Rick Ferrell 1

Play Ball!

April 1, 2013 | by Erin Rosenberg

Baseball runs deep in the Ferrell family. Kerrie Ferrell (’75) is the daughter of Hall of Famer Rick Ferrell. He and two of his brothers, Wes and George, played professional baseball during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.

“He was a wonderful man—a true Southern gentleman. I admired him so much,” says Kerrie of her father. She tried to convince him to write his memoirs, but he dismissed the idea, saying that he was too busy. That’s easy to believe: He retired as a consultant for the Detroit Tigers in 1992, at age 87. He passed away in 1995.

In 2003, Kerrie channeled her love and admiration for her father into researching his 66-year career in baseball. She found a treasure trove of old newspaper stories online, and was mesmerized by the wealth of information available to her about his life. In the Detroit Tigers’ front office, Rick was immersed in some of the most exciting, tumultuous developments in baseball history: integration, expansion of the league, the rise of the Players’ Association, collusion cases, and the emergence of arbitration and free agency. The resulting chronicle is Rick Ferrell, Knuckleball Catcher (co-author: William M. Anderson, McFarland, 2010).

Rick played catcher, arguably the most physically demanding position in the game, and garnered a reputation as a stalwart, quiet, thoughtful, and humble player. He caught 1,806 games during his career with the St. Louis Browns, the Boston Red Sox, and the Washington Senators—an American League record that stood for more than 40 years.

According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the North Carolina native hit .281 lifetime and better than .300 four times during his 18-year career. He and his brother, pitcher Wes Ferrell, played in the Major League together for five years—one of the first brother batteries in baseball. Renowned manager Connie Mack’s respect for him was so great that Rick caught all nine innings of the inaugural All-Star game in 1933, playing alongside such legends as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Lefty Gomez, and Charlie Gehringer. 

As a coach for the Washington Senators, and then as a coach and scout for the Detroit Tigers, Ferrell spent much of the year away from his family. Back home in Greensboro, North Carolina, Kerrie missed her famous father. She’d look forward to off-seasons, when the entire Ferrell family (Kerrie was one of four children) loaded up their green Ford sedan for picnics, swim meets, and evenings at the drive-in. When he wasn’t around, she sent him handwritten letters and poems, illustrated around the margins. “I’m sure he always thought, ‘Where did I get someone who writes poems? Where did this come from?’” she laughs.

In 1959, he became general manager of the Tigers, and he moved his family to Detroit, giving Kerrie her first look at Michigan.

“Detroit was the biggest city I had ever seen. It was a huge adjustment. It was beautiful, lovely, fashionable, elegant...I was abuzz,” she recalls.

As Ferrell considered colleges, she says she was attracted to the cachet of U-M’s academic and athletic programs. Her time at the University, studying English, education, and art history was a transformative period in her life.

“I discovered all these things I had never been exposed to—it was a whole new world.” Her family fully supported her pursuit of higher education. “My father always thought you’ve got to have a college degree—that was a strong value of his. He was very liberal in the sense that he said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ Of course, all I wanted to do was be a baseball player.”

But that, as Kerrie describes it, was his world, and she discovered her calling as an educator and writer. She has taught writing at the college level, tutored international students, and worked as a counselor and an educational administrator.  

In recent years, she developed a career in public speaking, and presents a baseball slideshow presentation based on her father’s career for groups and events.

Rick’s playing career ended the year Kerrie was born, so she finds that these talks are a way of connecting with that part of his life—and continuing the Hall of Famer’s legacy.

“Baseball, to him, was important. It meant something to him. It wasn’t about fame or money. He was so proud to be an athlete. He had impeccable habits and carried himself like such a gentleman,” says Kerrie. “He played this unglamorous position, and did it right. No scandal, no steroids, just good habits. I was very proud of him—he was a rare kind of person.”

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