Ferris Fain, the American League batting champion in 1951 and '52 and a slick-fielding first baseman for the lackluster Philadelphia Athletics, died on Oct. 18 at his home in Georgetown, Calif. He was 80.
He had been in poor health for many years, with leukemia and diabetes.
The Dave Frishberg song ''Van Lingle Mungo,'' a rhyming tribute to baseball players of the past, remembers ''John Antonelli, Ferris Fain, Frankie Crosetti, Johnny Sain.''
In the early 1950's, when the Athletics were in their last years in Philadelphia before moving to Kansas City, their first baseman with the alliterative name and line-drive swing was one of baseball's premier players. But there was a dark side to Fain's life. He had a drinking problem, got into barroom brawls and three decades after leaving baseball was sent to a state prison in California for growing marijuana.
Connie Mack, the Athletics' owner, bequeathed few star players when he turned over the managing of the team to Jimmy Dykes after the 1950 season. But Dykes had formidable hitters in Fain and the outfielder Gus Zernial.
The left-handed-batting Fain hit .344 to win the 1951 batting title for a sixth-place team, and Zernial led the league in home runs, with 33, and runs batted in, with 129. The Sporting News named Fain the American League's player of the year.
Fain broke his hand in a nightclub brawl near the end of the 1952 season, but won the batting championship again when he hit .327. He led the league in doubles, with 43.
But Fain's career soon went into eclipse. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox, then broke his hand again in a bar fight in August 1953. He sustained a season-ending knee injury in June 1954 while sliding into Boston Red Sox catcher Sammy White. After playing for the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians in 1955, Fain concluded his major league career with a .290 batting average for nine seasons, but only 48 home runs. He was an All-Star from 1950 to 1954.
Fain was an outstanding first baseman as well. He set a major league record for his position when he took part in 194 double plays in 1949, and he charged the plate when batters squared to bunt. Sometimes that backfired. Billy Martin once recalled how his teammate Phil Rizzuto pushed a bunt past a charging Fain in Chicago for a double.
A native of San Antonio, Fain grew up in Oakland, Calif., the son of Oscar Fain, a former jockey whose mount finished second in the 1912 Kentucky Derby. The father, once described by Fain as very abusive, died when Fain was a youngster.
''Mom was the glue that held us together,'' Fain told The Sacramento Bee in 1994. ''She was a domestic who brought home hand-me-downs from people she worked for. We'd put paper in our shoes to cover the holes.''
Fain was a star first baseman in high school, and later told of having received under-the-table payments of $200 a month from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League to work out with the team. He starred with the Seals upon graduating and joined the Athletics in 1947.
In 1985 Fain was arrested for growing marijuana, and he was eventually sentenced to four months' house arrest. In March 1988, sheriff's deputies raided his home in Northern California and reported finding more than 400 marijuana plants. ''He increased his operation incredibly since 1985,'' Lieut. Howard Wilson of the El Dorado County Sheriff's office said. That arrest brought an 18-month term for Fain in the California state prison at Vacaville.
''I knew how to grow the stuff,'' Fain told The Bee in 1994. ''I was as adept at it as I was in playing baseball.''
He said then that he did not condone marijuana use, but spoke about a society that condoned alcohol use.
''I never abused or shot anyone,'' Fain said. ''I was just trying to make a buck. What I did was far less harmful than a bartender getting you boozed up and then letting you out on a highway where you might kill someone. I know how bad that stuff can be.''
Fain is survived by his wife, Norma, and two children.
Reflecting on Fain's career, his former Athletics' teammates Zernial and shortstop Eddie Joost remembered a troubled man. ''He wanted to fight someone all the time,'' Zernial said. Joost once said, ''Ferris was his own worst enemy.''
In the 1990's, Fain reflected on the missed opportunities.
''If I behaved more,'' he said, ''I probably would have realized my dream of becoming a manager.''