On a chilly April day in 1973 –- it was spring, but winter had gone into extra innings — a young man strode over to me in the state Capitol newsroom, proffered his hand, and announced, "Hi, I'm Tom Ferrick." My response was instantaneous.
"Any relation to the guy who used to pitch for the Yankees?"
"Yeah, he's my dad." His words hung in the air like an echo. I started to exclaim "Wow!" but I swallowed the syllable. I didn't want to appear too excited. Or, as Yogi Berra used to say, I tried to nonchalant it.
But, Tom Ferrick! He played on the same team as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi, Phil Rizzuto, Billy Martin, Whitey Ford. … I had seen him pitch at Yankee Stadium. He was the winning pitcher in the third game of the 1950 World Series against the Phillies.
I didn't know it at the time, but this was the first in a string of steps that would culminate in the Legend of the Ball, a narrative that would loop through four generations of Ecenbargers.
I am a lifetime Yankees fan. Sorry, Phillies fans, I was born in the Bronx, and you either rooted for the Bombers or entered Witness Protection, courtesy of my father, grandfather and three uncles. True, one of my grandfathers was a Dodgers fan, but we suspected that not all his gear was stored securely.
That night in 1973, I called my father and gave him this incredible news. "We saw him pitch against the Indians right before the World Series," Dad said, tripping over his words in excitement. "He got the final three outs. I remember this because the day before, he had pitched two scoreless innings to save a game for Whitey." My father had an encyclopedic familiarity with Yankees history and had even seen Babe Ruth hit a home run.
Ferrick broke in with the Philadelphia Athletics under Connie Mack in 1941, and he also played for the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators. He joined the Yankees late in the 1950 season and helped them win the American League pennant. Manager Casey Stengel called him "our most important individual performer in our drive to the top."
He was known for exceptional control, issuing only 227 walks in 674 innings, or about one per three innings. In nine seasons, he threw only nine wild pitches and hit but one batter. They didn't start counting saves until 1969, but Ferrick appeared in 323 games, so he had a lot of them. His career record was 40 wins and 40 losses.
Some would call Tom Ferrick an average major leaguer. Not Hall of Fame material. But according to the Society of American Baseball Research, since major league baseball began way back in 1871, only 19,180 players have ever made it up to "the Show." Tom Ferrick was one of them.
Many of these guys were, in baseball parlance, up for a cup of coffee, meaning they played only a game or two. But Tom Ferrick played for nine seasons – a feat managed only by 4,041 players in the near century and a half of major league baseball.
Major league ballplayers are like sunsets. Some are better than others – but they're all great.
Tom Ferrick Jr. and I became friends and then colleagues when he joined me in the Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau. So, when Tom announced he was getting married in 1977, I received an invitation to the wedding. At the time, my son and namesake was 7 years old and had already been indoctrinated into the necessity, importance, and joy of being a Yankees fan.
So I asked Tom if I could bring young Bill to the wedding, and he said, "Bring the whole family." As the wedding day approached, I primed my son with the knowledge that he was soon going to meet a Yankees pitcher.
We met Tom Sr. after the ceremony. He took Bill aside, showed him how to throw a curve ball, and regaled him with tales of Yogi, Mickey and Dimag. Bill emerged with a look you could pour on a waffle.
But that's not the end of the story. Several weeks later, a package arrived addressed to Bill Jr. It contained a baseball that Ferrick, who was then a scout for the Kansas City Royals, had somehow passed around the Yankees clubhouse. It was signed by, among others, Yogi Berra, Catfish Hunter, Ron Guidry, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Sparky Lyle, and Mickey Rivers (who, ever the flake, signed it twice).
Now, 41 seasons later, the Ball rests, encased in protective plastic, in a revered spot of my son's home, guarded by two future major leaguers – grandsons Liam, 13, (Bats R, Throws R) and Silas, 7 (Bats R, Throws R). My father and Tom Sr. have passed away, but the Ball stands eternal, immune to the shuffle and re-deal of the generations.
So, as the nation gets ready to play ball for the 147th season, speaking on behalf of my entire family, I say, "Thank you, Tom Ferrick. You're in the Ecenbarger Hall of Fame."