It was fifty summers ago, in 1957, that Joe Ferebee coached the Albemarle American Legion baseball team. He had recently arrived at Pfeiffer College from Salisbury’s Boyden High School. Two Locust cousins were standouts on that squad – Ronald “Runt” Barbee played second base and Ken “Red” Barbee, a southpaw, pitched. I was their teammate.
Coach Ferebee took charge like no coach we 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 every game in clean uniforms with polished spikes. That was new for us, and for our mother’s too.
But there was another rule that bothered “Runt” the most. “No one’s to hit with a 36-inch bat (the largest bat made),” Coach said. “I don’t care what you used in high school, they’re too heavy for you to handle. I don’t even let my Pfeiffer players hit with them.”
“Runt” must have been persuasive, because Coach soon changed his mind. “Listen, boys,” he told us, “I said none of you could hit with a 36-inch bat, but I decided Ronald can do so. He convinced me that he can handle a bat that large. But the rule still stands for the rest of you.”
Coach was right. “Runt” began hitting home runs. He led the team in that category, and probably in batting average as well. In a game against Concord “Runt” hit a 375-foot home run in the sixth inning to tie the score, 1-1. In the top of the seventh Concord scored to take the lead, 2-1. In the bottom half of the inning a just-in-time downpour engulfed the diamond before our side was retired. The game was called. According to the rules, the score reverts back to where it stood at the end of the last complete inning. So the final score was 1-1. In those days a game that was undecided, such as this, was replayed from the beginning. Consequently, “Runt’s” home run is not recorded in the record book, nor is Ken’s two-hit performance on the mound that night. However, both were featured in the local newspaper at the time.
When the regular season ended and the dust had settled, the Albemarle “nine” made in the play-offs, but by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin. We were tied for third place. Concord and Salisbury trailed by a single game. That home run by “Runt” and the sterling pitching of “Red” kept us in the fight.
Far in front of the pack, in first place, was Kannapolis. Some sportswriters believed Kannapolis was 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 – confident that 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 confidently announced, “Hold your coin, Charlie. We’ll take Kannapolis.” Charlie Ross Smith, of Albemarle, was the Area Commissioner. Only recently Kannapolis had defeated us 27-0 in a game that seemed interminable, so no one in his right mind would want to open with them. Unbeknownst to everyone else, however, Coach Ferebee knew what he was doing. Coach confided to a friend, “We’ve got Kannapolis where we want them. Their boys are too tired to run the bases.”
Following that humiliating defeat at the hands of Kannapolis, Coach told us, “Boys, don’t worry about that game. Things like this sometimes happen.” He knew we were an improving team.
Our best-of-three series opened on the road, and Jerry Thompson of Troy stopped Kannapolis cold, 5-2. They were not invincible after all. Back in Albemarle the following night, at Wiscassett Park, Tim Huneycutt of New London pitched a one-hit shutout – that a infield dribbler – while fifteen-year-old Franklin Capel of 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 ourselves to the third game of the series, played in Concord, a neutral site. “Red” Barbee may have pitched his best game ever that evening, and we prevailed. Albemarle was Area Champion.
Our merriment ceased, however, when we next 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 Weekly Post, Locust, NC, July 11, 2007.