It’s hard to slam the Hall of Fame membership of a journeyman catcher who labored on the lowly St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators. But we will.
Rick Ferrell joined the Hall in 1984, courtesy of the veterans committee. It wasn’t a totally outrageous choice, but once again it seems that being very good was good enough to get in.
Ferrell did set the record for the most games caught (1,806), which was only broken in the 1980s by Carlton Fisk, and he caught all nine innings of the first All-Star Game, in 1933. But there the Hall of Fame comparisons stop.
He never participated in post-season play, and his batting was usually average or above average, though he did have some standout years. He avoided strikeouts, and this helped him achieve a good on-base percentage of .406 in 1932. Over his career, he walked 3.36 times for each strikeout.
He had some very good years in the batter’s box. He batted .315 in 1932, which no doubt led to his selection to the 1933 All-Star squad. His average of .312 in 1936 is somewhat compromised by the fact that position players in the American League tended to have unusually high batting averages in Fenway Park that year.
(Rick’s brother, Wes, pitched for Boston while Rick was there, and they often worked as battery. Wes was reputed by many to be one of the best-hitting pitchers ever, and in fact was a career .278 batter.)
Rick hit better than .300 in four seasons, sort of. In 1931 he had fewer than 400 at-bats in 117 games, which barely met the batting title minimum of 100 games.
His career fielding percentage, .984 is just a tad above the contemporary league average of .982. He was probably better than his fielding percentage would indicate since the Washington Senators were well stocked with knuckleballers, who are notoriously difficult to catch.
He was named to eight All-Star teams, but played in only two games. He figured in Most Valuable Player voting four times, but never finished in the top 10.
His Red Sox years were perhaps the most fulfilling, as the Yawkey family had decided to beef up the team. Without knuckleballers to tire him, his fielding percentage soared to .990 and he competed with Jimmy Foxx and Joe Cronin for the highest batting average on the team.
Ferrell was elected to four straight All-Star teams, and he set several Red Sox team records for catchers that still stand. His on-base percentage of .394 remains the best for a Red Sox catcher, and is ninth on the all-time Red Sox list. He also remains high on the all-time Red Sox list of fewest strikeouts per plate appearance.
But the salad days lasted just four seasons, and all too soon Ferrell was back catching knuckleballs in Washington. (Wes was bundled with Rick in the trade.) The physical strain of catching wayward pitches took its toll on his batting, and Rick slipped into the anonymity of playing on a habitually losing team. He always kept his keen eye for balls and strikes, but the big batting numbers eluded him.
Bill Dickey of the Yankees and Mickey Cochrane of the Athletics and Tigers were catchers from the same era who were consistently better batters for average, power and on-base percentage. Even the now-forgotten catcher Frankie Pytlak of the Cleveland Indians briefly matched Ferrell in batting prowess. Ferrell was very good, but not great.
Ferrell’s biggest overall career problem is obvious: He only once played for a contender, the 1945 Washington Senators. They missed a World Series berth by a tantalizing 1½ games. More usually he was on teams in the middle or bottom of the pack (each league had eight teams in those days).
Being relegated to the second division meant that true fame eluded Rick Ferrell, and it also robbed him of many batting and scoring opportunities. After all, it’s difficult to score runners when your teammates fail to safely reach first base. However, Ferrell did catch the attention of the veterans committee. How?
Aside from spending a few successful years with the Boston Red Sox, Rick Ferrell is best known for his 30 years with the Detroit Tigers as coach, scout, general manager and consultant.
In fact, Ferrell was general manager of the Tigers in 1961 when they won 101 games and made their first serious run for the American League title in more than a decade. Some fans credit Ferrell for building the foundation an organization that became a solid contender beginning in 1963 under general manager Jim Campbell. Ferrell was later assistant general manager under Campbell.
By 1984, there were many former Tigers and Red Sox veterans and baseball executives ready and willing to campaign for Ferrell as a viable American League candidate for the Hall of Fame despite his clear lack of Hall of Fame statistics. The same year that Ferrell was elected, the veterans committee also elected Pee Wee Reese, who had played in the National League. The quid pro quo was obvious.
Sometimes it’s not what you do, but who you know. Rick Ferrell accomplished a lot in a successful and well-respected baseball career, but in the end he needed a little help from his friends — and he got it.