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About the day the ‘Say Hey Kid’ faced a Mississippi legend named Boo

Two baseball greats: Shaw native Boo Ferriss, left, and Willie Mays.
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Two baseball greats: Shaw native Boo Ferriss, left, and Willie Mays. Credit: DSU | AP Photo/Harry Harris, File

So many wonderful stories have come back to life since the death of baseball great Willie Mays on June 18. Here’s one more involving, in my opinion, the greatest baseball man in Mississippi history.

This happened in May of 1952. Pitcher Boo Ferriss, a Shaw native who had won 46 games over his first two seasons (1945-46) in the Major Leagues, was still trying to pitch his way back after suffering a shoulder injury in 1947. In ’52, he pitched and coached pitchers for Class AA Louisville, still in the Boston Red Sox organization. Ferriss was 30 years young and should have been in his pitching prime, but he no longer had his fast ball. Today, journalists would say he had lost his velocity or velo. Back then, they said he had lost his “snap.” A Louisville sports columnist wrote that while Ferriss no longer had his fast ball, he retained “the heart of a warrior.”

Rick Cleveland
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Rick Cleveland

The Class AA Southern Association was really good baseball back then. It not only included many of the sport’s top young prospects, but also many former Big League stars, such as Ferriss, trying to extend their playing careers. At Louisville, Ferriss pitched against many of the same hitters as he had for the Red Sox.

But he also pitched against future Hall of Famers on their rise to the Big League stardom. The year before he had faced a 19-year-old switch-hitting Yankees prospect from Commerce, Oklahoma, named Mickey Mantle. “Struck him out on a slow curve,” Ferriss once told me. “That was the only time I ever had to face him and you can quote me on this. I was glad I never had to face him again. There was nothing on a baseball field that guy couldn’t do.”

In 1952, five years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, Louisville was playing at Minneapolis, where the home team boasted a young, Black centerfielder nobody could get out. Willie Mays was 19.

“The kid was putting on an exhibition like I had never seen before,” Ferriss told me in 2007 when we were working together on a book. “He was hitting home runs, stealing bases and climbing the walls to make circus catches. You name it, he did it. And he was so confident. He was really digging in at the plate against our young pitchers.”

Ferriss decided that when he faced Mays, if he got the chance, he was going to “brush him back off the plate..That’s just what you did back then.”

Boo Ferriss won 46 games his first two seasons in the Major leagues.
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Boo Ferriss won 46 games his first two seasons in the Major leagues. Credit: Boo Ferriss collection

Sure enough, Ferriss got his chance late in a game when he came on in relief. He wasted no time. His first pitch, what he had left of his fastball, sent Mays diving backwards into the dirt. Mays got back up, dusted himself off and dug his cleats into the batter’s box again. Ferriss’s second pitch, another fast ball, sent Mays diving back into the dirt again.

Remember, this was a 19-year-old facing a 30-year-old, who had been a Major League All-Star and who had pitched a World Series shutout against Stan Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals. The count reached three balls and two strikes. Ferriss figured that since Mays had already dived away from two pitches, he would throw him a side-armed fast ball. He did.

Mays lined the pitch into left field for a single. Rosy Ryan, the Minnesota general manager, sought Ferriss on the field before the next day’s game to thank him for knocking down his star player not once but twice. Ryan said the then-New York Giants had wanted to see how Mays would handle the brush-back pitches he would surely see in the Major leagues. Said Ferriss, who had played with Ted Williams and against such sluggers as Musial and Joe DiMaggio, “I believe you got you a good one.,”

Eight years later, Ferriss was the pitching coach of the Red Sox and Mays was an established star with the Giants when their paths crossed again in spring training. Mays smiled and pointed at his temple before they shook hands. “He thanked me for knocking him down,” Ferriss said. “He told me he had needed that.”

That was shortly before Ferriss left Boston to come back to the Mississippi Delta where he created a nationally prominent baseball program at Delta State. In 2007, when we were working on his biography, I set up an exam for Ferriss with Buddy Savoie, a noted surgeon who specialized in shoulder injuries. Ferriss had never known exactly what had happened to curtail one of the most promising pitching careers in baseball history. Only one Big League pitcher, Grover Cleveland Alexander, had ever won more games in his first two seasons than David “Boo” Ferriss.

Fifty-seven years after the injury occurred, Savoie found a slight tear in the labrum of Ferriss’s pitching shoulder. Savoie explained, “They called it dead arm back then. They didn’t know what it was and there was no way to tell. They just hoped it would repair itself, but the labrum doesn’t repair itself. Today, we’d punch a couple holes in his shoulder, go in there and sew it up and he’d have a 95 percent chance of total recovery. He’d be as good as new in six to nine months.”

After learning all that, Ferriss told me he had no regrets, that he was happy with the way his life had turned out. Listening in, Miriam Ferriss, his wife of 68 years, piped in, “Now wait a second, Boo, with the money they are paying pitchers these days, Buddy could sew you up and we could wheel you out there and you could pitch a few innings.”


Remembering Willie Mays.

Remembering Boo Ferriss.

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