Fifty summers ago, in 1957, Joe Ferebee was baseball coach of the Albemarle American Legion team. (He had recently arrived at Pfeiffer College from Salisbury’s Boyden High School.) Four starters returned from the 1956 Albemarle team that eliminated Richmond County, Kannapolis, and Greensboro, before losing to Gastonia for the western North Carolina title.
Coach Ferebee was like no coach we players ever knew. At a pre-season practice he explained what he expected of us, and what we could expect from him. We were to play smart baseball. He could excuse physical errors (missed balls and bad throws), but not mental errors (missed signals, missed cut-off men, failure to back-up a play, etc.). Also, we were to take the field each game in clean uniforms and polished spikes. That was a strange, new standard for us.
At the end of the regular season we were tied with Spencer and for third place, each nine wins and nine losses. We made the play-outs, but barely. Salisbury, Concord, and Monroe stood close behind. Way out in front of the pack was Kannapolis. Some sportswriters proclaimed Kannapolis the best team in the state. Four of their starters signed professional contracts, and a fifth played shortstop for UNC Chapel Hill. Kannapolis was confident. Their Legion post purchased new uniforms for the play-offs – both home and away uniforms – confident this was their year to go deep in the play-offs, likely beyond the state level.
When the time arrived to select the team to open against Kannapolis, Coach Ferebee said, “Hold the coin, Charlie. We’ll take Kannapolis.” The Spencer coach was shocked, but delighted. (Charlie Ross Smith, of Albemarle, was the Area Commissioner.) You see, only recently, Kannapolis had defeated us 27-0 in a game that seemed interminable. Unbeknownst to everyone else, Coach Ferebee knew what he was doing. Coach told a friend, “We’ve got Kannapolis where we want them. Their boys are too tired to run the bases.”
Following that 27-0 defeat, Coach told us, “Boys, don’t worry about that game. Things like this sometimes happen.” He knew we were an improving team.
Throughout the season Coach worked hard to hone our latent talents. I first noticed improvement in Don Montgomery’s (Albemarle) hitting. Coach pitched batting practice, and he throw the ball exactly where he wanted it, every pitch. As soon as a pitch was hit, he threw another one. He kept Don in the batter’s box for twenty, thirty pitches at a stretch, each pitch waist high, over the inside of the plate. With Coach’s instruction and encouragement, Don began to drive the ball to leftfield, one after the next. “Clothes-lined” is how we described them back then.
I caught batting practice and recall telling myself, “If Coach would let me stay in there like that, I could be a hitter too.” Then Coach did just that – for me and for others on the team. I began to hit the ball hard also, not line-drives like Don, but hard grounders through the infield. I began to make solid connection with each pitch. After twenty rapid swings or more, my wrists and forearms began to ache, and I wanted out of there. But, one doesn’t walk out on a coach. I stayed in there and suffered. And my confidence grew with each swing.
Our best-of-three series opened on the road, and Jerry Thompson (Troy) stopped the Kannapolis nine cold, 5-2. Kannapolis was not invincible after all. Back in Albemarle the following night at Wiscassett Park, Tim Huneycutt (New London) pitched a one-hit shutout – that a infield dribbler – while fifteen-year-old Franklin Capel (Norwood) drove in all of our runs for a 3-0 victory. Kannapolis’s season was over, and we advanced to the Area championship against Richmond County in another best-of-three series. Who would have believed it?
Richmond County had a powerful pitcher in Butch Williams, who was unbeatable. Yet, we managed to get to the third game of the series, played in Concord, a neutral site. Ken “Red” Barbee (Locust) may have pitched his best game ever that evening and we prevailed. Albemarle was Area Champion for the second year in succession.
Our merriment ceased, however, when we faced Greensboro in a best-of-five series. We won one game and came close in a second one, but their ace southpaw proved too much for us.
During that entire ’57 season I don’t believe Coach Ferebee scolded a single player for a physical error, yet he was never bashful about pointing out our mental errors. We each became better baseball players, and smarter individuals. We gained confidence in our talents and abilities, and we rejoiced in team victory. I learned that the unexpected victory is the sweetest of all.
In time I also learned that the integrity, talent, and enthusiasm of a great coach have an enormous and lasting influence in a player’s life. For countless players, and especially for me, that is true of Joseph Ferebee.
Printed in The Stanly News and Press, Albemarle, NC, April 12, 2007.