The Turk, the Bear, the Bird: Outlaw Night Riders

Turk Ferrell struck out Ted Williams in the 1958 All-Star Game. (via Public Domain)

Thomas James Ferrick arrived on the major league scene in 1941 with a so-so (8-10, 3.77, 119.1 innings pitched) rookie season as a member of the Philadelphia A’s. He followed it up with a decent sophomore season (3-2, 1.99, 81.1 innings) for Cleveland before his  career was interrupted by World War II.

Returning in 1946, he toiled in American League (Browns, Senators, Yankees) bullpens through 1952. The results were neither here nor there (40-40, 3.47). Notably, as a Yankee, he picked up a victory in relief of Ed Lopat in Game Three of the 1950 World Series. That might have been the high point of his playing career, but it was not his most distinctive contribution to baseball history.

In 1959, Ferrick was a pitching coach for the Phillies. Above and beyond the call of duty, he had to deal with the Animal House faction of the pitching staff, young men who had forged a group identity while moving up in the farm system. Ferrick dubbed this group of rowdies the Dalton Gang. The name caught on and the Daltons galloped into baseball history.

Why Ferrick chose this name is not immediately apparent. He could have called his band of incorrigibles the James Gang or the Wild Bunch. Perhaps Dalton was the first name that came to mind. It’s not as though Ferrick was trying to win a name-that-clique contest. Yet in retrospect the name was a better fit than he realized.

As was the case with any gang, the Daltons were hierarchical. They had a leader, and his name was Dick Farrell, more often referred to as Turk. In fact, on his page at Baseball Reference he is listed as Turk Farrell. His real name (Richard Joseph Farrell) is buried in the small type.

Turk was a common nickname bestowed on anyone habitually displaying rowdy behavior, and was particularly popular among the Irish. This was hardly a compliment to the denizens of Asia Minor, but there have been far more major league players of Irish descent than Turkish, so few voices have been raised in protest. Farrell’s father, an amateur athlete known as Big Turk, was also an imposing figure. The fact that he worked in a cemetery might be considered a bad omen.

Born in Boston on April 8, 1934, Farrell was an imposing figure at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. He was an unlikely candidate for athletic competition, much less multi-sport stardom, as he was stricken with polio as a boy and received treatment for it all the way through school. His left leg was shorter than his right and he walked with a limp the rest of his life. Yet he overcame this handicap to emerge as a fireballing right-handed pitcher.

As is the case with many a power pitcher, Farrell was just wild enough to plant fear in the minds of batters. The Phillies signed him and he worked his way through the minors, turning heads with an outstanding season at Triple-A Miami in 1956 when he went 12-6 with a 2.50 ERA in 144 innings.

Called up by the Phillies for just one game in late 1956, Farrell had a fine rookie campaign the following year (10-2, 2.38 in 52 relief appearances). The first half of his sophomore season (1958) also went well. He had a 1.13 ERA at the All-Star break. Named to the NL All-Star squad, he struck out Jackie Jensen, Bill Skowron, Frank Malzone and Ted Williams in two innings of work.

The future appeared bright, but Farrell’s best days with the Phillies were behind him. For the rest of his tenure with the franchise, his performance was erratic – and not just on the pitcher’s mound. A pitcher with less potential would likely have been sent packing, but Farrell was talented so he had a longer leash. Perhaps his biggest mistake was not his misbehavior per se so much as the effect it had on other young players. He was the proverbial bad influence.

“Some of these guys are taking liberties,” observed manager Gene Mauch, taking over from Eddie Sawyer, who resigned after Opening Day in 1960. The liberties Mauch referred to included barroom brawling, trashing hotel rooms, disturbing the peace, and vandalism…the sort of behavior usually associated with rock stars in subsequent decades. How much the Dalton Gang’s misdeeds affected Sawyer’s decision is debatable; the prospect of another last-place finish was doubtless a factor.

Perhaps such “liberties” were the Dalton Gang’s way of venting frustration over losing. If you hated to lose, Philadelphia was no place to be in the late 1950s. After their 1950 pennant, the Phillies slipped into the ranks of mediocrity, finishing anywhere from third to fifth though 1956. In Farrell’s rookie season they finished at .500. For the rest of his tenure with the franchise, the team finished last.

As is the case with most criminal gangs, the Daltons had a few regulars and a shifting cast of characters in supporting roles. The identities of the fringe members are debatable, but there were two hard-core Daltons aside from Farrell.

The second in command might have been Jim Owens, who made his debut in 1955, but because of trips back to the minors and military service was still classified as a rookie in 1959. His nickname was Bear, and he was more grizzly than teddy. He was the product of a broken home, a stigmatizing phrase we don’t hear any more. Supposedly, whiskey was as routine as eggs and bacon on the breakfast table when he was growing up.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Like Farrell, Owens was a hard-throwing right-hander who had a good rookie season, going 12-12 with a 3.21 ERA and 11 complete games in 221.1 innings. Also like Farrell, his future appeared bright. But the nocturnal pub-crawling, pub-trashing tendencies of the Dalton Gang interceded.  Robin Roberts noted, “My advice to him [Owens] was throw it hard and mix in some sleep, but it didn’t seem to take.” Like Farrell, Owens fizzled in Philly after a promising start.

The third hard-core member of the Dalton Gang was an unlikely one. He had no handicaps to overcome and came from a well-to-do family. John Robert (better known as “Jack” but nicknamed “the Bird”) Meyer, was a good boy gone wrong. Born in Philadelphia on March 34, 1932, he prepped at Penn Charter, a private Quaker school that dated back to 1689. William Penn was still alive then, so the Penn Charter school was about as establishment as you can get. Notably, the alumni also include Mark Gubicza, Ruben Amaro Jr. and Dave Montgomery, former president of the Phillies.

Like Farrell and Owens, Meyer was a highly touted, right-handed rookie pitcher. According to Robin Roberts, he had “Nolan Ryan-type stuff with a sharp curveball to go with a blazing fastball.”

Meyer appeared to have taken over the star reliever role occupied by Jim Konstanty, who had been traded to the Yankees during the 1954 season. His 6-11 record and 3.43 ERA in 1955 were not overwhelming but he had emerged as a closer, finishing 36 games and saving 16. Both totals led the NL. Meyer’s performance was good enough for a second-place finish (Bill Virdon finished first) in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

As with Farrell and Owens, Meyer’s rookie year with the Phillies was his best. From 1956 through 1959 he worked as a reliever and spot starter with results varying from decent to disappointing. At age 28, when he should have been at his peak, his career was all but over after one drunken evening in Pittsburgh in May, 1960.

At a popular Steel City watering hole, Meyer got into an extended brawl with a couple of his teammates, two Philadelphia sportswriters (Allen Lewis of the Inquirer and Ray Kelly of the Bulletin) and broadcaster Byrum Saam. Safe to say Meyer didn’t learn this sort of behavior from the Quakers who administered the Penn Charter School.

Meyer was fined 9 percent (about $1,200) of his salary for the episode. More importantly, he suffered a herniated disk which ended not only his season but his career. He returned for one game in 1961 and that was it.

Meyer, Owens and Farrell were the legacy members of the Dalton Gang, but they did have sidekicks. Left-handed pitcher Seth Morehead, a marginal member of the gang, wasn’t around long enough to become a full-fledged member. Arriving on the scene in 1957, he pitched 58.2 innings and finished with a 1-1 record and a 3.68 ERA. This was decent enough for him to be asked back in 1958, but the results were not so hot (1-6, 5.85 ERA in 92.1 innings). After a poor start in 1959, he was traded to the Cubs. By 1961, his major league career (5-19, 4.81 ERA) was over.

Another young pitcher who is occasionally mentioned as a member of the Daltons was Don Cardwell, who also debuted in 1957. I saw his name mentioned only once in connection with the gang and could find no hair-raising anecdotes. Cardwell’s career with the Phillies was nothing to write home about (17-26, 4.46 in 417.1 IP) so, like Morehead, he was traded to the Cubs. He immediately made baseball history by pitching a no-hitter in his first start for the Cubs on May 13, 1960, two days after the trade.

That game might have inspired a gnashing of teeth and a rending of garments in the Philadelphia front office, but the long-term results for the Phillies were superb, as the trade brought them Tony Taylor, one of the franchise’s most popular players, who wore a Phillies uniform from 1960 to 1971 and 1974 to 1976. Cardwell was hardly a one-hit wonder, as he put together a respectable journeyman career, winning 102 games in 14 seasons, and capping it off by winning a World Series ring with the Miracle Mets in 1969.

Catcher Clay Dalrymple was sometimes lumped in with the Daltons, but I think it was merely guilt by association. By necessity, he was a battery-mate of the Daltons, but his rookie year was 1960, so he was something of a latecomer. He enjoyed a 12-year career thanks to his outstanding defensive skills, so if he did cavort with the Daltons, no long-term harm resulted.

Actually, the Daltons’ crimes were common knowledge in baseball circles but not so much among the general public. In the 1950s it was easier to keep player misbehavior under wraps. No surveillance cameras in place back then, and no need to worry about instant replay courtesy of video cameras in mobile phones because there were no mobile phones. Also, there were no 24-hour sports networks or radio call-in sports talk shows hungry for gossip.

No official gag order was imposed, but baseball beat writers were de facto members of the team. When they witnessed players behaving badly, they rarely wrote about it. Consequently, the Daltons’ reputation is based as much on hearsay and rumor as on real misdeeds.

Such had been the case in the Old West. Thanks to the human propensity for conjuring up legends, the most famous outlaws often had inflated reputations. As the newspaper editor famously observed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a classic 1962 John Ford western, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Come to think of it, from all I’ve read about Lee Marvin, who played Liberty Valance, he would have fit right in with Farrell, Owens, Meyer, et al.

One writer who was not afraid to chronicle the baseball Daltons was Walter Bingham, who wrote an article about them for Sports Illustrated in June, 1960. Curiously, the article was controversial not because of what it revealed but because it pulled back the curtain that concealed less than exemplary behavior of major league players. Farrell, Owens and Meyer sued Sports Illustrated for defamation. They won their lawsuit but didn’t make out like bandits. According to Owens, “We’d have gotten a helluva lot more money if one of the guys hadn’t attacked a maid a week before the trial.”

That year, 1960, was something of a turning point in the fan’s perception of ballplayers, as Jim Brosnan had come out with The Long Season, his diary of the 1959 season with the Reds. Brosnan tarnished the ballplayer-on-a-pedestal concept; 10 years later Jim Bouton trashed it with Ball Four. The pedestal is now packed away in long-term storage.

After Brosnan’s book had a chance to sink in with the reading public, the breakup of the Dalton gang began. After a rough start in 1961, Turk Farrell was traded to the Dodgers. The results were indifferent so he was made available in the expansion draft, an indication of how his stock had fallen.

As it turned out, this fresh start was the best thing for Farrell’s career. More important, having been chosen by the Houston Colt .45s seemed to vindicate his Wild West reputation. This was, after all, a team that conducted the Astrodome groundbreaking not by prying clods of dirt out of the ground with shovels but by firing Colt .45 revolvers into the ground. Admittedly, they fired blanks, which somehow seems fitting for an expansion team.

Farrell was a city slicker from back east, but he was no stranger to firearms. Ed Bouchee, once a Phillies first baseman, recounts how he was heeding nature’s call in a hotel room in Plant City, Fla., when Farrell, for no discernible reason, opened fire with a pistol and peppered the bathroom door with bullet holes. Farrell carried a pistol at all times…or so he claimed.

When Farrell reported to spring training in 1962, it was to Apache Junction, Ariz. Honestly, could you ask for a better name for a Wild West town?  In fact, it was a popular location for numerous western movies. Today it has a population of around 40,000 but when Farrell and the Colt .45’s showed up in 1962, the town had less than a tenth of that total. In fact, it was not officially incorporated till 1978.

Though it’s just about 30 miles east of Phoenix, suburban sprawl was less extensive in 1962, so the town was more remote than it is today. The Superstition Mountain wilderness area and the Lost Dutchman gold mine were close by. The Colts played in the Cactus League and the town’s new ballpark was called Geronimo Park. This was surely a fitting spring training site for a renegade pitcher and a team named after the gun that won the west. Samuel Colt would have approved. Fittingly, 1962 was the centennial of Colt’s death.

If Farrell was looking for a better location for target practice than a hotel room, he was in the right place, as Arizona has always been firearm-friendly. On his daily half-mile walk from the Superstition Hotel to Geronimo Park, Farrell amused himself by shooting snakes and rabbits with his pistol. Teammate Bob Aspromonte found out that it was not wise to loan one’s car to Farrell, who once borrowed Aspro’s convertible and returned it with a back seat full of dead rattlesnakes.

The Colts traveled in western attire, so Farrell even got a chance to look like a modern cowboy. The get-up included a blue western suit and Stetson, an orange string tie, and orange, blue and white boots. The much-derided rainbow uniform the Astros wore in the 1970s was not the franchise’s first fling with technicolor overkill.

In their first three years, the Colts were losers, but Farrell seemed to have accepted his fate. He had turned 28 two days before the first major league game in Houston history, so perhaps he had matured. He lost 20 games in 1962, but he was obviously better than that, as he struck out 203 in 242 innings and had a 3.01 ERA. His wildness was tamed, as he averaged just two walks per nine innings.

He was still a bit of a wild child, however. Bill Giles, serving as the Houston franchise’s first traveling secretary in 1962, remembered Farrell was fond of “booze, women, and staying up late – often all at the same time.” But his boisterousness had been tempered somewhat, as he was more into pranks, such as setting off firecrackers or dumping ice water on people, as opposed to outright assault and battery.

As for Jim Owens, after three seasons with the Phillies, he was traded to Cincinnati where the results were not impressive. In 1964, however, he was picked by the Colt .45’s in the Rule 5 Draft and re-united with Farrell (one wonders what mild-mannered Robin Roberts thought when he joined them on the Astros in 1965). Owens had decent seasons when he was used exclusively as a reliever after the team changed nicknames and moved into the Astrodome. From 1965 to 1967, he was 18-20 with a 3.60 ERA in 250 innings.

None of the Daltons lived up to expectations with the Phillies, though some of them (Farrell, Cardwell and Owens) had respectable careers with subsequent teams. In many ways, the big three members of the Dalton gang resembled the big three of the original outlaw gang.

The Dalton Gang formed in the winter of 1889. The group was named after the three Dalton brothers (Bob, age 24; Grattan or “Grat,” age 30, and Emmett or “Em,” age 21) who formed the core of the band. Unlike their baseball namesakes, their demise was swift. Today we might say that both Dalton gangs made poor choices, as though right and wrong are mere social constructs, and life is just a high-stakes game show with the option of picking Door A, Door B, Door C, etc.

Having said that, the original Daltons were done in by a poor choice. At 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 5, 1892, the Dalton Gang rode into Coffeyville, a southeast Kansas town just north of the Oklahoma border.  On that day the gang consisted of the three Dalton brothers plus two accomplices. For whatever reason, the gang decided to rob two banks at once. Perhaps one of them, anticipating Ernie Banks, proclaimed, “Let’s rob two!” However, it came about, this classic “seemed like a good idea at the time” moment proved to be an extremely poor choice.

Their reputation had preceded them to Coffeyville. Since the Dalton brothers had grown up in the area, a number of locals recognized them. Realizing what the gang was up to, they responded in force. As a result, four of the five robbers were killed, all but Em, the youngest Dalton brother, who somehow survived 20 gunshot wounds. After he recovered, he was shipped off to prison, but after he got out he advocated for penal reform and went into the real estate business in Los Angeles. He not only prospered in this endeavor, he also got into the movie industry and even played himself in one movie about the Daltons.

The three baseball Daltons met similar fates. In the end, they ran roughshod over themselves more than anyone else. Like the Dalton brothers, two of them bit the dust early, and one survived to a ripe old age.

Jack Meyer suffered a fatal heart attack in Philadelphia on March 6, 1967 while watching a basketball game on television. He was just 17 days shy of his 35th birthday. Meyer was born in Philly, went to school there, played ball there, and died there, though I doubt the city would claim him as a favorite son.

I don’t know that we can state unequivocally that Meyer’s behavior caused his death at such a young age, but it certainly didn’t help. (Seth Morehead, by the way, survived a heart attack at age 28; obviously, the experience got his attention, as he lived another 43 years.) Meyer’s DNA did not entirely vanish from the baseball realm, as nephew Brian Meyer pitched parts of three seasons (1998-1990) with the Astros.

Turk Farrell died at age 43 on June 10, 1977. He did not go out in a blaze of glory but in a head-on auto accident in Great Yarmouth, England. Alcohol? One wonders. Working for Brown & Root, he was employed as a foreman on an offshore oil rig in the North Sea. So even in his post-baseball life he was leading a gang of roughnecks, albeit in a more productive endeavor. Fittingly, Farrell was buried in Houston at Forest Park Westheimer Cemetery. Not quite Boot Hill, but certainly more fitting than England, Boston or Philadelphia.

Jim Owens’ playing career ended in midseason 1967, when he took over as the Astros pitching coach. In that capacity, he tutored numerous young pitchers of promise (e.g., Mike Cuellar, Ken Forsch, J.R. Richard, Jerry Reuss, Mike Marshall, Larry Dierker and Don Wilson) through 1972. In 1969 he oversaw Jim Bouton during part of his 1969 Ball Four season. According to Bouton, “he thinks rather like Johnny Sain.” High praise indeed, given Sain’s reputation as a pitching coach.

For whatever reason, Owens left the coaching ranks and, like Farrell, went to work for Brown & Root. Ironically, given his roistering reputation, he was employed as a safety manager. As late as 1989, Owens was living in Clear Lake City, an affluent planned community in southeast Houston adjacent to NASA. If Owens was no longer with the Astros, at least he was close to the astronauts.

At age 83, Owens is still alive and kicking. Not sure what he’s doing today, but an oral history pertaining to the Dalton Gang would surely make for interesting reading, and by now surely the statute of limitations on any of their misdeeds has passed.

In closing, it is worth noting that Tom Ferrick, the coach who named the Daltons, once studied for the priesthood. He never donned the collar (in fact, he married and his son, Tom Ferrick Jr., became a well-known journalist in Philadelphia) and more’s the pity. One can imagine what a hell-raiser like Farrell (a graduate of St. Mary’s High School in Brookline, Mass.) could have told him in confession.

Bless me, father, for I have sinned…I mean, made some poor choices.

References and Resources; Jack Meyer and Reflection at the New Year, by Tim Malcolm,
Dec. 31, 2016

Ball Four (Twentieth Anniversary Edition), by Jim Bouton, ed. Leonard Schecter, MacMillan (New York, 1990)

The BFI Companion to the Western, ed. By Edward Buscombe, Atheneum (New York, 1988)

Bloodletters and Badmen, Book 1, by Jay Robert Nash, Warner Books (New York, 1975)

Houston Astros, Deep in the Heart, Blazing a Trail From Expansion to World Series, by Bill Brown and Mike Acosta, Bright Sky Press (Houston, 2013)

My Life in Baseball, by Robin Roberts with C. Paul Rogers, III, Triumph Books (Chicago, 2003)

Pouring Six Beers at a Time, and Other Stories from a Lifetime in Baseball, by Bill Giles with Doug Myers, Triumph Books (Chicago, 2007)

Tough Towns, by Robert Barr Smith, Twodot (Guilford, Conn., 2007)

We Played the Game, ed. Danny Peary, Tess Press (New York, 1994)

Wild and Wooly, an Encyclopedia of the Old West, by Dennis McLoughlin, Barnes & Noble (New York, 1975)

SABR Biography of Don Cardwell by Matthew Silverman

SABR Biography of Turk Farrell by David E. Skelton

SABR Biography of Seth Morehead by David E. Skelton

The Dalton Gang Rides Again, by Walter Bingham, Sports Illustrated, June 13, 1960

Dick ‘Turk’ Farrell: Houston’s First All-Star, by Ron Briley, National Pastime, SABR, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, 2014)

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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4 years ago

Turk was a common nickname bestowed on anyone habitually displaying rowdy behavior.

4 years ago

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4 years ago