Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Beloved Legend of Mississippi State Baseball

Note: this feature ran in a spring 2014 edition of Dawgs’ Bite Magazine. It is reprinted now, as Bulldog Baseball begins the 2017 season with its most famous alumnus no longer with us. David ‘Boo’ Ferriss passed away November 24, 2016. The feature is reprinted complete, to remember a great man and great Bulldog.

You’d think after a literal lifetime in the game, playing and coaching alike, tournament tensions wouldn’t be a problem. Yet there Boo Ferris was sweating out every pitch and every play just like any fan.

Because, after all, he is one. “I keep up with those Dogs. They ran me crazy with that playoffs, man, I was hang on that TV! Boy they did a great job, they excited the whole state I tell you that.”

The Diamond Dogs definitely did that last spring and summer. In the process they also made our grand old man of Mississippi State baseball proud.

In fact, all of 2013 made for one long, exciting season to Ferriss. He got to watch both his ‘alma mater’ programs make thrilling and chilling runs. First it was the Bulldogs winning their way through the regional and super-regional to make Omaha, and then reach the final round of the College World Series. That was wonderful enough. But when Ferriss followed his Boston Red Sox club all the way to the real World Series championship, well…what more could a baseball lifer ask for from the calendar?

Well, how about a return to the Mississippi State campus and Starkville in honor of his own?

Which is exactly what Ferriss and Mrs. Miriam were able to enjoy in fall. He served as Grand Marshall of the Homecoming parade, then reported to the campus Kappa Sigma house for something special.

The fraternity was commemorating one of their own by naming the house’s courtyard for the famed alumnus. KS officials had contacted daughter Margaret Ferriss White with their request.

“I said oh, my gosh! I’ve got my names on baseball fields but I never had one on a courtyard! It kind of shocked me, I tell you that!” Ferriss says. “But I guess once a Kappa Sigma always a Kappa Sigma. It’s been 73 years since I was initiated here at Mississippi State in 1940.”

David ‘Boo’ Ferriss weras his years rather lightly considering how many of them were spent on ball fields. Turned 92 this December, the eyes are as clear as back when he stared down American League batters in the 1940s, or umpires as Delta State coach from 1960-88. And his memory stays sharp, though if he wanted to change some old tales from his Kappa Sigma days at State he would likely get away with it.

“Nobody else is around, I go way back!” Ferriss laughs. “But I appreciate the honor, certainly one of the nicest honors I’ve ever had. The fraternity has meant a lot to me through the years and we had a good chapter when I was here, some great guys. Those friendships were priceless, I’m sorry not many of them are left today. But we had some great times, we sure did.”

Times he got to talk about with this campus generation born well-after his retirement from baseball. The speech-making was a challenge of sorts, Ferriss claims. “I started putting my thoughts together, I knew I was going to have to make some kind of response so I had to go work on that. They told me who was coming to present me, Rick Cleveland. And Mitchell Wilson who is a good friend, only thing is he’s a New York Yankees fan, I ain’t changed him yet! And Scott Stricklin.”

For perspective, Stricklin was a freshman at Mississippi State—and soon to begin working with Bulldog baseball himself—the year Ferriss stepped down at Delta State. The only aspect slowed by age is getting out and about much, including to Mississippi State.

“It’s been a while, I was over for a basketball game with Ole Miss a couple of years ago. I’ve been wanting to get over for a baseball game but haven’t made it.” Ferriss settled for a clubhouse meeting with this fall’s Diamond Dog squad during Homecoming weekend, where he naturally encouraged them to finish what the ’13 team started in June’s dramatic and traumatic tournament tear.

“I enjoyed seeing the come-from-behind wins,” Ferris says. “And I got attached to Hunter Renfroe because he was a recipient of my trophy.” The Boo Ferriss Trophy of course, given to the top college player in the state and presented personally just before—of course—tournament time! “A fine youngster, I was pulling for him.”

As well as the rest of the Diamond Dogs when they took the field in Omaha for what became a go-the-distance stay. Though, Ferriss reminds, it was too close for comfort in the opener. “My gosh that first game, I came out of my chair when (Jonathan) Holder hung that curveball,” he says. “I thought it was gone, I think everybody did. Hunter went back and caught it on the warning track, they went on and won another one-run game and Hunter hit a three-run homer.

“Boy, they had some great games. No disgrace being runner-up in that series, no disgrace at all, they made a tremendous run. UCLA just had a great ball club. But they made a great run and they sure got a lot of excitement going in our state, and a great boost for college baseball in our state.”

Note that carefully. Ferriss is unabashedly proud to have been a Diamond Dog himself, decades before the title was coined. Yet as his Trophy reminds, he is beyond that a promoter of baseball in Mississippi as a whole and the college game in particular. It’s something he shares with his friend and peer off the field and intense rival on it Ronald G. Polk, another Mississippi State legend, whose Bulldog teams battled Ferriss’ Statesmen squads for over a decade.

A quarter-century after departing the dugout himself, Ferriss can take justified satisfaction in what he watched on-screen from Omaha. “It’s great to see college baseball come so far. It’s made tremendous strides in the last decade, it’s really taken a prominent place I think in the national picture.”

Ferriss’ own place in baseball history is pretty prominent for a fellow from Shaw, Mississippi. He belongs to the sports Hall of Fame for Mississippi State, the state of Mississippi, and Delta State as well as the American Baseball Coaches Association. This was won with his 639-387-8 record directing Delta State to three appearances in the Division II World Series with finishes of third, second, and third.

And unlike many college coaches or big league managers, Ferriss went out at his peak. Eight of his last dozen Statesmen teams made the national playoffs with four Gulf South Conference titles. His last season produced a #9 national ranking by Collegiate Baseball. He sent 23 players on to professional baseball…and made one obscure-at-the-time cut of a kid in 1978. It became famous later when John Grisham turned into a best-selling author and supporter of the program as well as Mississippi baseball.

There’s an alternate-history twist here though. “I cringe sometimes, I came so close to not coming here,” Ferriss says. Meaning coming to Mississippi State, and staying in Mississippi.

Remember, recruiting seven-plus decades ago was a very, very different deal. Ferriss’ experience was more interesting than most because he was blessed being born in Bolivar County where all of the schools had baseball programs. And Shaw High was a good one, attracting scouts from both Major League and college. Ferriss absolutely had the option of signing a contract as a teen-ager, with Boston in fact. But, “My daddy said you’re going to college. Which he was right.”

“State had scouted me at Shaw High School, but I never had heard anything from them about an offer. Ole Miss was after me, Coach Tad Smith. And Alabama was the kingpin back then, Coach Happy Campbell. He tried to sign me out of high school for the Red Sox.

“I went over and had a visit with Ole Miss and a visit with Alabama, after the Alabama visit it looked like I was going to sign with them. They offered me a half-scholarship. I came back through here and was going to spend the night with my good friend Nino Bologna and go on home the next day. When I got here Nino said I got you an opponent with Coach Dudy Noble tomorrow morning, can you be there? I said oh my gosh, how’d you do that? He said that’s OK, he wants to see you.”

Noble truly did want to see the young Boo (the life-long nickname arose when as a kid he had trouble saying ‘brother’ goes the story). Though the coach/AD’s infamous voice was gruff, the words were sweet. “He says ‘here boy, we want you over here, we want you over here real bad, you’ve got to come to Mississippi State. You’re a Mississippi boy, we’ve got to have you, I’m going to give you the first full baseball scholarship I’ve ever given any player. He said I think you’ll like that and I want you to sign with me right today!”

Ferriss did indeed like it; but he wasn’t signing that very hour. He begged-off for a chance to discuss things with the parents. Though a full scholarship offer anywhere for baseball was a very, very big deal at the time.

“That was the depression years, late ‘30s you know? We didn’t lack for anything but times was a little tough, dollars was a little scarce. I told my daddy Coach Dudy offered me a full scholarship, everything paid for. He said boy, you get on that phone and you tell him you’ll be there! So I did, I called him right away and said I’ll be there Coach Dudy.

“But I cringe, when I came so close.” Yes, Bulldog baseball fans owe thanks to buddy Bologna, who later became student body president and a famed Delta area doctor, for pushing Ferriss to meet Noble…the man whose name would ultimately be attached to the Diamond Dogs home field.

“I guess it did change my life, and I’ve never regretted it I tell you that,” says Ferriss. “I had fine years here. That he did, becoming Mississippi State’s first All-Southeaster Conference selection in 1941 and again in ’42. Needless to say the State College campus of those years was a far smaller place to play and to live. Ferriss figures there were about 1,200 students when he enrolled; though it was up closer to 1,700 soon.

As for the baseball, “We had some great guys. You know, we only played about a 20, 22 game schedule. The field was where Dorman Hall is now, we had to cross the railroad track. And I could tell stories about the train coming along and guys being late for practice and Coach Dudy get on that! We dressed in Scott Field underneath the stands.”

It also needs noting that State was not a SEC power back in those years, but more of a mid-pack program. Alabama won league titles all of Ferriss’ career. Otherwise though playing baseball in college in the late Depression years and with world war looming was almost idyllic. Ferriss particularly recalls enjoyable road, rather train, trips to play at LSU and Tulane.

“Freshmen couldn’t play but we played five or six games against Ole Miss and Alabama. I played freshman year and then ’41 and ’42 varsity years. I’d planned to play my senior year, but December 7, 1941 changed a lot of our lives.”

Not immediately though for underclassman Ferriss. At age 20 he had a little time before the inevitable call-up, and an option to turn professional first.

“Back then it wasn’t any Major League draft, you could sign any time with anybody anywhere. I had offers out of high school with several clubs and they were still talking some with my daddy about signing in my sophomore year here. My daddy and I talked it over.

“He said you’re going to be drafted, I wasn’t in the ROTC and knew I was going to be with Uncle Sam before too long. He said you might want to think about passing up your senior year. So I played my junior year, ’42, and then we decided I would try to sneak in a summer of pro ball before I had to go to service. I signed in early June of 1942 with the Red Sox and went to Greensboro, North Carolina, BP-minor league which would be about an A-league today. Heinie Manush, the great Hall of Fame hitter, was the manager. I still lacked a year of college but that turned out to be a good move.”

Good? How about just plain great. “I got a summer of pro ball in, and we won the pennant and that was great. I came back for my fall semester and in the middle of December Uncle Sam called and I was off to the service. I was glad to do it, didn’t mind it one bit. That’s the way it was. It curtailed my senior year but it worked out alright.”

Did it ever. Receiving an early discharge for asthma he reported to AAA-Louisville, and when the big club sputtered early in the 1945 season the young righthander was called up. On April 29 he first toed the big-league rubber, and first mowed down big-league batters with a two-hit shutout. Ferriss worked 22 consecutive innings before allowing his first true run, breaking a MLB record set in 1907. His would hold up until 2008.

Ferriss went 21-10 as a rookie, then in 1946 led the entire American League at 25-6 en route to the pennant and a World Series matchup with St. Louis. “I pitched the third game and fortunately won 4-0 over the Cardinals in Fenway,” he says. “I started the seventh game and we lost it, 4-3.” Actually, Ferriss didn’t lose the game, it was a no-decision, but that’s just how great starting pitchers think. Just as Ferriss ‘claims’ some responsibility for the 86-season gap in Red Sox world championships. “I helped prolong that because I started the seventh game!”

The ’46 series was Ferriss’ peak as the record slipped to 12-11 the next season before arm trouble and the old asthma crimped the rest of a career ending in 1950. He does have a 65-50 record though ands till holds big-league records including the most consecutive home wins with 13 in 1946.

And yes, the club remembered him when Boston finally broke-through. Ferriss had suffered with them through the heartbreaks of 1967 and ’85, and was able to celebrate at last in 2004. “Oh, my gosh, finally! Finally! I got to see the last two games in St. Louis, Busch Stadium, when they won and that was a great night, seeing them finally win that World Series. They pulled out a miracle run in ’04, beat the Yankees with two outs in the last game, oh, that’s the story!”

Not all of it. Ferriss was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2002, but the real prize came after the 2004 championship. “The telephone rang one day and it was Thomas Werner, one of the top three men of the Red Sox. He said I’ve got something I want to give you, I said what in the world is this? He says we’re sending you a ring of the ’04 World Series, the championship ring. We’re giving it to all Red Sox players who played in a World Series but did not win!

“That thing was 64 diamonds, and rubies and sapphires and all. A beautiful ring, and a drawing of Fenway and about beating the Yankees three-straight to win that series. That was great, that’s a prized possession.”

Something sort-of forgotten now is Ferris went back to Boston from 1955-59 as a pitching coach. It was his return to Mississippi to take over Delta State that rounded-out his legend. Some of it, earned at the expense of his alma mater. Ferriss’ Statesmen first played Mississippi State in 1961, losing a pair in Starkville. In a 1965 rematch though the teams split as set, and that was a Bulldog squad that would win the SEC Championship!

Ferriss would go 7-22 in games with Mississippi State, winning the last one 9-8 in Cleveland in 1988. The programs last met in 1997, as new NCAA rules that didn’t allow Division I teams to count wins over D-II effectively ended such matchups. Now State must play SWAC or comparable programs instead of a lower-Division team that can go pitch-by-play with many SEC squads. This, Ferriss regrets.

“Oh, well, we had some great games here, some thrillers right here on this field. And we had some good ones over our way through the years. I’m sorry we don’t play those, half my schedule was D-I, I played everybody from Notre Dame and Big Ten schools, and Memphis and South Alabama. We played them all and it was good.

“We had some great games (with State). I coached against Paul Gregory, in fact one of the best games I ever saw in my life was when they were building Dudy Noble Field and we had to play in Columbus, in the recreation park. We had a game that was I think an hour and 20 minutes, we won 1-0, I had a pitcher named Joe DiFabio and he went in the first round of the draft (1965) that they ever had.

Fascinatingly, Ferriss’ last game against MSU involved a Bulldog sophomore outfielder named John Cohen. Thus he’s run the proverbial gamut of playing for or against all Mississippi State mentors since the days of Dudy Noble.

“Coach Dudy certainly played a big part in my life and helped me realize my dream of playing professional baseball. That’s something I’d been dreaming of all my life. I hoped one day I could be a pro ballplayer and he played a big part in making that.”

As for his longtime opponent, Ferriss and Polk did make quite a history together. They last crossed paths at a Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame banquet, though Ferriss is amused how Polk spent the summer coaching Wareham in the Cape Cod League as an assistant to former Ferriss player Cooper Farriss. As to old #1, “I know you ain’t going to change him, no way!”

A quarter-century after his last lineup exchange, Ferriss has as thoroughly-modern an appreciation of today’s college game. Though, some old-time traits still linger. As much as he delighted in the Diamond Dogs’ post-season story, all that hair…

“Wellllll, I might like to have gotten that razor after some of them! I didn’t have any of that when I was coaching, those beards or anything. But that’s Coach Cohen’s business and they played might good so you can’t criticize that very much.” Other than the facial foliage, Ferriss completely applauds how his alma mater has returned to the national spotlight and again is winning as Mississippi State baseball should.

“State’s come a long way in the last couple of years, and it looks like they’ve got some good recruits.” One of whom, Vance Tatum, is the son of a former Ferriss player at Delta State, a reminder of how interwoven baseball always is. And one of the brightest threads of them all is a boy from the Mississippi delta who became the grand man of college baseball in the entire state.

Not, Ferriss says, that he could have imagined such a future when he first picked up a baseball and went into a windup.

“I never thought about the honors. I just wanted to play baseball and I was so fortunate to play here for Coach Dudy and Mississippi State and to realize my dream of going on and playing in the Major Leagues. I’ve been very blessed, I can tell you that.”

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