This article was written by Ron Briley
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the Space Age (Houston, 2014)
Pitcher Dick “Turk” Farrell was selected in 1962 to represent the expansion Houston Colt .45s franchise at both All-Star Games. In the expansion draft to fill the rosters of the new clubs in New York and Houston, the Mets elected to go with veterans, while Houston built on youth. Under manager Harry Craft and general manager Paul Richards, they focused on pitching, drafting such promising hurlers as Ken Johnson from the Cincinnati Reds and Dick Farrell from the Dodgers, in addition to trading for Bob Bruce from the Detroit Tigers.
Blessed with an outstanding fastball, Farrell also enjoyed a reputation for being somewhat of a character and loving the party life. Many observers thought Houston had made a mistake, but Farrell’s work on the mound for the Colt .45s silenced his critics.
Richard Joseph Farrell was born April 8, 1934, in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother, Mary, immigrated to the United States from County Mayo in Ireland during her teens, while his father, Tom, often referred to as Turk, was a grave keeper at Holyhood Cemetery. The family struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression and then confronted illness when two-year-old Dick was diagnosed with polio. He was in braces until age six. His left leg remained shorter than his right and he walked with a slight limp the rest of his life.[fn]For a biographical sketch of Farrell see David E. Skelton, “Turk Farrell,” Bioproject, Society for American Baseball Research, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/180d81d6 (February 19, 2014)[/fn]
The health problems of his youth did not prevent Farrell from becoming an outstanding athlete at St. Mary’s High School in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he earned varsity letters in basketball, football, and baseball. He struggled academically, though, and was forced to repeat 11th grade. After graduation, Farrell signed a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies and used part of his $5,000 signing bonus to send his mother back to Ireland, where she saw her family for the first time in over 20 years.
At age 19 he was assigned to the Schenectady Blue Jays of the Class A Eastern League. In two seasons at Schenectady, Farrell went 18–18 with a club that provided little offensive support. His 3.21 ERA in 40 appearances in 1954 earned him a promotion to the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs of the International League. Pitching as both a starter and in relief, Farrell won 12 games at Syracuse. While trying to break into the Phillies rotation, Farrell spent the 1956 season with the Triple-A Miami Marlins owned by Bill Veeck. Despite missing time with a broken ankle, he won 12 and posted a 2.50 ERA before joining the Phillies at the end of the season.
Although Farrell had worked hard to make the big leagues, he was perceived as a free spirit and practical joker. He reportedly nailed the shoes of the legendary Satchel Paige to the clubhouse floor in Miami. Other tall tales abound. One that is oft-repeated is that in Schenectady Farrell stuck limburger cheese in the glove of catcher Clint Courtney, who was noted for his avoidance of showers, and bet his teammates that Courtney would catch at least one inning before noticing the smell. Unfortunately Courtney and Farrell did not actually play together in Schenectady. Another story has the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Farrell allegedly slugging Marlins teammate Ed Bailey for mocking his Boston accent. But Bailey did not play for the Marlins then. That such stories accrued to Farrell regardless of veracity only cements his reputation.[fn]Robert Reed, Colt .45s: A Six-Gun Salute (Houston, Texas: Lone Star Books, 1999), 129.[/fn]
Farrell enjoyed an outstanding rookie campaign in 1957, appearing in 52 games, winning 10 and saving 10. The following season, Farrell continued his excellent work and was selected for his first All-Star game appearance, in which he struck out four, including Ted Williams, in two innings. The Phillies, however, seemed to have overworked their young pitcher, who stumbled during the second half of the 1958 campaign, finishing 8–9 in 54 games with a 3.35 ERA and plagued with control problems. Control did not return in 1959, and Farrell was briefly demoted to the minor leagues. Farrell finished the season with the Phillies, going 1–6 (with 6 saves) and an ERA that soared to 4.74.
Farrell’s disappointing performance was also blamed on extracurricular activities with pitching teammates Jack Meyer and Jim Owens who became known as the Dalton Gang. In April 1959 Farrell was fined $250 by Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer for “conduct unbecoming a major league ball player” after smashing a mirror with his fist in a Milwaukee bar following a poor outing on the mound.[fn]“A Frolic with Farrell,” The Sporting News, June 8, 1963, 28.[/fn] In a profile for Sports Illustrated, Walter Bingham described the Dalton Gang as “hell-raisers” and “a wild bunch,” who came from diverse backgrounds.
Meyer was from an affluent New Jersey family and attended such schools as Philadelphia’s Penn Charter School and Wake Forest University, while Owens was profiled as the product of a broken home where his father encouraged drinking at an early age. Farrell, on the other hand, was depicted as coming from a respectable family but Bingham wrote that he was unpredictable, “big and tough, occasionally unfriendly, occasionally abusive.”
Following a record fine for Meyer early in the 1960 season for fighting and tearing up a Pittsburgh hotel room, Bingham concluded, “Unlike some of the storied hell-raisers of old, the members of The Dalton Gang aren’t really good enough to be so bad. Perhaps the fine Jack Meyer must pay will shock him and his friends into a more moderate way of life. If not, members of the Dalton Gang probably will find themselves riding elsewhere, and separately.”[fn]Walter Bingham, “The Dalton Gang Rides Again,” Sports Illustrated, 12:24 (June 13, 1960), 24–6.[/fn]
Farrell had little use for the Bingham article, but responded in a positive fashion both on and off the playing field. Displaying a sense of humor, Farrell described a visit to the Dalton Gang Hideout and Museum in Meade, Kansas, which led him to quip that the pilgrimage to the old stomping grounds “brought back memories” and encouraged him to reform the gang.[fn]“A Frolic with Farrell,” The Sporting News, June 8, 1963, 28.[/fn]
Farrell returned to form in 1960 and enjoyed a fine season. The big right-hander pitched in 59 games, winning 10 and saving 11, with a 2.70 ERA—although the Phillies still lost 95 games.
When Farrell got off to a slow start the following season, the Phillies traded him to the contending Dodgers. A change of scenery, however, did not help Farrell get back on track. In 50 appearances with the Los Angeles club, Farrell struggled with his control, his ERA rose to 5.06, and the Dodgers failed to win the pennant. According to Farrell, Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi blamed him for the club’s disappointing finish and falsely accused him of attempting to form another gang.[fn]Reed, Colt .45s, 128-9.[/fn] Thus, it was not surprising that the Dodgers failed to protect Farrell in the expansion draft.
Houston planned to use Farrell primarily in a starting role after picking up relief pitcher Don McMahon from the Braves. He joined the Colt .45s with a positive attitude, but maintained his reputation for individualism. Taking a more disciplined approach toward spring training, Farrell told reporters, “I want to trim down to about 210. I went on a self-imposed diet. One poached egg for breakfast, fruit salads and cottage cheese the rest of the day. No more steaks.”
He also insisted upon walking the two miles from the hotel to spring training facilities at Geronimo Park in Apache Junction, Arizona, every day. But Farrell found a way to make that trek a little more exciting by carrying a .22 caliber target pistol and shooting at rabbits along the way. Acknowledging that he was shut out by the rabbits, Farrell vowed to be more successful in hunting wild hogs. In addition, he reassured reporters that the Dalton Gang stories were exaggerated and that he and Jim Owens had reached an out-of-court settlement with Sports Illustrated.[fn]Zarko Franks, “Righthander Farrell Talk of Colt Camp,” Houston Chronicle, February 25, 1962, section 8, 2.[/fn]
Houston manager Harry Craft was certainly appreciative of Farrell’s talent, noting, “He’s one of the few pitchers in baseball today who can overpower a hitter with his fastball.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Craft’s approach to managing also seemed a good fit with spirited players such as Farrell. In a profile for the Houston Chronicle, Craft was described as being “hired because of his ability to get along with players of all kinds and get the most out of each.” In support of this assessment, Craft proclaimed, “I don’t believe in belittling a player or tearing him down. Have confidence in your players and win their respect and you’ve taken a great stride in the direction of building a winning club.”
Craft asserted that he would not allow gambling by the players as it encouraged dissension, but curfews after a day game would be at midnight or two hours after the conclusion of a night game. Concluding his interview, Craft told reporters, “I want my players in condition to play, but I will not treat them like they were children.”[fn]“Craft Brings Out Best in Players,” Houston Chronicle, January 21, 1962, section 8, 1.[/fn]
Craft’s style was a good match for Farrell, and the pitcher stayed out of management’s doghouse, focusing on his work on the mound. The Colts opened the 1962 season in Houston with a three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs. In the second game, Farrell combined with Hal Woodeschick for a 2–0 shutout. On April 13 Farrell had an opportunity to pitch against his old teammates in Philadelphia. He responded with an excellent game, striking out nine while allowing only two hits in six innings of work. But the .45s struggled offensively and lost the game, 3–2.
Farrell also got a pinch of revenge: On June 16, he allowed three hits while surrendering one run at Dodger Stadium. Houston, from whom little was expected, found themselves at the first All-Star game break in eighth place, ahead of the Cubs and Mets.[fn]Clark Nealon, “Mound Stars Firing Bullets for Colt .45s,” The Sporting News, June 30, 1962, 10.[/fn]
Farrell was the only Houston player to be selected for the National League All-Star squad by Cincinnati Reds manager Fred Hutchinson. Hutchinson resolved to not use Farrell because the right-hander had lost both games of a doubleheader to the Reds on the weekend before the All-Star break. But Farrell did work in 1962’s second All-Star game and surrendered a three-run home run to Rocky Colavito. Farrell asserted that he was surprised at his selection, considering his modest won-loss record of 5–8. The anemic victory total was the result of little hitting support: Farrell had posted an ERA of 2.46 with four saves while working as both a starter and reliever.[fn]“Farrell First Houston Pitcher Selected on N. L. Star Squad,” The Sporting News, July 14, 1962. 20.[/fn]
Farrell’s selection was also a surprise because many in Houston assumed that Cuban-born outfielder Roman Mejias, drafted by the Colts from the Pirates, would represent the franchise. Through games of July 2, Mejias led Houston with 19 home runs and 48 RBIs, and was hitting .311. When Hutchinson picked Richie Ashburn of the Mets and Johnnie Callison of the Phillies as reserve outfielders, a disappointed Mejias lamented, “How do you like dot [sic]? Well, nothing to do but jus’ keep swinging.”[fn]Reed, Colt .45s, 112–13.[/fn]
Mejias refused to pin this oversight on racism, but the Cuban outfielder was often portrayed by the press in stereotypical fashion. For example, in referring to Mejias’s language difficulties in being able to order food during his early days in the United States, reporter Mickey Herskowitz wrote in The Sporting News that the outfielder, who had a bit of the “gaucho” in him, had emerged as, “Houston’s ham, eggs, bread, butter, milk, and poultry man.”[fn]Mickey Herskowitz, “.45s Change Puny Attack with Miracle Man Mejias,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1962, 23.[/fn]
Mejias, however, was not in a position to purchase too many heavy cholesterol breakfasts. He was only making $12,500. In the era of the strict reserve clause and weak player representation, Mejias could not expect any mid-season correction to his contract. In addition, Mejias was concerned about his wife and two young children in Cuba, observing, “There is not much food there, and I worry if they are eating properly.”[fn]Zarco Franks, “Mejias’s Season of Milk, Honey,” Houston Chronicle, May 30, 1962, section B, 1.[/fn] Whether from worry or exhaustion, Mejias did slump during the second half of the season, and that winter he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for first baseman and Texas native Pete Runnels—a transaction that did not work out well for either club.[fn]For an overview of Mejias’s 1962 season in Houston see Ron Briley, Class at Bat, Gender on Deck, and Race in the Hole: A Line-up of Essays on Twentieth Century Culture and America’s Game (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2003), 250–65.[/fn]
Meanwhile, Farrell continued to pitch well, albeit in hard luck, and avoid controversy…at least until a radio interview on July 21 with St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Harry Caray. He admitted that the day before he had attempted to get Stan Musial out with an illegal spitball, but the Cardinal great had connected for a base hit. The incident was reported to the National League office which refused to order a fine or suspension for a radio comment.
Farrell apologized for raising such a ruckus with his confession, pointing out that many pitchers such as Lew Burdette of the Braves were guilty of employing the illegal pitch on a regular basis. Facing reporters in the Colts locker room, Farrell concluded, “The spitball isn’t a pitch of mine. I don’t throw the thing because I can’t control it. It would be easy to load ’em up out there. The sweat pours down your arm and into your palms. I could load up, but I don’t. I go to the resin bag all the time. The spitball is not part of my repertoire. I threw it to Musial just for fun.”
The final word on the mini-controversy was left to Farrell’s catcher Hal Smith, who, observing that the right-hander had fanned twelve Cardinal batters, proclaimed, “Farrell doesn’t need the spitball, and you can quote me.”[fn]Clark Nealon, “Farrell Drops Bomb in Spitter Confession,” The Sporting News, August 4, 1962, 26.[/fn]
Despite the hard luck defeats that eventually resulted in a 20-loss season, Farrell kept his cool for the most part. On September 2, however, The Sporting News reported that Farrell was tossed by umpire Lee Weyer for arguing balls and strikes in a game that the Colts lost to the Cardinals, 3–1. The lone run scored by Houston marked only the second time that the club had plated a runner in over 32 innings with Farrell on the mound.[fn]“Farrell Thumbed from Hill after Beefing at Ump Weyes,” The Sporting News, September 1, 1962, 15.[/fn]
Meanwhile, Willie Mays described Farrell as a good pitcher who was “bush” for plunking the Giants center fielder after he had struck home runs in two consecutive at bats against him. Said Mays, “He’s too good a pitcher to do that. He doesn’t have to do that. The guy was just trying to start something when there was no need to.”[fn]Bob Odem, “Farrell Good Hurler but He’s Bush,” Houston Chronicle, July 25, 1962, section C, 1.[/fn]
Mays would have the last laugh: on the final day of the 1962 season he hit a home run off Farrell that propelled the Giants into a playoff with the Dodgers and saddled Farrell with his 20th loss of the season. A pitcher must be fairly good to earn enough appearances to lose 20 games. Researcher David Skelton notes that of the approximately 500 pitchers who have lost 20 games in a season, Farrell’s earned run average of 3.02 remains the best since Hall of Famer Jessie Haines of the St. Louis Cardinals posted a 2.68 mark in 1920.[fn]David Skelton, “Turk Farrell,” Bioproject, Society for American Baseball Research, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/180d81d6 (February 19, 2014).[/fn] The Colts were last offensively in the National League, yet they finished in eighth place ahead of the Cubs and Mets, with a 64–96 record.
Farrell’s contributions to the club’s success were certainly appreciated by management. Manager Harry Craft made it clear that Farrell was one of the few Colts off limits for trade offers. Craft asserted, “I don’t think any other team could afford to give us as much as we’d have to get for Turk. I’m not sure he’d be as valuable to another club as he is to us. We’ve had to use him both as a starter and reliever, and he has done just a marvelous job.”[fn]Clark Nealon, “Ex-Hill Dud Brunet First Bullet Slants as Colt .45 Player,” The Sporting News, September 8, 1962, 14.[/fn]
General Manager Paul Richards was full of praise for Farrell, noting that with a contender the right-hander would have won 20 games. “Farrell’s development was one of the most encouraging things in our building program, and he’s a major part of the nucleus around which we plan to build a championship team in the future.” Farrell’s efforts were also acknowledged by his teammates. Fellow starter Bob Bruce observed, “The slip pitch and curve have made Turk a new pitcher. He’s got such a great fastball, he throws the slipper and keeps the hitters off balance.”[fn]Clark Nealon, “Farrell Rated Double-Barreled Dilly by .45s,” The Sporting News, November 3, 1962, 7.[/fn]
Farrell downplayed his partying image during his 1962 All-Star season in Houston, and he moved his young family to the Texas city following the season. In 1963, he won 14 and matched his previous season’s ERA of 3.02. The following year, after a start which seemed to offer the promise of a 20-win season, Farrell finished 11–10, 3.27.
In 1965 Farrell surrendered the first home run ever hit in the Astrodome to Mickey Mantle of the Yankees in an exhibition game. He was selected for his fourth and final All-Star game appearance, winning 11 games, but he was beginning to lose something from his fastball. Following the 1966 season when his ERA ballooned to 4.60, the Houston Astros were open to trading Farrell, and early in the 1967 season they dispatched the former staff ace back to Philadelphia where he continued to pitch through the 1969 season.
After being released by the Phillies, Farrell tried to make it back to the major leagues with a number of teams, finally retiring in 1971 after a stint in the Mexican League. Beyond baseball, Farrell found employment with the Houston-based construction company Brown and Root. While working with the company on an off-shore oil rig in the North Sea, Farrell was killed in a head-on automobile crash in Great Yarmouth, England on June 10, 1977 at age 43.
Obituaries in the New York Times and The Sporting News emphasized Farrell’s reputation as a member of the Dalton Gang rather than his impressive performance as the Houston franchise’s first All-Star. Columnist Dick Young of the New York Daily News wrote, “Fans who followed the Phillies Dalton Gang in the late ’50s were shaken by the news that Dick Farrell was killed in an auto crash in England. Turk was a charter member of that colorful team. His blazing fastball frightened batters. A foul ball off Farrell in the first inning of a relief appearance was considered a big achievement.”[fn]“Turk Farrell, “Ex-Pitcher, Killed in Auto Accident,” New York Times, June 13, 1977; “Obituaries,” The Sporting News, July 2, 1977, 34; and Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” The Sporting News, July 2, 1977, 15.[/fn]
Farrell’s reputation as a character and charter member of the Dalton Gang tended to overshadow the legacy of his pitching performance, but there is little doubt that Houston’s first All-Star was always a competitor when on the mound, completing his 14-year career with 590 appearances, 106 victories, 83 saves, 1,177 strikeouts, and a 3.45 ERA.
RON BRILEY has taught history and film studies at Sandia Prep School in Albuquerque for 36 years. He is the author or editor of five books on baseball and sports history, including “The Baseball Film in Postwar America: A Critical Study, 1948–1962” (McFarland, 2011). He is a long-suffering fan of the Colt .45s and Astros.