This article was written by Paul Hirsch
A classical pianist who played at Carnegie Hall by 16, a World Champion baseball player with one of the major league’s glamour franchises by 23, and an actor sharing screen time with Tallulah Bankhead and Zsa Zsa Gabor on a top-rated television series before he turned 30, Al “The Bull” Ferrara has had enough excitement and fun for several lifetimes.
“I’m a first-ballot Hall of Famer for my off-the-field activities,” said the exuberant former outfielder in an interview with the author on June 8, 2010.
Alfred John Ferrara Jr. was born on December 22, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York, to Al Ferrara Sr. and his wife Adele. Al Sr. was a New York City fireman for 20 years who later was an air conditioning technician for Chase Bank before working the gate at Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Country Club in Florida in his retirement. Adele Ferrara, a homemaker, passed away when Al Jr. was 17, leaving her mother, Assunta Paulucci, in charge of Al and his twin siblings Frank and Theodora, who were 12 at the time.
“My grandmother was the dominant Madonna figure even while my mother was alive,” Ferrara said. “She was very hands on with our upbringing. She moved in immediately after my mother passed away.”
Ferrara also remembered a tremendous amount of love from the Paulucci family while he was growing up. His Aunt Edna and Uncles Hugo, Oscar, Harold, Henry and Teddy all lived on the first floor of the building at 1431 East Second St. in Brooklyn while Al and his family had the third floor. Uncle Harold took Al to his first major league game in 1947, but the most memorable game the two attended probably occurred in 1950, a day game at Ebbets Field. Seated in the first row on the third base side, Uncle Harold caught a foul ball hit by Dodger third baseman Billy Cox and gave it to young Al. After the game they waited by the player exit and were able to get Cox to sign the ball.
Al’s grandmother came over from Italy with Guido Morvillo, an accomplished piano teacher. Morvillo taught Adele as Assunta’s first-born child, and then also agreed to teach Al as the first-born grandchild. “I never wanted to play the piano, I wanted to play baseball,” Ferrara said. “But a first-generation Italian woman like my grandmother didn’t know anything about baseball, so I had to play the piano, starting at age eight.
“I learned the classics. Mr. Morvillo insisted that I read music and play the pieces as they were written by Beethoven and Bach. I got pretty good and I learned to use piano to do what I wanted to do. I had a deal with my grandmother that after playing for an hour she would give me a quarter to go to the Bat Away at Coney Island. In those days you could hit about 25 balls for a quarter. After a while I got a reputation as a pretty good hitter and men would come around when I was hitting and put more quarters in the machine so I could hit for maybe a half-hour.”
“Finally, I got my grandmother to agree that if I were to become Mr. Morvillo’s number one student I could give up piano and play baseball. He would have showcase recitals at Carnegie Hall, and the number one student would play last. When I was 16, I went on last as the number one student, kissed my grandmother, and never touched the piano again.”
Ferrara graduated from Lafayette High School, the same school that produced Sandy Koufax, John Franco, Ken Aspromonte and Bob Aspromonte. Ferrara and Bob Aspromonte were teammates in 1956, at third base and shortstop respectively, when Lafayette was touted as the best team in the region. “A bad hop grounder bounced over my head and we lost to Lincoln 1-0, and didn’t even go to the playoffs,” Ferrara remembered. In 1957, Lafayette got all the way to the finals and lost 2-1 on a misjudged fly ball.
Oddly, future big-leaguer Ferrara hit .083 his senior year. “I went 4-48 and went from prospect to suspect,” he said. Phil Pepe, who would later cover the Yankees and the Mets, had the high school beat then and placed Ferrara on the All-City Team based on potential, Ferrara remembered. Still, no big-league teams stepped forward and Ferrara took a job on an assembly line for a company he doesn’t remember. With one day on the job, Ferrara was told about a tryout at Ebbets Field for the Dodger Rookies, an amateur team that toured the Atlantic Seaboard.
“The tryout was in June of 1957, and I hit three home runs during batting practice. The next day there was a game for those invited back so they could see us in game conditions. I went 0-4, and figured it was back to the assembly line,” Ferrara said. “Instead, I got a call that night saying I made the team.”
The summer of 1957 was a turning point for Ferrara. He did well enough for the Dodger Rookies that Dodger scout Buck Lai, who was also the athletic director at Long Island University (LIU), arranged for Ferrara to get a baseball scholarship to LIU. After a successful season there, he signed a $9,000 bonus contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958. “My dad insisted that the Dodgers give me a bonus that was equal to the value of my LIU scholarship, and they came up with $9,000, which shows you how times have changed,” he said.
“I was never motivated by money. I was from Brooklyn and I grew up a Dodger fan. If you told me that I would wind up batting cleanup for the Dodgers I would have paid you. Playing the game was the important thing to me. Getting paid to play was just a bonus.”
Ferrara remembered himself as an “on and off player” throughout his minor league career, and the record bears him out. He hit .271 with eight homers in D ball with Orlando, and then followed that up with a .352 average and 13 homers in 525 at-bats with the Class C Reno Silver Sox. “There wasn’t anywhere near the instruction then that there is today,” said Ferrara. “What I did was keep my ears open. I went to Reno as the fourth outfielder after my performance in Orlando and Hank Majeski, my old Dodger Rookies coach, said he hit well with his bat resting on his shoulder in his stance, so I tried it and it worked for awhile.”
Ferrara had a poor 1962 season in AAA, posting offensive numbers of just a .232 batting average, .295 on-base percentage, and .372 slugging with Spokane (Pacific Coast League) and Omaha (American Association). However, his propensity to hang around and listen during spring training of 1963 eventually helped him make the majors. “In Vero Beach the minor-leaguers were around the big-leaguers all the time. Despite what happened in 1962, I was full of confidence and it was inconceivable to me that I would not play in the big leagues. The Dodgers had acquired Moose Skowron and one day at the batting cages while I was around he was describing how he lifted the heel on his left foot to get started.
“I got off to a rough start at Spokane in 1963, and between games of a doubleheader [manager] Danny Ozark read the team, but especially me, the riot act about getting going. He hit me fourth in the second game and I decided to try Skowron’s approach. I hit a home run on the first pitch. That one change got me on a roll.”
Ferrara’s time in Spokane also yielded his nickname, “The Bull.” Bob Hunter of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner wanted to do a story on a Dodger prospect and was pointed towards Ferrara by Dodger visiting clubhouse manager Jim Muhe. According to Ferrara, Hunter came up with The Bull “because of way I was built and the reckless abandon which I played on and off field.” Al also said that Hunter and Muhe remained among his biggest supporters during his playing career.
Armed with a new nickname, a .321 average and 19 homers, The Bull got to the big leagues on July 30. His first hit was in his third game, off Dick Ellsworth. His first homer the next day, off Bob Buhl, was one of three hit by the Dodgers in the fifth inning of a 5-4 loss to the Cubs. The others were hit by Frank Howard and Skowron, Ferrara’s unwitting benefactor.
Ferrara went 4-33 the rest of the season, playing intermittently. “I had five outfielders ahead of me who were all better players,” Ferrara said, citing Willie Davis, Tommy Davis, Howard, Ron Fairly and Wally Moon. “Still, as a 23-, 24-year-old kid I had trouble wrapping my head around not playing. Now, as an older man I understand a little better. I wouldn’t have played me then either.”
Ferrara’s first roommate was Johnny Podres, igniting a friendship that would last to the end of Podres’ life. “We had a lot in common. We both liked the race track and we both enjoyed a cocktail. Everything he was doing in the big leagues I was doing in the minors. We became best friends. John and I communicated daily for 30 years until he passed away. He was a great baseball guy, a tremendous friend and a hell of a pitcher.”
Al had made his big league debut, hit his first homer, made the World Series roster, received a one-third share of the Dodgers’ $12,794 World Series purse, and collected a World Championship ring commemorating the four-game sweep over the Yankees. Yet he spent 1964 back in the minors. “I did well in the spring, but I had options left. Those same five guys were ahead of me in the outfield, plus they kept Lee Walls, who could play all over the infield and outfield, as a utility guy.”
The 1964 season at Spokane was just so-so for Ferrara at .280/.364/.481, but after Walls was released and Howard traded, there was a spot for him on the Dodgers’ 1965 opening day roster. The personal highlight for The Bull occurred on May 15 in a game at Dodger Stadium against the Cubs and his old friend Ellsworth. The Cub left-hander had a no hitter and a 1-0 lead going into the eighth inning, but an error and a fielder’s choice put Willie Crawford and Dick Tracewski on base when Ferrara came up as a pinch hitter for Bob Miller. Ferrara homered for the only Dodger hit of the day in a 3-1 L.A. win. “That was definitely my individual highlight that season, for sure,” Ferrara said.
Despite that homer, Ferrara was relegated to mostly pinch-hitting duties and saw his average dip to .179 by late June. The Dodgers decided to send him back to Spokane. “There was still nowhere for me to play, even though Tommy Davis was hurt. Lou Johnson was fantastic, and I still had Willie Davis and Fairly ahead of me. I wasn’t the kind of hitter who pinch-hit well, I needed to play.” Ferrara finally showed the Dodgers he had nothing more to prove in the PCL by delivering a .307/.373/.582 line in 254 plate appearances. Scout Kenny Meyers told the Dodger brass that he was ready, and he came back to the big leagues to stay when the rosters expanded in September.
Though the Dodgers beat Minnesota in the World Series that year, Ferrara was not awarded a ring. “Players then only received rings if they were on the World Series roster,” Ferrara said. “Now, even the ballboy gets a ring.” The 6-1, 200 pound right-handed outfielder was voted a half share of the Dodgers’ $10,297.43 cut of the World Series money. “The Dodgers were always good about voting shares fairly,” he said.
The 1966 season was Ferrara’s first full year in the big leagues. He was a reserve, and with Tommy Davis back from a broken ankle there were still four outfielders ahead of him (Fairly, Johnson and Willie Davis were the others). The Dodgers won the pennant with Ferrara chipping in five homers and a .270 average in 115 at bats. Los Angeles lost the World Series in four games to Baltimore and instead of rings the players received Rolex watches. “We felt that if we didn’t win the World Series it was a bad year,” Ferrara said. “I didn’t care about the watch at the time and don’t know where it is. I feel differently today, but at the time it was a symbol of losing.” Ferrara made his only World Series appearance that year in game four, singling as a pinch-hitter for Drysdale in the ninth inning with the Dodgers trailing 1-0. Nate Oliver promptly ran for Ferrara and the Dodgers were eliminated a few minutes later.
There was one other change for Ferrara in 1966. He finally was able to get his favorite number — nine — in honor of the best hitter of his youth, Ted Williams. “Wally Moon had nine when I came up in ’63, and he certainly deserved it over me. Then Wally retired after 1965 and I immediately went to Nobe Kawano, our clubhouse man and a great guy, and got the number. My number 20 went to (Hall of Fame pitcher) Don Sutton, and now I joke that my number is retired. I have all these pictures of me wearing number 20, and I tell people no one will ever wear that number again for the Dodgers.”
Ferrara says the highlight of the 1966 season was the Dodgers’ post-season tour of Japan. “We were treated wonderfully. Japan has the greatest culture in the world. They had very good players who were fundamentally sensational. They weren’t as strong as we were, but they never missed a cutoff main or failed to get a bunt down. I loved the culture and the food. We had lots of time off. It was really a pleasure trip. Sure, we missed our two big pitchers (Koufax and Don Drysdale didn’t make the trip). I think we went 11-11, but I had a great time.”
The next season represented a changing of the guard for the Dodgers. After winning three pennants and two World Series in the past four seasons, the team fell to eighth place in a ten-team league. Koufax had retired. Maury Wills and Tommy Davis were traded. Johnson broke his ankle early in the season, and Ferrara finally got his full-time shot.
“That season was the validation of what I thought,” he said. “I felt I could play regularly in the big leagues and just had better players blocking me, and I was right. I hit cleanup, led the team in every offensive category and proved that I was a big leaguer.” In an era that favored pitchers and playing in an extreme pitchers’ park, Ferrara hit .277/.345/.467 with 16 homers. He was voted Dodger of the Year. “I was young, fun and wacky, and I had L.A. in my hands,” he said. Ferrara appeared on episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Batman through connections with fans in show business and through former teammate Walls, who had become a talent agent. “That all came from being a player. I wasn’t willing to put in the effort to pursue a real acting career.”
The fun ended abruptly in 1968 when Ferrara broke his ankle in the second game and missed the rest of the season. “Tommie Agee hit a liner that went into a bank of lights. Instead of bailing out I tried to do everything possible to catch the ball and awkwardly caught a spike in a sprinkler and broke the ankle. It was an unnatural move and I wasn’t the greatest outfielder. I played it all out, the only way I knew, and I was out for the year.”
When Ferrara arrived at the hospital he told Dr. Robert Kerlan that he couldn’t feel his ankle or foot, which seemed to be dangling from his leg. Kerlan offered to set the ankle “Viet Nam style” without a sedative, which Ferrara said, “hurt like hell.” His friends John and Montan Perie greeted him and comforted him at the hospital, and another friend, Bob Tarzia came in from Brooklyn to care for Ferrara while he was incapacitated with his leg in a cast.
Ferrara went to the Arizona Instructional League to rehab the ankle that fall as a Dodger, rooming again with Podres, who was trying to make a comeback after a year out of baseball. The two old friends spent their time away from the field eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and gambling at the local dog track. Dodger scout John Carey, who had been Ferrara’s manager with the Dodger Rookies, would take Ferrara and Podres to the track every day. If the ballplayers did well at the track, Ferrara says they would take a taxi to a bar and get an early start on their evening. If they lost, they would be waiting for Carey by his car. “Carey would see us the next day and say, ‘you bastards must have scored at the track yesterday cause you weren’t waiting for me in the parking lot.’” Amidst the reverie, unwelcome rumors began to circulate that Ferrara would be made available in the expansion draft and the San Diego Padres would select him.
“Tommy Lasorda was our manager and sent me in to pinch-hit for one last at bat in a Dodger uniform. I made an out, he hugged me, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Los Angeles to attend a press conference after the expansion draft as a San Diego Padre.”
Ferrara said going from the Dodger organization to the expansion Padres was a huge culture shock. “Understandably, they were interested in cutting costs. They knew we would lose 100 games. Following the first workout our trainer John Matti handed me a towel after my shower. As I was drying off I asked for another towel and he said, ‘Uh-uh, one towel per man,’ and then laughed like hell. He also came from the Dodger organization and was one of my best friends. He was a trainer at Spokane and in L.A. He knew what I was thinking. I was used to traveling with a club that owned its own plane and contended for championships. Those days were over once I got to San Diego.”
Still, Ferrara delivered for his new employers. For 1969 and 1970 he hit .268 and delivered a total of 27 homers with an OPS of about .800. Then, in 1971 it all fell apart. Ferrara was traded to Cincinnati on May 13 after hitting .118 in 17 games for San Diego. The Padres received Angel Bravo, and $35,000 to help meet expenses. Ferrara misplayed a ball in the outfield in his first game in the field for the Reds. Manager Sparky Anderson was waiting for him on the top step of the dugout, demanding an explanation. Ferrara remembers that he defused the situation by telling Anderson, “What do you expect for Angel Bravo…Willie Mays?” He later added that, “Rose and all those guys laughed like a son-of-a-bitch, and I repeated that explanation to the writers after the game.” Still, in 33 at-bats for the Reds he had just one homer among his six hits. He lasted the whole season, but suddenly had become a shell.
“Who knows what happened?” Ferrara said. “Was it the stomach virus I had in spring training that put me behind? I got hit in the eye by Sutton at the end of the 1970 season. I didn’t think that affected me, but it might have. I never had a consistent opportunity to play, but when I was on the field it sure looked like I was finished.”
The Reds offered Ferrara a minor league deal with Indianapolis for 1971, but he says he didn’t want to go there. “They said I could make my own deal, but I had to get them $15,000 from whichever team would take me for the Reds to make up the investment they said they had in me. I sent telegrams to all the other teams, but those that responded said, ‘thanks but no thanks,’ and that they didn’t want to pay the $15,000. Then the Reds waited until the day before minor league spring training started to release me, which was too late for me to hook on with another club.”
Ferrara believes that the Reds also may have been making an example of him as someone who had backed the players’ union and supported Marvin Miller. “Teams were always looking to make an example of veteran fringe players and show everyone who was boss and maybe break the union,” he said. “I may have been done, but they also made the situation as difficult on me as they could.” Ferrara never had another at bat in organized baseball. “The fork was in the meat,” he said. “Guys who mess around off the field tend to go quick.”
An anecdote between Ferrara and his father sets the tone for the newly retired ballplayer’s life after baseball. “I had a good game in Chicago in 1969. My father was my biggest fan. He would spend hours in New York and Florida searching for out of town radio broadcasts. So after this game he called me at the hotel, which was rare. I was feeling good and I asked him if he heard the game, and he said, ‘I didn’t call you about that, I called you because today is the day you qualified for your baseball pension.’ That was my dad. He was focused 20 years into the future, and I wasn’t focused beyond the next 20 minutes.”
Ferrara says he was completely unprepared when his career ended. “I took the $9,000 from the Dodgers, but I never went back to college. I never thought baseball would end. After I was done with the Reds I tried selling insurance in Kentucky and washed out of that pretty quickly. I then figured I would go back to L.A. where I was known…and got nowhere. I hooked up with a buddy in Reno and was just about to go there to learn to be a dealer when I went to dinner in L.A. with Mario Marino. I knew him and his restaurant and told him what I was going to do. He put $100 in my palm and told me to rent a tuxedo and come back and work the door for him at his restaurant.”
Ferrara spent the next four years working the door at the Martoni Marquis on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. “I loved it. I was back in the limelight getting tables for Ringo Starr, Esther Williams, Linda Ronstadt, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees and all the people from Motown. I was messing around, working and hanging out until 2 a.m. every night.” During his time working at the Marquis Ferrara met Jackie and Mickey Clohessey who “became wonderful friends to this day,” Ferrara said in 2010, nearly 40 years later.
Even for Ferrara, working every night until 2:00 became too much, especially when he wasn’t calling the shots. After four years at the restaurant, Al got into sales for various home improvement companies in Southern California, and eventually opened Major League Construction on his own. He put together an album of his old baseball cards and pictures, slipped his World Series ring on his finger and visited homes extolling the virtues of new roofs, paint, kitchen countertops, bathroom fixtures and appliances. “I was told that the baseball connection would help people remember me and lead to sales. I have an outgoing personality, and it worked out well.”
That work lasted 30 years; Ferrara sold his business and retired in 2005 at age 65. Then, The Great Recession hit in 2008 and Ferrara lost about a quarter of his retirement savings. “Going back into sales or getting a job would have been rough at my age, so I decided to go back home…and called the Dodgers.”
The Dodgers put Ferrara to work in their community relations department in July 2009. He visits elementary schools and reads Dr. Seuss books to the kids; he cautions teens about the evils of alcohol, tobacco and drugs; and he entertains guests at some Dodger home games. “The Dodgers saved my ass,” Ferrara said.
He also gradually adopted more healthful habits after he stopped playing. “I’ve changed my lifestyle over the past 20 years. For 30 years I drank ten cups of coffee every morning by 10 a.m. and smoked five packs of cigarettes every day. My brother Frank died at 61, and I had other relatives who died young.
“I decided I wanted to stay around for a while. My wonderful companion for the past 34 years, Kay Donno, is the reason I’m still around, period. She got me to quit smoking and stop drinking coffee; I just walked away from both. She also encouraged me, along with her daughter Catherine Hayes who is a nutritionist, to start taking vitamin supplements. She is the reason I am able to be here and take care of myself.”
Ferrara had two marriages; one each at 20 and 30. He has a son, Al Ferrara III of West Islip, New York, a daughter-in-law Maureen, and two grandchildren, Alfred IV and Samantha, with whom he has a great time whenever he visits. “Maureen has made it very easy for me to have a good relationship with my grandchildren,” said The Bull. And though he enjoys his health and his new position with the Dodgers, he still reflects on his playing career.
“When I was sitting on the Dodger bench in the sixties I sometimes wished had I come up with the Mets or the Cubs. As a young kid I was frustrated by not playing every day and thought I should play, even though the guys who were playing ahead of me were better players.” Ferrara said. “Now, as an older and hopefully more mature man, I realize there is nothing more satisfying than a complete team victory in the World Series. I love being introduced as a member of the 1963 World Champions and the 1965 World Champions and the 1966 National League Champions. I got the validation that I was a good big league player between 1967 and 1970, but I am glad I was on World Championship teams rather than having a few more good years with mediocre clubs. My years playing for the Dodgers were the most wonderful part of my life.”
Interviews with Al Ferrara, June 8, June 15, and November 15, 2010.
The Sporting News 1980 World Series Record Book
Los Angeles Dodger Yearbooks, 1963-1968