Tuesday, December 4, 2012

My Hall of Fame Veterans Committee Ballot, Part I - Wes Ferrell

If you look back on my interest in baseball history, going all the way back to my early childhood, there are two names that have been around the whole time, from just about day one until today. The first, not surprisingly, is Babe Ruth. Even people who don't know the first thing about baseball know who Babe Ruth is. The other player is definitely a more unusual and perhaps inexplicable name, which is part of the reason why I'm detailing my lifelong interest and fascination in the gentleman. It is none other than Wesley Cheek Ferrell.

I've always been fascinated by numbers and baseball is a plentiful source of numeric enjoyment. I have also been an avid game player all my life. The second baseball game I ever owned was Cadaco's All-Star Baseball. The game was played using player discs and spinners. The statistics of the player were translated into segments of the player disc based on the percentage of outcomes. If a player struck out 15% of the time, the #10 segments, the strikeout sections (see how much I like numbers? I remember that from when I was 8 or 9 years old), would make up fifteen percent of the disc. There were fourteen different segment types in all. You would slide the card of the player at bat into the spinner, flick away at the black plastic arrow, and check the result of the number that came up.

The best outcome, was old #1. The home run segment. Babe Ruth, of course, had a huge section for home runs which helped establish his historic greatness with me early on in my life.

What made Cadaco a flawed game, at least in terms of representing an accurate recreation of the game of baseball, was that all the cards were based on batting statistics. There was no attempt made to account for the level of a pitcher's skill. Instead, pitchers got cards based on their batting abilities. So it didn't matter if you had Lefty Grove or Juan Nieves on the mound, it didn't change the possible hitting outcomes in the least.

It also made pitchers near worthless. I have a sense that Cadaco was hired by the American League to help instill the need for a designated hitter in both leagues. Pitchers can't hit. The pitcher cards were almost all littered with gigantic #10 segments. It was pretty miserable. Unless you happened to have one particular pitcher. I think you can guess who that pitcher was. Yes, Wes Ferrell.

Wes Ferrell hit more career home runs than any pitcher in history (37). He also holds the record for most home runs by a pitcher in a single season with nine. To give you a sense of the magnitude of those records, ALL the pitchers in major league baseball this season hit a combined total of 24 home runs. Three players hit two home runs to pace the season mark.

So Wes Ferrell not only had a #1 segment, compared to every other pitcher his #1 segment was Ruthian (the only other pitcher I can remember with a legitimate segment (as opposed to a near-line) was Rick Reuschel (and don't ask me how they figured what cards to include in the game)). Needless to say, Wes Ferrell captured my interest early on when I was trying to win Cadaco ballgames.

I'm an old-timer. About half of my life was lived pre-internet if you can believe it. You couldn't just Google a player to find out about him. I couldn't tell you how I found out more about Ferrell over the years, but I did. One of the things I discovered was that he was a big believer in astrology. One day, while perusing the Waldenbooks at my local mall, I discovered an astrology program in the discount rack. 5.25" floppy disk. I had a brilliant idea. I would write a book about Wes Ferrell based on how he did versus what this astrology program predicted for him. How were the stars aligned when he hit his home runs? What were they like for his top pitching performances? I was excited.

I got home, started up the program, and went to try it out. Huge problem. For the most accurate astrological readings, I needed to know Ferrell's exact time of birth. I can't even find that now with all my fancy interweb sources. I thought maybe his brother Rick would know. I'm not sure how I found Rick's address but I typed up a letter saying that I wanted to write a book on his brother and could he send me whatever information he had on his brother, including the time of his brother's birth. I included a large SASE in case he wanted to mail me lots of newspaper clippings or something. Keep in mind I believe I was 16 years old at the time. I didn't know the first thing about how to go about researching and writing about someone.

Months passed with no reply (shocking, I know). Then one day I get my SASE in the mail. In it is my letter. At the bottom of the letter is written something along the lines of "we have already hired someone to write a book about my brother and I". No signature, just this one sentence. I was crushed. I may have this letter somewhere in my files. I sort of hope not.

As an aside as time transitions in the story of this post from high school to college, the last name of the first love of my life (female, not baseball) was Ferrell. Coincidence or not?

More time passed. I didn't give much thought to Wes Ferrell. I went to college and after struggling my first year I transferred to little Guilford College, a small Quaker school in Greensboro, North Carolina. Lo and behold, I come to discover that Guilford is the alma mater to none other than Rick Ferrell. And the Ferrell brothers were born and raised there. And Wes was buried right across the street from the college. Almost spooky, huh?

I got involved with the North Carolina chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research and I started researching North Carolinians in general. I picked up some dandy R311 cards of the Ferrell brothers and Ray Hayworth (another North Carolina native) of which my Wes one is pictured above. This is the story of my memorabilia collection. I have tons of oddball things which are sort of inexplicable unless I go back and think about them.

Still I didn't pursue anything more with Wes Ferrell. Then I moved to Delaware to go to graduate school. I met my friend Jason and we made the stupid decision to make our first visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in late October. Why is this stupid? Because we decided to camp. It was so cold we gave up the first night and slept in the car and returned home after hitting the Hall of Fame the following day. While there we went to the library and I checked out Wes Ferrell's player file and made some copies. No idea why.

That might have been it for me and my interest in Ferrell. I do have a knack of getting distracted when it comes to baseball research. But then I got interested in minor league research and who should pop up again than good ole Wes Ferrell.

As we established above, Wes Ferrell could hit the ball well for a pitcher. That is actually an understatement. He could hit the ball well for any position. After shoulder pain curtailed his career as a major league pitcher, Wes returned to North Carolina (with the exception of a season in Lynchburg, Virginia) to manage and play outfield in the minors. In 1942, at Lynchburg, Ferrell won the batting title and led the league in home runs. In 1948, he had an amazing season at the plate for Marion of the Western Carolinas League. He led the league with a .425 average, and slugged .766, clouting 30 doubles (third in the league), 14 triples (third in the league) and 24 homers (fifth in the league). This at age 40. Once again I was captivated by Wes Ferrell's hitting.

One last story involving me and Wes Ferrell's batting prowess. During my first trip down to Hot Springs, Arkansas for SABR's Deadball Committee's Boiling Out conference, a bunch of us would get together for morning strolls, much like ballplayers in the Deadball Era did when they had spring training there. On those hikes we would engage in a couple of baseball mind games that originated from Guy Waterman. Waterman was an outdoorsman and baseball fan who committed suicide in 2000. When he would hike or climb mountains he would play these games with himself to keep himself engaged and entertained.

The one game involved coming up with a baseball batting lineup, one player at each position, with the players being in alphabetical order. This was a lot of fun with a bunch of us as we would debate the validity of each pick. So say for example the first person was up, they had to come up with a good leadoff hitter whose last name began with the letter A. You wouldn't pick Hank Aaron, the obvious A name. He's more of a cleanup hitter. Maybe you'd go with someone like Tommy Agee. So you have Agee, centerfield, batting first. Then the next guy comes up with a #2 hitter whose last name begins with the letter B. But it can't be a centerfielder since that position is taken. So maybe Buddy Bell will play third and bat second. We started off playing one morning and I was up with the #6 spot and the letter F. "Batting sixth, pitcher, Wes Ferrell". Everyone loved it. Probably never happened but it was logical. It also made it a little more challenging for the person who no longer had to come up with a pitcher whose last name began with I in the last spot (the ninth spot was always the easiest normally since it was pretty much always the pitcher spot).

All this is to provide some background for why I think Wes Ferrell should be in the Hall of Fame. You'll note I haven't really mentioned his pitching yet. There are two problems with Ferrell's potential candidacy. The first is that the era in which Ferrell played was one that aided hitters. Ferrell's career ERA is over 4. He walked more batters than he struck out and despite being in the top ten in strikeouts most seasons, he only K'ed more than 125 once in a season.

If you look at the advanced statistics, you see that he pitched well for his era. His WAR from 1929-1936 was 46.0. By comparison, Sandy Koufax's final eight seasons (his best) earned him a WAR of 47.7. Ferrell was the second best pitcher in the American League over this era, behind only Hall of Famer Lefty Grove. His WAR totals don't include the additional benefit he provided with his bat. He had a 193-128 record during a time when pitcher's record mattered (because of the 227 complete games in 323 starts).

I used Koufax as a comparison for a reason. The second reason why Ferrell is potentially lacking. Those eight seasons of Ferrell's are, in essence, his career. Shoulder ailments did him in and so his career is much shorter than a typical Hall of Famer's. Those with short careers who are in the Hall of Fame tend to be flashy strikeout artists like Koufax or Dean or died prematurely like Addie Joss. While Ferrell didn't have the flash, he did have the results.

So do I really think Wes Ferrell should be in the Hall of Fame? I think he's more qualified than his brother who is in. I think he wouldn't be a bad selection. I think it would be nice to increase awareness of his success in the game. I'm going to hold of on committing to my answer until my next post (and by now, unless you get all your news from my blog, you should know that Wes Ferrell was not chosen by the Veteran's Committee).

No comments: