When Dave “Boo” Ferriss was playing baseball for tiny Shaw High School in Shaw, Mississippi, he probably never anticipated he would eventually become a national sensation in major league baseball. But that’s exactly what happened when Ferriss made his major-league debut with the Boston Red Sox in 1945. He proceeded to put together two of the best seasons ever by a big-league newcomer. In the process he became a favorite of the New England area, while his improbable ascent to the majors also became a nation-wide story.
Ferriss took a circuitous route to the big leagues. After high school, he received the first athletic scholarship to play baseball at Mississippi State College (now Mississippi State University). But he cut his college stay short when he signed with the Red Sox in 1942 and played his first pro season with Greensboro in the Piedmont League. However, he put his baseball future on hold when World War II broke out. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas as a physical training instructor for the servicemen. He was fortunate to continue developing his baseball skills by playing on base teams that involved competition against major-leaguers who were serving in the military.
When Ferriss was discharged from the Army in late February 1945, because of his asthma condition, the 23-year-old set his sights on resuming his pro baseball career. Having pitched only 130 innings at Greensboro, he expected to spend more time in the minors and was initially assigned to the Red Sox’s Louisville minor-league affiliate. Yet with the shortage of players in the majors due to the ongoing war efforts, his Louisville manager recommended the Red Sox give him a look at the big-league level.
He got a call-up to the Red Sox without ever pitching for Louisville and made his major-league debut on April 29, 1945, pitching a five-hit shutout against the Philadelphia A’s. At first, he was labeled by the press as “just another war-time replacement player.” But then he proceeded to run off a string of seven more winning decisions, which included setting an American League record with 22 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings to start his career. His astonishing eight-game winning streak was broken on June 10 against the Yankees. Ferriss was a breath of fresh air during a difficult time for the sport, allowing fans to forget about some of their favorite stars who were off serving their country.
Since he had literally come out of nowhere to post his spectacular beginning of the season, the handsome Ferriss immediately became the darling of Boston fans who were starved for a local hero. For the previous two seasons, they had missed seeing their best players, Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio, all of whom were still serving in the military. Furthermore, the Red Sox were struggling to stay competitive among the top half of the teams in the American League. Ferriss came along at the right time to energize the team.
Baseball fans across the nation became aware of Ferriss’s exploits when The Sporting News, the pre-eminent baseball publication of the time, featured a story about him on June 7. The piece included a caricature of Ferriss with the caption “Ferriss Wheel,” illustrating he had been on a whirlwind effort to defeat all six of the American League teams he faced during his first six weeks of the season.
News wire photos featured Ferriss in a variety of settings, including many involving his personal life. The Mississippi Delta boy was often characterized as a humble ex-serviceman who had taken the majors by surprise. He was portrayed as a “phenom” for his on-field results, well before the label came into common use many years later.
Ferriss also contributed to his notoriety by demonstrating he was a good hitter. Red Sox manager Joe Cronin often used the effective left-handed hitter in pinch-hitting roles. Sportswriters compared him to Babe Ruth because of his combined pitching and hitting capabilities.
By the end of July, Ferriss had a 17-4 record and seemed to be well on his way to a 30-win season, a major milestone even for the most experienced major-league pitcher. However, his asthma condition started to affect his performance in August, and he wound up winning only four more games during the remainder of the season. He still managed to finish his first campaign with an impressive 21-10 record and 2.96 ERA.
By the end of the season, Ferriss had attained a new level of popularity. He began to be featured in print advertisements for products like Wheaties and Gillette.
Off-season stories in periodicals like Baseball Digest and Baseball Magazine often referred to his Mississippi Delta roots in recounting his spectacular rise in fame.
With most major-league players returning to baseball in 1946 after the war had ended, some baseball pundits warned that Ferriss’s debut season might have been a fluke because there had been a prevalence of replacement players on major-league rosters the year before. Boston fans looked forward to Ferriss’s sophomore season along with the return of Williams and the other young war veterans. After Williams batted against Ferriss during spring training, he squelched any further concerns about Ferriss’s legitimacy as a big-time pitcher.
Williams’s assessment of Ferriss turned out to be correct. With the backing of a potent Red Sox offense, Ferriss put together winning streaks of 10 and 12 games, on his way to winning 25 games for the season. He defeated the vaunted New York Yankees in four of his five appearances and thus was a huge contributor to the Red Sox’s dominance in the American League. Even today, the only major leaguer to win more games during his first two seasons than Ferriss is Hall of Famer Grover “Pete” Alexander, who won 47 in 1911-1912.
His outstanding performance served to extend his status as a celebrity in the baseball community. He appeared in ads for Hood’s ice cream and Raytheon air humidifiers, while attracting coverage by national magazines such as Collier’s and LIFE.
Winning 104 games, the Red Sox captured the American League pennant by a whopping 12-game margin over Detroit. The Yankees were a distant third, 17 games back of the Red Sox. Boston made its first World Series appearance since 1918 when Babe Ruth was still playing for them. The Red Sox were favored over the opposing St. Louis Cardinals, who were making their fourth Series appearance in five seasons.
With the World Series tied after the first two games, Ferriss drew the starting assignment in Game 3 in Fenway Park, facing off with the Cardinals’ Murry Dickson. Ferriss, who had fashioned a 13-0 record at his home ballpark during the regular season, continued his Fenway magic by holding the Cardinals scoreless on only six hits, as the Red Sox won, 4-0. Thus, Boston was confident with his taking the mound again in the deciding Game 7 contest. Yet he wasn’t as sharp as in his previous outing and was forced to leave the game in the fifth inning after giving up three runs. The Cardinals wound up winning the game and Ferriss missed out on getting a World Series ring.
After his magnificent season, Ferriss was compared to the league’s best pitchers, Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser, both of whom were future Hall of Famers. Red Sox fans had good reason to be optimistic about the team’s future, with a solid pitching staff led by Ferriss and Tex Hughson and a potent offense spearheaded by Williams.
For Ferriss, the optimism would soon fade in 1947 when he suffered a shoulder injury that ultimately cut his career short. He tried to play through the injury that season, because that’s what pitchers were expected to do in that era. Even though he managed to win 12 games, he wound up with a “dead arm” that curtailed his playing time for the next three years and ended his major-league career as a player in 1950. After attempting a comeback during two full minor-league seasons, he finally retired after the 1952 season at the age of 30.
Ferriss served as Red Sox pitching coach from 1955 to 1959, followed by a storied career as head baseball coach at Delta State University, near his Mississippi hometown. His Statesmen teams won 639 games and appeared in three Division II College World Series. He was named to the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2002. He was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1964. The annual award for the most outstanding collegiate baseball player in Mississippi is named for him.
Even with all the attention and accolades Ferriss received during his first two big league seasons, he maintained his humble nature then, as well as throughout his lifetime. In reminiscing about his career, he often referred to Williams, Pesky, DiMaggio, and Doerr as the “big guys” on the team, never putting himself in the same class despite his record-setting contributions.
Regardless of Ferriss’s opinion of his own importance during that era, the fact remains he made as big an impact on the game as his teammates and others in the league during those first two seasons. If he were playing today, recording those types of performances within the current media environment, he’d be at the top of social media trend lists. He’d frequently be featured on ESPN’s Top 10 highlight plays, and sports talk shows would be touting him as one of the game’s elite players. He was that sensational.
Contributed by Richard Cuicchi, email@example.com
Richard is an author and baseball historian from New Orleans. A native of Shaw, MS, he has been a member of Society for American Baseball Research since 1983. He is a contributing writer for CrescentCitySports.com. He maintains his own website TheTenthInning.com.