BREWER — It’s been 50 years, and Joe Ferris can still recall every moment of that magical spring for the magnificent underdogs in Maine Black Bear uniforms.
The two victories at Fenway Park that sent Maine to its first College World Series, an event most of the players didn’t even know existed.
The exotic feeling of actually getting on an airplane to fly to Omaha, Nebraska, to mingle with college baseball royalty. The 50 or so telegrams Ferris got at his dingy hotel from well-wishers back home, none of whom made the trip.
The sinker Ferris threw to strike out future major league star Sal Bando to preserve a victory over Arizona State. The fastball to record the final out against mighty Southern California, the defending national champion.
Stump Merrill’s spectacular catch and Zippy Thompson’s two-footed stomp on third base to record the third out of one pivotal inning.
Maine won three games at that College World Series to grab the attention of baseball fans everywhere before falling 2-1 to Missouri and finishing third. Ferris, a 19-year-old right-hander from Brewer, won two of them and saved the other to conclude a remarkable sophomore season by being named Most Outstanding Player in that series.
On Sunday, those efforts will land him in the Maine Sports Hall of Fame.
“I haven’t played baseball for a long time, so I’m honored that they can still consider putting me in there after all these years,” Ferris said last week in the Brewer office where he still works as a lawyer at age 69.
“I was very fortunate to play with a very good team. Nobody knew they were very good and all of the sudden we’re playing Southern Cal and those teams to a dead-stone standstill, right there with them all the way. With a break or two, we’re in the championship game.”
It was a heady season for Ferris and his young teammates. He went 9-0 in his first varsity campaign for fiery coach Jack Butterfield. David “Zippy” Thompson was the senior captain and hit .333, as did shortstop Dick DeVarney. Carl “Stump” Merrill – future manager of the New York Yankees – was so good at catcher that he threw out all 18 runners who tried to steal against him while batting .327.
Most of them will return to Orono for a 50th reunion gathering May 17 when Maine hosts Maryland-Baltimore County in a 1 p.m. game at Mahaney Diamond.
The stories will flow.
“Most of us fellas were from New England and hadn’t gone too darn far in our lives,” said Thompson, a Belfast native who retired from the railway supply industry and lives in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “They met us at the airport (in Omaha). They put us in open cars just as if it was a heroes’ welcome coming through the streets. The whole thing was amazing for us.
“Our guys, they knew that they could play. We didn’t feel that we were any worse than any other teams. We felt we could beat them and we damn near did.”
THE ROAD TO OMAHA
It was a time before baseball players got scholarships or fancy facilities. Ferris recalled living at home and paying $225 per semester to attend school. Maine’s ballpark didn’t have a fence, scoreboard or dugouts. Just some portable bleachers that sat about 60 people.
And the players had the time of their lives.
“We thought we had all we need,” Ferris said. “We were all a bunch of sophomores (freshmen couldn’t play varsity college sports in those days). I knew we had a good shortstop and a good catcher. I don’t think we knew how good the pitching was going to be.”
Thanks largely to Ferris, it was more than good enough.
The season opened in Maryland and Ferris was summoned for his Black Bear debut in the second game against Dartmouth, with Maine nursing a big lead.
Ferris, known for his excellent control, promptly walked six batters and allowed four runs. So imagine his surprise when he was selected to start the next game, against Hampton. Ferris allowed two hits in a 9-1 victory, followed it up by holding Columbia hitless until the seventh inning of another win, and soon found himself as Maine’s designated Friday pitcher for weekend series in the Yankee Conference.
Ferris went 6-0 as Maine won its league. That earned the Black Bears a trip to Fenway Park to face Northeastern in a best-of-three series, with the winner earning a berth in the eight-team College World Series.
Ferris won the opener but had to be lifted in the ninth inning, the only time that happened all year. Thomas Murphy won the second game, 4-2.
The Black Bears, ranked 19th in the nation, were heading to Nebraska, where the top seven teams awaited. Not that all the players realized what was next.
Merrill heard his teammates talking about Omaha on the bus ride home.
“I thought that was the team we were going to play. That’s how naive I was,” he said.
ONE FOR THE ‘POTATO-PICKERS’
Ferris said many of the Black Bears had never been on a plane, in an era when men actually put on suits and ties for air travel. But the Black Bears arrived to find many signs they weren’t expected to actually compete with the likes of Missouri, Minnesota and Mississippi.
Other teams stayed in downtown luxury. Maine was relegated to something called the Hill Hotel, a fleabag outside town.
“We changed at the hotel and we’d walk down through the stands and the fans were saying, ‘Don’t even unpack; two and out,’ that type of thing,” Merrill said. “They put the teams from District 1 in the Hill Hotel because they weren’t expected to be there that long.
“Then we became the darlings of Omaha.”
Maine won the opening game of the double-elimination tournament with Ferris beating Seton Hall, 5-1.
Comeuppance came in the next game when Minnesota dismantled the Black Bears, 12-0. Thompson had Maine’s lone hit.
“That was the low point of the season. I was so bummed that we were going to embarrass ourselves,” Ferris said.
Arizona State, up next, was ranked second in the nation. But Maine took a 4-2 lead into the seventh inning. Ferris was called on with two runners on, two outs and Bando – who would be the MVP of the next year’s College World Series before hitting 242 home runs in the majors for the A’s and Brewers – digging into the batter’s box.
Ferris threw two strikes, then three balls.
“I remember that pitch like it was today,” Ferris said of what followed. “It was a sinker below the knees and he swung right over it.”
USC was next, the defending national champion led by legendary coach Rod Dedeaux and star center fielder Willie Brown, who went on to play in the National Football League.
Merrill said Dedeaux was so confident the Trojans were going to win that he instructed a local TV station to wait and broadcast their next game.
“Dedeaux was yelling at us from the dugout, calling us ‘potato-pickers from Maine,’ stuff like that,” Merrill said. “By the sixth inning he was yelling at his players, ‘You mean to tell me you can’t hit this guy?’ I knew then we had a chance.”
The guy they couldn’t hit was Ferris. Merrill hit a two-run double in the top of the first inning. Ferris promptly gave up three consecutive singles as USC cut the deficit to 2-1. After surrendering a double to lead off the second, Butterfield bolted from the dugout.
“Stump, I don’t know what fingers you’re putting down but we ought to rearrange them,” Merrill recalled as Butterfield’s message.
Ferris started throwing more off-speed pitches. He retired the next 17 batters.
Finally, in the eighth, Ferris gave up a walk and a single. That’s when Merrill made one of the best defensive plays of his long career, racing to the third-base railing to leap and catch a foul ball off the dangerous Brown’s bat, scooping it out of the seats. The next batter hit a ball at Thompson, playing third base. He hesitated, then raced to third to try to get a forceout. It was too late. The bases were loaded.
But the next batter hit another grounder to Thompson, who secured it and stomped on third with both feet to end the threat.
The ninth inning was uneventful. Maine’s 2-1 lead held up. Ferris still has the ball from his final strikeout.
That left three teams with 3-1 records. Under the rules at the time, they drew straws to see who would get the bye. Minnesota won. Maine faced No. 1-ranked Missouri and saw its season for the ages abruptly end. Minnesota won the championship.
THE ENCORE NEVER CAME
Ferris was back home in Brewer when his mother woke him to tell him he’d been named Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series. It was on the news. No one from Omaha had called. They did send a watch, though; he still has it.
He was 9-0 that year, and doesn’t recall ever trailing during the season, shaking his head at how improbable that is.
But there was to be no encore for Ferris, Merrill and their teammates. Maine didn’t advance to Omaha in its next two seasons, Ferris was increasingly used in relief. He went 4-2 as a junior, 3-1 as a senior, then tried to carve out a pro career.
He spent the summer playing in the old Basin League in South Dakota, against top-notch competition that included his old nemesis, Bando. In the spring, he went with Merrill down to Clearwater, Florida, to try to hook on with the Philadelphia Phillies. After 10 days and one poor performance in an intrasquad game, he got the news: “We don’t think you’re a major leaguer. That was it.”
Ferris returned to Orono to complete law school. He played some town ball in Bangor for a few years, coached some American Legion teams and is still the president of the Friends of Maine Baseball booster club for his alma mater, which made it back to six College World Series. He has season tickets for Maine hockey, football and basketball games as well.
Ferris served two terms as mayor of Brewer and has been on the City Council for the past 12. He is still close with many former teammates, notably Merrill and Thompson. He is excited about the Hall of Fame induction Sunday in Augusta and the team reunion two weeks later he helped organize. The timing is perfect, he said.
Merrill said his friend’s induction into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame is overdue. The Black Bears haven’t been to a College World Series since 1986 and are unlikely to ever make it back. The NCAA changed its postseason format to include Super Regionals, forcing teams like Maine to travel to South Carolina or Florida and defeat three major college programs just to get to Omaha.
In Merrill’s mind, that means Ferris always will stand alone in Maine sports history.
“He accomplished something that in my lifetime will never be done again and that is be an MVP of a College World Series. I think that has gone unnoticed as to the importance of that,” Merrill said.
“I’m glad they finally realized it. He was great that year.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: