At times during his career Wes Ferrell was the best pitcher in baseball, though until now what he achieved was not regarded as good enough to make it into the Hall of Fame. When the Pre-Integration Era Committee meets in early December this may be the last go-around for him being considered for induction. Some aspects of Ferrell’s career glitter and stand out as worthy of election, but at least one glaring statistic works mightily against him.
Ferrell’s brother Rick, who did make the Hall as a catcher, always said his sibling was a better player than he was, and that might have been true when Wes was healthy, but injuries ruined his shoulder and career prematurely and that’s why Wes has been on the outside looking in despite a lifetime mark of 193-128 with six 20-win seasons on his resume.
A hard-flinging right-hander from North Carolina, Wes Ferrell had a hard-luck career when viewed as a whole, but had several great seasons for the Cleveland Indians in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and added a couple of beauties with the Red Sox a little later when he teammed with his brother. Twice an All-Star, Ferrell twice led the American League in games started, three times led the circuit in innings pitched, and three times led in complete games.
Ferrell also surrendered a lot of hits, three times leading the AL in that dubious category. But when he was at his best the No. 1 thing Ferrell did was win. He was a tough competitor and gutted out challenges. Ferrell first appeared in the majors with the Indians as a 19-year-old in 1927. In 1929 he posted his first 20-win campaign, going 21-10. In 1930, 1931, and 1932, Ferrell was one of the best pitchers around, winning 25, 22, and 23 games back-to-back-to-back. In that overall four-year stretch he won 91 games.
During the 1931 season Ferrell pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns. At the time brother Rick was playing for the opposition and he came closest to breaking it up, reaching on an error. Wes Ferrell is regarded as one of the best hitting pitchers of all time and often helped his own cause at the plate. He hit nine home runs in one season and 37 as a pitcher. His lifetime average was .280.
Ferrell might have been his own best friend at the plate, but he could also be his own worst enemy. He possessed a Major League temper and got into frequent arguments. He battled with his managers, refusing to follow rules, sometimes stomping out of the ballpark before a game was over. On one memorable occasion he ripped his uniform apart in anger. On another notable occasion he almost knocked himself cold. His frustration and rage somehow combined to make him think that punching himself in the jaw was a good idea.
Ironically, the All-Star game was created in 1933, after Ferrell’s great four-year run, and while he was selected to play in the first exhibition he finished 11-12 that year, the first signs of his arm wearing down. Still, Ferrell made an excellent comeback in 1934 after being traded to the Red Sox. He finished 14-5 and then regained his early form. He went 25-14 and 20-15 the next two years. But the end was on the horizon.
Ferrell bounced around to other teams, had arm surgery that didn’t help, and persevered into the 1941 season before giving up on the majors at 33. After the last two 20-win seasons Ferrell had some losing records, some solid winning records, some seasons when he hardly pitched, and several years when his earned run average was atrocious. One season it was 4.90. Another year it was 6.28, though amazingly Ferrell went 15-10 that season. Lifetime, Ferrell’s ERA was 4.04, not a Hall of Fame number.
Yet for all of his tribulations, Ferrell did not want to leave the sport and this is where his hitting prowess paid off (he had played some games in the outfield for Cleveland). After his arm was gone, Ferrell returned to the minor leagues as an outfielder and had several successful seasons in Class C and Class D, one year hitting .361.
Clearly, the guy loved the game. But sadly, for all of his accomplishments, Wes Ferrell’s career will forever be tinged with what-ifs.