Friday, December 19, 2008

Ghosts of the Past - Rick Ferrell

There are a number of players in the Hall of Fame who, unless they played for your team, are relatively unknown. Raise your hand if you knew that Earl Averill, Dave Bancroft, Jake Beckley, Jim Bottomley or Kiki Cuyler were Hall of Famers. Rick Ferrell is another one of those relatively unknown Hall of Famers, and as a former Red Sox player (though he is in the Hall as a St Louis Brown) is the subject of this installment of GotP.

Rick Ferrell was a catcher who played for nineteen seasons with the St Louis Browns, Washington Senators and the Red Sox. His Hall of Fame plaque proclaims him as a “durable defensive standout with a fine arm.” Indeed, it is most likely this defensive prowess that earned him a spot in the Hall. Despite setting Red Sox catchers’ records in average, doubles, home runs and RBIs, Ferrell’s offensive numbers are not particularly noteworthy. He only batted over .300 four times in his career and he didn’t reach any major milestones in any other batting category. In fact, his brother Wes, who was a pitcher, hit more home runs (in significantly fewer games no less) than Rick did. Rick Ferrell was named to eight All-Star games, and received MVP votes in four different season despite rarely playing for a winning or contending team. But, his primary claim to fame was that he retired as the all-time leader in games played at the catcher position, a record that would stand for 40 years until Carlton Fisk broke it in 1988. Ferrell is one of the most controversial members of the Hall of Fame. His offensive numbers are clearly not Hall of Fame caliber. There has also been speculation that his election was the result of tit-for-tat voting that resulted in Pee Wee Reese’s induction. Whether that is true or not will probably never be known, but he was elected in 1984 by the veterans committee who, prior to the 2001 rules changes that allowed all living Hall of Famers to vote, was a closed door group that had elected almost half of all players in the Hall of Fame and weathered numerous charges of cronyism.

Controversy aside, Rick Ferrell was most certainly a solid catcher for the entirety of his career. He had a solid .984 fielding percentage and when he retired had recorded the second most career putouts as a catcher. This despite the dubious distinction of having to regularly catch 4 knuckleballers during the 1945 season (with the Washington Senators). There is also anecdotal evidence that suggests how respected he was by his coaches and peers. For example, Ferrell was named to the first All-Star game in 1933 and played all nine innings for Casey Stengel’s American League team despite having future Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey, who were superior offensive players, on the bench. And if the respect of Casey Stengel isn’t enough, Bill James (he of sabermetrics fame) when asked which ten players did not belong in the Hall of Fame, did not include Rick Farrell’s name.

“You never saw him lunge for the ball; he never took a strike away from you. He'd get more strikes for a pitcher than anybody I ever saw, because he made catching look easy.”

Wes Ferrell on his brother's catching ability.

Image Key:
1. 1936 Goudey Wide Pens R314
2. 1937 Kellogs Sports Stamps
3. 1933 Goudey
4. 1934 National Chicle Batter Up R318

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