Richie Ferrell

This article was written by Bob Brady

Several years ago, I picked up a large package of records belonging to obscure minor-league ballplayers whose big league dreams had ended in the bushes. Previously rescued from a trash heap by a resourceful collector, these materials had been purged by the San Francisco Giants to make room for the tracking of newer generations of prospects. Each discarded file recorded the all too brief professional life of its subject – from being scouted, drafted, signed, and followed – to an inevitable unconditional release. Of the hundreds of records that had fallen into my hands, one slim folder constantly drew my attention as time passed. It told a haunting tale of a career and a life that had ended prematurely. Like the Ray Kinsella-inspired figure in the movie Field of Dreams, I sensed that I was being called to perform some yet unknown duty. Over 30 years after the death of that young ballplayer, I set out on a quest to understand and fulfill that mission.

Richard Robert Ferrell was born on September 8, 1955, in Blue Island, Illinois, a suburb just south of Chicago. Like his unrelated Hall of Fame namesake Rick Ferrell, Richie Ferrell was a catcher. Starring on his high-school team, he attracted the attention of Tom Hull, a San Francisco Giants scout who was assigned to cover Illinois and Wisconsin. Ferrell’s preserved file contained Hull’s reports to his Bay Area employer, recorded on a typed 5-by-8-inch white card. Hall began his formal coverage in the spring of 1974, during Ferrell’s freshman year at St. Xavier College (now a university) in Chicago.

“Saint X,” founded in 1846 by the Sisters of Mercy, was still in the throes of a late 1960s transformation from a small women’s college to a coeducational institution when, in 1973, Bob Hallberg, its athletic director, offered his high-school friend, John Boles, the opportunity to head the college’s nascent baseball program. The 24-year-old Boles would direct the team while pursuing a master’s degree in educational administration. In building the program from scratch, Boles scoured the local area for prospects and came upon three Blue Island high school baseball-playing pals, Richie Ferrell, Sal Rende, and Tom Malloy.

Richie and Sal were longstanding best friends, having grown up across the street from each other. As youngsters, they would spend their entire summer days playing baseball at a park conveniently located down the road. Sal recalled that Richie always wanted to be a catcher and the two would take the El to Wrigley Field from time to time when the Reds were in town so that Richie could watch future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench at work. Tom Malloy linked up with the duo during their high school years. Richie and Tom made the starting nine at Marist High School as juniors and Sal was a standout at nearby Dwight D. Eisenhower High. Richie and Sal also played for Homestead Realty, a Connie Mack League club that competed for the national title. Their teammates included future big-league pitchers Charlie Leibrandt and Jim Clancy, as well as the Detroit Tigers’ number-1 draft choice in 1975, outfielder Les Filkins.

John Boles was quick to enlist the youths into his budding college squad. Even at this early stage of his career, he exhibited an instinct for detecting baseball talent that would eventually transport him all the way to the major leagues. His judgment on the three sidekicks proved accurate. Richie Ferrell immediately laid claim to the starting backstop position in his freshman year at Saint X. Tom Malloy would anchor the infield and later become a high-school coach for more than 30 years. Sal Rende, a slugging first baseman, spent seven seasons in the Cleveland Indians organization, claiming minor-league batting and RBI crowns over the course of his playing career. Rende would later earn The Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year title in 1990 and serve as a minor-league manager and batting coach for several organizations. The embryonic Saint X team attracted further scouting attention due to the stellar performance of its third baseman, Phil Klimas. The Houston Astros selected Klimas with their second pick in the 1976 free agent draft.

Boles left the school in 1979 to become the head baseball coach at the University of Louisville. He was recruited by Roland Hemond to manage in the Chicago White Sox minor-league system. Front-office player development positions followed with the Royals, Expos, Marlins, Dodgers, and Mariners. In 1996, and again in 1999-2001, Boles achieved the rare feat of skippering a big-league ballclub, the Florida Marlins, without any professional playing experience of his own.1

While the tracking of prospects typically requires a scout to log significant travel time, the task of observing Richie Ferrell was unusually easy for Tom Hull as he reported to the Giants that St. Xavier was conveniently located across the street from his home. At 6-feet-3 and 205 pounds, the 19-year-old collegian already possessed the physique of a professional backstop, and Hull recorded that Ferrell “has as fine a body as you will see.” His initial evaluation was that Ferrell was a “fair plus” hitter with power and an above-average fielder with a good and accurate arm. Hull recommended that the Giants continue to follow this prospect as he was “most impressive.”

Beyond fundamental skills, an individual’s character is a critical attribute for a scout to observe and evaluate. Hull interviewed coach Boles, who affirmed that his first-string catcher was a “very fine young man.” Three decades later and over the course of a lengthy career in player development, John Boles still strongly adhered to that appraisal. He remembered Richie Ferrell as someone “who took over a room with his personality” and as “a fun guy to be around.” Boles further recalled that he was a natural leader who loved playing the game. As a young coach, Boles bonded with his catcher as if Ferrell were a “little brother.”

Ferrell’s fun-loving nature is reflected in a tale passed along by Tom Malloy. In preparation for the Fourth of July, light poles around Saint X were decorated with large American flags. Driving down the street, Ferrell remarked to Malloy that their dorm would look nice decorated with one of the flags. As Malloy nervously waited in the car, Ferrell climbed up the post to retrieve his prize. A police car immediately pulled up and the officer ordered him down. When questioned by the officer as to what was going on, a smiling Ferrell quickly responded that he had observed that the flag was hanging crookedly and was attempting to straighten out Old Glory. Ferrell’s quick-thinking retort allowed the collegians to escape any punishment for the escapade as the bemused officer merely ordered them to move along.

Hull’s reports delved further into Ferrell’s background. He recounted that the lad was putting himself through college, constantly working a variety of jobs. After his mother died when he was 12 years old and his father remarried, Ferrell moved in with his older sister, Kathy. Times were tough and money was scarce as brother and sister lived in a very modest trailer home. Ferrell often stayed over with the Malloy and Rende families, savoring countless home-cooked meals. He was never one to complain about his situation, reflecting a characteristic ability to play the cards that life dealt him. As Sal Rende observed, “He fought hard for everything and earned everything that he got.” Based on personal observations, the Giants scout was able to reaffirm coach Boles’ opinion of Ferrell’s positive makeup.

Richie Ferrell dedicated himself to the pursuit of a professional baseball career and worked hard to earn his shot. With the St. Xavier Cougars he was selected All Conference in 1974-76 and all NAIA District 20 in 1974 and 1976. One game over that period stands out in the memories of Boles, Rende, and Malloy. The Cougars traveled to Lookout Mountain in Georgia to play a game against Covenant College. The school’s campus consisted of the grounds and building of a former hotel once nicknamed, the “Castle in the Clouds.” Playing on a diamond atop the mountain led to an interesting acoustical effect. As Boles recounted, Ferrell’s three home runs (two grand slams and a three-run clout) and a double each “sounded like rockets” as the crack of his bat broke the eerie silence at the mountain’s peak. Malloy recalled being driven home each time his buddy cleared the bases. Ferrell finished college play with a .323 batting average over 517 at bats.

By May of 1976, Hull had concluded that Ferrell was at least a major-league fringe prospect worthy of being selected by the Giants in the June free-agent draft. He was impressed by Ferrell’s agility, especially given his size. Hull predicted that both his hitting and fielding would improve if he was given the opportunity to play every day. He informed the club that Ferrell might ask for enough money to later complete his education but would sign for “very little or nothing.” Hull submitted Ferrell’s name second on his list of potential draftees. A handwritten entry on the scouting card noted that the Giants took Hull’s advice and selected Ferrell with their seventh pick (number 155 overall) in the draft. He took his place on a list of several St. Xavier University athletes who had been chosen over the years in the major-league draft.

Stapled to Hull’s scouting report was a copy of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues Transmittal of Contract form. Executed on June 14, the form indicated that Ferrell received a signing bonus of $6,000 and was to earn a monthly salary of $500. Because he was not of legal age to enter into a binding contract, his brother George was required to sign as his guardian.2 It was one of the happiest moments in Richie Ferrell’s young life. According to Sal Rende, his best friend had accomplished his two top objectives – to get a chance to play pro ball and to be able to buy a new car. As luck would have it, the Giants were in town for a game against the Cubs and coach Boles and his prodigy celebrated with a trip to Wrigley Field. Upon signing, Ferrell was directed to report to a rookie short-season club, the Great Falls (Montana) Giants of the Pioneer League and, as part of his contract, was to be compensated for his transportation home to Illinois at the end of the season.

Richie Ferrell quickly reported to his new team at its Legion Park headquarters. Great Falls, Montana, was distinctly different from the setting that he’d been accustomed to. The area, initially explored by Lewis and Clark, was transformed in the 1880s from an undeveloped piece of prairie into a planned community. As its name suggests, Great Falls sat in an area that fostered the production of hydroelectric power. Nicknamed the Electric City, it became the state’s largest municipality in the 1950s but was eventually overtaken in population by Billings. Legion Park was built in 1940 as part of a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project. Great Falls brewer Emil Sick of Seattle’s Sicks’ Stadium fame brought the Pioneer League to town in 1948. Over the years Legion Park acquired the reputation of being one of the league’s most spartan facilities. Despite more recent renovations and a change in name to Centene Stadium, the ballpark today remains a functional but basic structure. The San Francisco Giants affiliated with the team from 1969 to 1983.

Ferrell was greeted upon arrival by Great Falls manager Ernie Rodriguez, a former minor-league outfielder in the Dodgers chain. Rodriguez skippered the rookie Giants from 1975 to 1982. He spent a total of 10 years piloting in the Pioneer League. During his last assignment, in 1993 with the independent Pocatello Posse, Rodriguez assisted ill-fated future Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle in restarting his pitching career after Lidle had been released by the Twins organization.3

The Giants in the ’70s would follow their minor-league chattel by recording information on 8-by-10½-inch manila cardboard forms. Entries were typed in when received from the field. Ferrell’s first review occurred in June and was given by the National League’s Most Valuable Player of 1952, Hank Sauer. After a lengthy big-league career as a slugging outfielder, Sauer coached, scouted, and served as a special instructor in the Giants organization. The respected veteran rated the youngster as “fair” across the board with the exception of an above-average arm. The following month, two others appraised the prospect’s performance. Dick Wilson, who scouted much of the Western United States, used a numerical scale and categorized Ferrell’s hitting and fielding as a “3” and his power as a “4.” In contrast to previous opinions, he regarded Ferrell as “slow” and possessing a “sluggish body.” Wilson predicted a “limited future.” Ernie Rodriguez was similarly unenthusiastic in his feedback. He believed that Ferrell was a poor receiver and a weak hitter, albeit with some power. On the upside, Rodriguez noted that the 20-year-old was a hustler who liked to play and was a “good team man.” He projected Ferrell as having Double-A potential and recommended that he be advanced to full-season A ball in 1977.

Over the course of that summer, George Ferrell and John Boles traveled from Chicago to Great Falls to see Richie play. The pair observed that although he was away from home and having to adapt to a professional-baseball lifestyle, Richie was thriving, reveling in the fact that he was pursuing his lifelong dream.

Hank Sauer returned to Great Falls in August and reiterated his earlier views, noting that Ferrell “needs a lot of help in everything” but was “worth bringing to spring training.” In his September report, Rodriguez was more optimistic, indicating that Ferrell had developed into a good catcher and that he “had a chance” should his hitting improve. Playing in 62 of the team’s 71 games, Ferrell batted .265. His 5 home runs and 44 RBIs each were second best on the club. Among Pioneer League catchers with 60 or more games played, Ferrell’s .965 fielding percentage was only .002 points in back of the leader.

Ferrell’s file ended abruptly at the conclusion of the Pioneer League season. What was left was a yellowed newspaper clipping that someone had inserted. The headline on it read “Giants’ catcher injured in wreck near Roundup.” The Great Falls team had concluded its season on August 30 with a night game in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, against an Expos rookie club. The Giants, with a 41-30 mark, had secured a first-place finish and had successfully defended their league title. The team bus arrived back at Great Falls at 3 A.M. After having completed their first season as full-time professionals, the weary players were anxious to head home. Ferrell and pitcher Gary Halls, a 21-year-old right-hander from Glenview, Illinois, packed their belongings into Ferrell’s new 1976 Datsun and departed Great Falls. The two had become batterymates after Halls had been demoted from the Midwest League Cedar Rapids Giants during the season. In seven appearances for Great Falls, Halls had won three games and lost three. He and Ferrell shared similar traits. Reports provided to the parent club on the hurler by manager Rodriguez and others characterized Halls as a “good team man” and a very determined player who worked hard at his craft. Despite his best efforts, Halls would be released by the Giants the following season during spring training.

The young backstop apparently fell asleep at the wheel around 10 A.M. just outside of Roundup, a small city less than 150 miles southeast of Great Falls. As the car headed for a ditch by the side of the road, Ferrell awoke but the automobile flipped over when he attempted to return to the highway. Although his teammate suffered only minor scratches, Richie Ferrell sustained acute head injuries. He was taken to Roundup’s medical center but the severity of the trauma necessitated a transfer to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Billings. His brother and fiancée hurried to his bedside in Montana. Ferrell regained consciousness three days after the accident and, befitting his self-effacing personality, told them that “he zigged when he should have zagged.” His condition worsened and he lapsed into a coma. Doctors discovered that Ferrell had suffered massive brain-tissue damage. He succumbed to his injuries 10 days after the accident, a few days after his 21st birthday. Ferrell’s professional baseball file was closed by someone in the Giants front office with a brief handwritten note in a seemingly emotional scrawl, indicating that the subject had been killed in a one-car accident.

One can only speculate as to whether Richie Ferrell would have attained his goal to set foot on a big-league diamond as a player. Three members of the 1976 Great Falls Giants eventually did. The most renowned was Bob Brenly, who caught for nine seasons in the majors and went on to win a World Series championship with the Arizona Diamondbacks in his first year as a big-league pilot. Brenly achieved additional notoriety in the radio and television broadcasting booths. Ferrell and Brenly, who had been a nondrafted free agent, weren’t rivals during their brief time together in Great Falls. Brenly broke in as a third baseman and converted to catching after his stay in Montana. His .314 batting average in 24 games with Great Falls led to an early season call-up to the California League Fresno Giants.

Great Falls teammates Casey Parsons and Joe Strain also made it to the majors. Parsons, like Brenly, didn’t stay long in Big Sky Country, also earning a quick promotion to Fresno. The outfielder had four brief trials in the big leagues with the Mariners, White Sox and Indians and later managed in the Oakland Athletics’ minor-league system. Parsons served as a coach under Ferrell’s friend Sal Rende when the latter managed the Memphis Chicks in 1988. Strain played in every one of Great Falls’ games, hitting .333 and leading the Pioneer League in pilfered bases. He went on to perform as a utility infielder with the Giants and Cubs over the course of three National League seasons. After a 20-year career as a high-school teacher and coach in Englewood, Colorado, Strain became a Giants scout and also coached and managed in the minors. His career came full circle in 1985 when he received his inaugural managerial assignment and led the Giants’ Northwest League rookie team, the Everett Giants, to a pennant.

St. Xavier University, ChicagoRichie Ferrell left such a lasting mark at his alma mater that on April 23, 1977, seven months after his death, the school renamed its Cougar baseball facility the Richard R. Ferrell Memorial Field. A commemorative plaque there carries the moving words of Coach Boles:

The players and coaching staff pledge to always conduct themselves in accordance with the greatness and significance for whom our field was named.

When a spectator inquires, “who was Richard R. Ferrell?, the St. Xavier College baseball player will proudly and thoughtfully recall the memory of our beloved teammate, Richie.

Ferrell’s retired uniform number 28 is displayed on the center-field wall of the ballpark. Ferrell and his coach were elected to St. Xavier University’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1990. His buddy, Sal Rende, followed in 1991.

Fate led me on a journey to deliver Richie Ferrell’s file to an initially unknown but preordained destination. Like the Field of Dreams lead character’s quest, my effort was not without stops along the way that brought challenges, frustrations, and, ultimately, rewards. The quest was sustained by encounters with those who cherished and willingly shared their memories of this remarkable young man, including his coach, friends, and family members. At the behest of his family, Richie Ferrell’s records in my possession were donated to St. Xavier University and now reside in a display case among other mementos of his memorable career. A copy of this biography was placed in the Hall of Fame room at Centene Stadium, where the ballclub has annually honored one of its players with the Rich Ferrell Memorial Most Valuable Player Award.

The attraction and fervor that we have towards the national pastime is as much dependent on the contributions of the Richie Ferrells and Moonlight Grahams as it is to the immortals of the sport. Richie Ferrell touched the lives of many people who, in turn, continued to convey his passion for baseball by influencing and assisting aspiring players at all levels of the game – from high-school fields all the way to big league diamonds.

Hopefully, somewhere, Richie Ferrell is playing on a baseball diamond transformed from a cornfield, taking his rightful place behind the plate and completing a dream that was not to be fulfilled in life.

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the following for their encouragement and invaluable assistance: Sheldon Prentice, Mike Dooley, George Ferrell, John and Rosemary Boles, Tom Malloy, and Sal Rende.

 

Notes

1 Boles’ son, Kevin, has followed in his father’s footsteps. He has managed in the Marlins, Twins and Red Sox farm systems. In 2014 Kevin Boles assumed the helm of the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox.

2 In another bit of irony concerning the similarities to Hall of Famer Rick Ferrell, both Richie and Rick Ferrell had older brothers named George. Unlike siblings Rick and Wes, George Ferrell never made it to the majors, spending his entire playing career as a minor-league outfielder. Richie’s brother went on to become the co-owner and president of a building contracting firm in Illinois.

3 Lidle was killed on October 11, 2006, when his small plane crashed into a building in New York City.