I still don't
know how he knew.
summer I had gone to Greensboro, N.C., to see Wes Ferrell, star righthander of
the Cleveland Indians from 1929 through '32 and the only pitcher to win 20 or
more games during each of his first, four complete big league seasons.
Ferrell had been known as a fierce competitor, with a temper like a rumbling
Vesuvius. Unlike Grove, however, between eruptions he was a sweet-natured man
with a winning smile that brightened a face so handsome he had been offered a
screen test in the 1930s. Ferrell told the dream merchants no, explaining,
"I have a job.".
I had been
advised by Red Smith that Ferrell would be a good interview, but to be careful
not to "set him off."
The day was hot,
and the drive to Greensboro from my home in Cromwell, Conn. had been long.
Early that morning I'd bought a bottle of soda and poured it into my Thermos,
in case I became thirsty later. The Thermos had fallen off the front seat and
for four or five hours now it had been rolling back and forth on the warm
floor, unopened, keeping beat with the car's every stop, start and turn.
Ferrell rose from
a lawn chair when I pulled into his driveway and greeted me with a wave and a
smile. "Hot as a furnace, huh?" he said walking toward the car. He was
as handsome as a 66-year-old man could possibly be. He was wearing a freshly
ironed white sport shirt, sharply creased blue slacks, a pair of high-sheen
"How about a
cold drink?" I said, getting out, Thermos in hand.
As he stood there
smiling, I twisted off the cap of my Thermos and began pulling out its cork,
which suddenly disappeared from my hand as if it had been shot out of a cannon.
Following it was a veritable geyser of soda pop that hissed and sizzled through
the placid North Carolina sunshine and splattered over Ferrell's immaculate
shirt, trousers and loafers.
I was too
stunned, mortified and terrified to say anything. I simply gazed at Ferrell,
not knowing what to expect. But time must have mellowed him, because he simply
stepped back, looked down at himself with disbelief and then burst out
laughing. "What do you do before you interview a man?" he asked.
Not long after
that I was in the green heartland of the Wisconsin dairy belt, en route to a
dot on the map called Holcombe. There lived the venerable former Brooklyn
Dodger spitball pitcher, Burleigh Grimes. If Burleigh had been a tough man to
hit, he was also a tough one to find. I repeatedly got lost in towns named
Misha Mokwa, Urne and Plum City.