Arts and Leisure

Wes and Rick Ferrell Move the Sticks for the 1930s Red Sox

Wes and Rick Ferrell grew up on a North Carolina farm playing baseball and pushing each other to do better. While practicing their hitting in a field, they’d take note of a particularly long ball and put a stick in the ground to mark where it landed. When one of them would hit a ball farther, he’d shout “Stick a stick up on that one.”

That childhood game would come to life again on a major league playing field on July 19, 1933 when the two brothers were playing against each other in Fenway Park. Wes, by then, was a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Rick was the Boston Red Sox’ new hot-shot catcher acquired from St. Louis.

Wes and Rick Ferrell

Wes and Rick Ferrell

As the game entered the fourth inning, the Indians had managed a 5-0 lead with Wes pitching comfortably. But Rick dug in purposefully in the batter’s box and, perhaps drawing on some insider knowledge about how his brother’s mind worked, took him deep. As Wes kicked at the dirt, his brother called out to him as he trotted around the bases: “Hey Wes, stick a stick up on that one.”

The gloating may have been unwise, though. When Wes came to bat later in the game, he had added incentive and punched a home run of his own. And as he crossed home plate, he said to his brother: “Hey Rick, looks like you’re going to have to go move the stick.”

It took 13 innings to resolve that game, which went in Cleveland’s win column, 8-7. And the papers the next day recorded the oddity of two brothers hitting a home run in the same game. It was a first. It was also a last. It was the last time the Ferrell’s would play against each other. The next year, Wes would join the Red Sox to play alongside Rick.

As battery mates for the 1934 season, Rick caught Wes for 25 wins. By this point, Wes’ arm was already deteriorating, but with Rick as his catcher the two managed to outsmart opposing hitters with Wes’ “nuttin’ ball” – so named because he could put nothing on the pitch.

But managing Wes was always a challenge. He was always temperamental, but the more he struggled with an injured shoulder the more unpredictable he became. On occasion he would refuse to leave games when the manager asked. Other times he’d walk off the field in disgust when he felt teammates’ errors were unreasonable.

He argued with umpires over bad calls and criticized team owners as well as teammates. But he was just as hard on himself. In one incident, after being pulled from the game he punched himself in the face and began beating his head against the wall of the dugout until teammates restrained him.

Team owner Tom Yawkey finally gave up on the Ferrell brothers in 1937. Perhaps an incident involving an umpire the previous year that left them both suspended was the final straw. A couple of months into the 1937 season, he traded them both to Washington. The two would stay together for five seasons in total, including through the trade to Washington. Rick would catch 140 of his brothers 321 games. Though he barely pitched after the 1938 season, Wes would officially end his fifteen year career in 1941 with a record of 193 and 128.

Rick, meanwhile, continued on as a catcher. He was as calm as his brother was tempestuous. Given the nickname the “Big Brain” by his teammates, he became known as an astute game-caller and especially gifted at handling knuckleballers. He took a one year break to manage in 1946, but returned behind the plate in 1947 to end his career 18 years after he started it.

His record for most games caught in the American League, 1,806, would stand for 40 years until it was finally broken by Carlton Fisk in 1988, and when it fell Rick was in the stands to congratulate the new record holder.

Rick continued his career as a valued scout and executive with the Tigers organization until finally retiring in 1992 at age 86. It put the cap on a 66-year career that included induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984 by the veterans committee.

The story of Wes and Rick Ferrell’s childhood comes from: Rick Ferrell, Knuckleball Catcher: A Hall of Famer’s Life Behind the Plate and in the Front Office.

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