CARY, N.C. — The old man sits with his wife of 63 years on the concourse level of Coleman Field, a couple of Delta State University assistants standing close by to help out with anything they might need.
His name is Dave Ferriss, but they call him “Boo” because his brother couldn’t quite form the word. Ferriss is 90, but he doesn’t look it. Nor does he appear to be royalty, but that’s exactly what he is in two distinctly different parts of the country. To Boston Red Sox fans, he was the pitcher who began his career in 1945 with 22 consecutive scoreless innings and 46 wins his first two years in the league.
For six years, Ferriss was a teammate of “The Splendid Splinter” — Ted Williams — Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and he played against countless mythical baseball figures. As a rookie, a young Ferriss brought down $700 a month for the five months he was on the team. “I thought I had robbed Fort Knox,” he said.
If that was good money, check out this: In 1946, he went 25-6 and was the top pitcher in the league. His salary rocketed to what was for him an almost unimaginable $25,000.
After winning the third game of the World Series at the end of the year, he took the mound for the seventh and deciding game. He wound up with a no-decision in a game remembered most for Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter’s mad dash from first to home in the bottom of the eighth inning — and for the hesitation of Ferriss’ teammate, Johnny Pesky, on the very same play.
Pesky, Ferriss insists, got a bum rap.
“They tried to hold up Slaughter at third base. The film shows the third-base coach with his hands up, but he ran right through it with his head down,” said Ferris, who by that time had been pulled from the game. “He was bent on getting to home plate.
“[Pesky] held it momentarily, a second. Doerr and Pinky Higgins at third were hollering, ‘Home! Home!’ But there were 35,000 people going wild because they saw what was going on. Johnny couldn’t hear them, so he had to pause momentarily.”
With that, Ferriss quickly pops his hand in an imaginary glove.
“He did that, came up and threw, quick as that,” added Ferriss, a 2003 inductee into the Red Sox Hall of Fame. “He kind of got the goat horns, but that wasn’t right.”
Hundreds of miles southwest of Boston in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, his legend is even greater. After a four-year stint as the pitching coach for the Red Sox, Ferriss moved back to his home state to take over as the head baseball coach at Delta State in 1960.
The school is just a few miles from Shaw, Miss., his hometown. It was time. Miriam, his wife, needed a husband at home and their two children needed a daddy.
“A couple of years before, the [school] president told me if I ever thought about settling down with my family, ‘You might want to consider a job at Delta State,’ ” Ferriss said. “I kept that in my mind. It was a family decision. My children were getting bigger. There were a lot of long separations, family wise. We just decided to have a more stable family life. We settled down.”
The job wasn’t exactly a cushy dream gig, either, moving from The Show to a small college with barely 800 students and a baseball field in rough shape.
“It was pretty tough when I got there,” Ferriss said. “The college had never done much with baseball. Things were tough for a while, but I survived and we got it going.”
Ferriss did more than survive. He became a part of the fabric of Cleveland, Miss., the town in which Delta State is located, and the surrounding area. During the course of the 26 seasons he filled out lineup cards for the Statesmen — or Fighting Okra, depending on who you’re talking to — he compiled an outstanding record of 639-387. Three times he led Delta State to the Division II championships.
Name a Mississippi-related hall of fame, and Ferriss is there. The Ferriss Trophy honors Mississippi’s top college baseball player each year. He had chances to go elsewhere, to bigger schools like Texas and Kansas State, but in the end, Ferriss quipped, “I was home. I guess I had too much mud between my toes.”
That’s just one of a million reasons Ferriss is so dearly loved and respected by Delta State fans. He has been forgiven many times over by current Delta State head baseball coach Mike Kinnison, who was cut by Ferriss prior to the 1976 season. Kinnison instead spent the year as Ferriss’ student manager, before finally making the roster the next season.
“You’re talking about the guy who built the program,” Kinnison said not long after Delta State’s 6-5 win against Catawba on Tuesday. “I think our program now stands on his shoulders. He’s been such a great encourager to our players. He just continues to give to our community, give to our university and give to our program. He is a true model of what a Statesman is.”
The Curse of the Bambino kept Ferriss’ Red Sox from winning the World Series in the big leagues, and while he came close, he was never able to win the DII national championship. Kinnison finally got Delta State over the hump in 2004, and one of the most special moments in the school’s history took place after the game.
With the national championship trophy in hand, Kennison went over the railing and into the stands to where Ferriss was sitting. It’s an emotional Ferriss who told the story.
“They were celebrating on the field, and here comes Mike holding the trophy,” Ferriss remembered. “I said to my wife, ‘Where’s Mike going with that trophy?’ We’d came so close, but had never won. Here, we had it. Before I knew it, he was up there handing that trophy to me. Oh, man … it was a tearjerker, both of us in tears.
“He said, ‘You earned it. You got this program where it is.’ I tear up talking about it.”
More than 50 years after arriving on campus, Ferriss is rightfully proud of what Delta State has been able to accomplish. He is a part of the school, and it is a part of him. It would be hard to imagine one without the other.