Ferris Fain, the former San Francisco Seals and Philadelphia Athletics player known as much for his fiery personality as his slick glove and two American League batting titles, died Thursday of natural causes in his Georgetown (El Dorado County) home. He was 80.
A product of Depression Era Oakland, Fain's athletic abilities earned him a way out of a poor family life all the way to the elite of the American League, where the left-handed hitter won batting crowns in 1951 and 1952 for the A's. The Sporting News named the five-time All-Star AL Player of the Year in '51. Fain was just as proud of his defense, and beamed that former Yankees and Indians infielder Joe Gordon once called him "the best defensive first baseman ever." The double-play combination of shortstop Eddie Joost, second baseman Pete Suder and Fain still holds the record with 194 twin-killings in 1949.
A graduate of Oakland's Roosevelt High School, Fain was coveted by Seals manager Lefty O'Doul. The Seals paid Fain $200 a month -- "under the table," Fain said in a 1995 interview -- to sign with San Francisco upon graduation, an illegal transaction. Fain went from 50 cents a week allowance from his mother, who worked as a domestic, to $50 a week.
"I was student body president and I bought a car," said Fain, whose haircut earned him the nickname "Burrhead." "I had it made, and all I had to do was work out with the Seals my senior year."
Success in the Pacific Coast League -- he led the PCL in runs and RBIs in 1941 -- led to a stint in World War II, where he played on the same service baseball team as Joe DiMaggio. Convinced he could play in the big leagues, Fain accepted a $6,500 contract from A's manager Connie Mack in 1947.
There, Fain sealed his reputation as a hard-playing, unafraid scrapper. In 1952, while leading the league in hitting, he got into a bar fight with hecklers and broke his hand. He told A's manager Jimmy Dykes he hurt it in a car door, then played the next month and held off Cleveland's Dale Mitchell for the batting crown.
After finishing his career with the White Sox, Tigers and Indians, Fain eventually retired in the Sierra foothills with his second wife, Norma. In 1988, he was arrested for cultivation of marijuana and possession for sale, and spent 18 months in state prison in Vacaville.
Fain remained colorful in interviews late in life. Remembering his playing days, he said he would "rather drink a glass of iodine" than face a left- handed pitcher, and bemoaned the lack of fundamentals in today's home-run- heavy game. "Reggie Jackson doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame any more than my grandmother does," he said in 1995. "How many runners did he keep from advancing with all those strikeouts?" Fain also gained a measure of fame in an old Miller Lite beer ad, where baseball executive Spec Richardson tried to broker a deal for some Ferris Fain baseball cards.
Still beloved by Bay Area fans, Fain attended an old-timer's day at Candlestick in 1994 and got a loud ovation. "It's sure nice to know the fans still remember the old boy," Fain told Baseball Digest.
Born in San Antonio in 1921, Fain is survived by his wife and two grown children. Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday in Georgetown.