d have to let me play.”
But as it turns out, they didn’t — and they wouldn’t. Despite her skill, circa 1960, girls weren’t allowed in Little League, she said.
Ferrell relinquished her dreams after realizing she wouldn’t get far without Little League. She eventually became a singer, guitarist, teacher and administrator, but never stopped loving the sport.
Her father died in 1995, just shy of his 90th birthday; in 2000, Ferrell decided to research his early years. As she scoured old newspaper articles, she realized, “I think there’s a book here to be written, and I’m the person to do it.”
During the process, she decided she “needed another voice” with hers to ensure the finished product would be equally palatable for fans, researchers and everyday people. Through the Society for American Baseball Research, she found William M. Anderson, her eventual co-author, who had penned a book about the Detroit Tigers. He helped thread her research together, edit and contribute photos.
Along with stories about her father, the book includes Ferrell’s interviews with such baseball legends as George Kell, Ernie Harwell, Bobby Doerr and Virgil Trucks, as well as letters her dad wrote as the Tigers’ general manager.
Kathryn Ribant Payne, the library’s programming specialist, felt the subject matter would attract baseball fanatics and history buffs alike to Ferrell’s presentation.
“I think that’s always a great topic to touch upon, because there’s such a rich history with baseball,” she said. “People coming to this program might not know a ton about him — but I’m sure some have heard of him; he’s a Hall of Fame catcher — but I think there’s a lot to learn about it.”
Ferrell’s presentation begins at 7 p.m. at the Sterling Heights Public Library, 40255 Dodge Park Road, at Utica Road. Admission is free, but registration is required. For more information, call (586) 446-2640 or visit www.shpl.net.
For more on the book, visit www.rickferrellknuckleballcatcher.com. Copies will be available for purchase at the library for $20, a 30 percent discount over the publisher’s price.
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