For the most part, my past blog posts have dealt with subjects of baseball history or one of the latest current events in the major leagues. Every once in a while, I’ve addressed a topic of a personal nature, and this week is one of those times.
Dave “Boo” Ferriss died at age 94 on November 24. I was very fortunate to have known him, as countless others can also claim.
First, some background on Boo. His nickname originated from his effort as a toddler to get his older brother’s attention. His attempt to say “brother” came out as “Boo,” and he forever became attached with the name.
Boo was a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox from 1945 to 1951. His first two seasons with the Red Sox were historic, as he won a total of 46 games and helped lead them to a World Series appearance in 1946. In 1947 he hurt his arm, which effectively ended his playing career. After unsuccessfully trying to regain his pitching form, he became the pitching coach for the Red Sox from 1955 to 1959. Despite his shortened career, he was named to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2002.
Following his professional career as a player and coach, Boo stayed in baseball as the head coach for then Division II Delta State University, where his teams won 629 games over 26 seasons. He had a legendary career there, too, as his teams won numerous conference championships, often defeated Division I opponents throughout the Southeast, and went to a couple of Division II College World Series. He produced countless players that went on to play professional baseball or became coaches themselves.
Growing up in the same little Mississippi Delta town of Shaw where Boo was born, I first became aware of him when he came to talk to my Little League team. He had just completed his time as the pitching coach for the Red Sox. One can imagine the impression he made on a wide-eyed eight-year-old who had played with the likes of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio.
My other early recollections and encounters with Boo were mostly by coincidence. He signed my high school team’s star pitcher to an athletic scholarship at Mississippi State University, where Boo briefly worked as an assistant athletic director. My mother called on Boo to write a letter of recommendation for my acceptance into Mississippi State. When I coached a 13-14-year-old baseball team from my home town during a summer league, he stopped by our practice field one day to offer some pitching tips to our best pitcher, who would later become an All-American pitcher for Boo at Delta State.
It wasn’t until almost 25 years later that I began to fully understand the impact Boo had in his few years of major league baseball and his coaching success at Delta State. By this time, my interest in baseball history had significantly grown, and I re-introduced myself to him by corresponding with him about his accomplishments in baseball. Boo faithfully responded to each of my inquiries, and in turn he would often send me copies of news clippings about his past Delta State teams and former players and his participation in his post-career appearances with the Boston Red Sox organization. Periodically, I would send him lists of new baseball books, magazines, and newspaper articles that referenced his career. At one point, Boo told me, “I think you know more about my career than I do myself.”
As time went on, I was the recipient of his friendship in ways other than through baseball. I would get calls from Boo asking how my family had fared during hurricanes that affected or threatened the New Orleans area where I lived. He sent letters of condolence when my parents passed away. He and his wife, Miriam, would graciously welcome me for visits when I went back to the Mississippi Delta area. Once on a Sunday afternoon, he took my family on a personally-narrated tour of the Boo Ferriss Museum on the Delta State campus. But this was how he treated everyone, always demonstrating personal care and interest.
When I was writing my book, Family Ties, about baseball’s relatives, Boo offered words of encouragement to this first-time author. After I had finally completed it, I enlisted his help with the publicity aspects of the book publishing. In his endorsement, his comments included “…it’s (Family Ties) a jewel. He’s a walking encyclopedia of baseball.” That really boosted my confidence to continue my baseball research and writing.
One of my special research interests was, in fact, Boo’s career with the Red Sox. I have written several articles about Boo that related current major league events to similar events and accomplishments from his career seventy years ago. Furthermore, I had collected over one hundred original press and wire photos of Boo from his playing days in the 1940s, and I wound up making copies of them and assimilating them into a “scrapbook” covering his Red Sox career. When I presented it to Boo last year, he commented that there were some photos in it that he had never seen. And he added in his usual humble manner, “It’s time now for you to start writing about someone else.”
I didn’t exactly heed his advice, when earlier this year I researched and wrote game accounts of Boo’s first eight major league games, all of which he won and which also included 22 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings to start his career.
What I learned about Boo in my research efforts was how much of a national sensation he had been at the start of his career. Having been discharged from the Army Air Corps in February 1945 due to problems from asthma, he had literally come out of nowhere to play for the Red Sox in 1945. His prior professional experience consisted of only 130 innings of minor league ball in 1942. At first, many baseball pundits thought his fantastic start in 1945 was a fluke, since the rosters of the major league teams had been depleted of its regular players due to World War II. But he proved his detractors to be wrong when he won 21 games that year and then 25 the next season, when all the regular players had returned from military service. Boo’s popularity soared, as he appeared in advertisements for Gillette, Wheaties, Chesterfield, Hood’s Ice Cream, Tip-Top Bread, and others. Collier’s, LIFE Magazine, Baseball Digest, and The Sporting News were magazines of the day that featured stories about his early success.
Despite all this notoriety, one would never learn this from Boo himself. He tended to downplay his significance in major league history. He often referred to his star teammates (Williams, Pesky, Doerr, and DiMaggio) as “the big guys,” never putting himself in the same category as them, probably because his career was cut short in relation to their respective long, productive careers. But make no mistake, he was as impactful as any player in the major leagues in 1945 and 1946.
Boo is widely known for the lasting relationships he built with his players at Delta State. I’ve had the opportunity to run across several of them in my baseball research activities. Without exception, they all related how much they admired the man and the influence he made on their lives, long after their playing days had ended. I can attest to his being one of the most genuine persons and consummate gentlemen there ever was.
Boo’s going to be missed by a lot of people. Me included.