Fain in Vain

The unlikely story of a 1950s American League batting champ turned large scale pot farmer.

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If you followed baseball in the 1980s, you might remember that one of the sport’s most prominent storylines was drugs. Specifically, a lot of active ballplayers seemed to be using cocaine. In September of 1985, there was a big trial in Pittsburgh during which superstar players like Keith Hernandez and Dave Parker confessed to using the drug. 

Hernandez at one point estimated that more than 200 MLB players were using cocaine. Parker, one of the best players in franchise history, was sued by the Pirates for breach of contract. 

This was the era of the War on Drugs, of Nancy Reagan, and “just say no.” In fact, the first lady even threw out a first pitch in the 1988 World Series. She and commissioner Peter Ueberroth joined Vin Scully for a quick interview before the game:

What a time to be alive: preening morality, naked greed disguised as a coherent political doctrine, and America’s endless appetite for a good time. It was Commissioner Ueberroth, after all, who inspired MLB owners to collude to keep player salaries down in the mid-80s. He said the owners were “damn dumb” for throwing away millions in profits to win a World Series. This scandal would cost Ueberroth his job as commissioner, and the owners hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements with the Players Association. 

None of this really has anything directly to do with the subject of this week’s Sports Stories, but I feel like it’s useful context. While MLB was twisting itself into knots over cocaine abuse, and owners were doing everything they could to avoid paying active players fair market wages, an aging and cancer-stricken former superstar was taking desperate measures in a quaint northern California town. The story ends with sheriffs descending on a ranch in the hills outside of Georgetown, California and walking away with more than 400 marijuana plants. 

If you had to guess the name of the player who won back-to-back American League batting titles in 1951 and 1952, you might think about Ted Williams or Minnie Miñoso or even a young Mickey Mantle. Unless you are a very specific kind of nerd, you would not likely think about Ferris Fain of the Philadelphia Athletics.

As a ballplayer, Fain was an oddity: a first baseman with essentially zero power, who made up for it by getting on base at an outrageous clip, and fielding the position exceptionally well. In fact, in his 1988 book Season Ticket, the great Roger Angell used Fain as a comp to laud the defensive prowess of the aforementioned Keith Hernandez.  

Fain grew up in Oakland, California, the son of an abusive former jockey and a domestic servant. His father died young and his mother held the family together. When he was still a teenager, Fain joined up with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. (They paid him under the table when he was in high school, so that he wouldn’t sign elsewhere upon graduation). He played for the Seals until military service took him to a base in Hawaii where he played on a team with future hall of farmers Joe DiMaggio, Red Ruffing, and Joe Gordon. 

Everywhere Fain went, from San Francisco, to Hawaii, to Philadelphia, he hit. He was a uniquely productive player: energetic and aggressive on the field, but patient at the plate. He drew a ton of walks. He bunted. He also drank, and fought, and developed a reputation as being a hardheaded, ornery type. Fain was constantly arguing with the A’s owners over his contracts, and threatening holdouts. 

In 1952, Fain injured his finger and almost cost himself the batting title because of it. 

“We put out a story that I’d caught the finger in a car door,” he later told The Sporting News. “Actually, I broke it when I took a swing at some guy in a tavern fight. I missed the SOB and hit the bar instead.”

Fain was traded in the offseason, and spent his remaining seasons bouncing between the White Sox, Tigers, Indians, and finally as a player-coach for the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League, where his career had begun. He retired with a career on base percentage of .424—better than Mickey Mantle, Mike Trout, Joey Votto, among others. 

It was Fain’s dream to become a major league manager. On the field, he had all the traits you might want: a bright baseball mind, fearlessness, a knack for leadership. But he simply drank too much. So instead, Fain retired to Georgetown, which is in gold country, about halfway between Sacramento and Reno. He worked as a carpenter, building houses and custom cabinetry. He addressed Little Leaguers at the VFW Hall. After his first marriage blew up, he remarried and became something of a hermit. 

Then in 1985, as the baseball world was being rocked by cocaine scandals, Fain was arrested for growing marijuana. It was a minor news item. A handful of plants. A sentence of house arrest and just a few years probation. Fain disappeared from the public eye again until 1988, when the sheriff’s deputies returned to his property. This time, they found more than 400 plants. Here’s the Placerville Mountain Democrat:

“When sheriff’s officers received a tip that Fain was again growing marijuana, they raided the home and caught Fain outside a barn in which marijuana was being groomed for sale. Fain sat outside the barn door, with a large marijuana leaf on his stomach; he apparently hadn’t noticed it.” 

The plants were grown in various outbuildings on Fain’s property. Police estimated that the street value of all the weed they seized was north of a million dollars. Investigators also found ledgers and books on how to cultivate marijuana.

Fain told a judge that he had started growing marijuana because he was sick with leukemia and believed he did not have long to live. He had hoped to leave his wife Norma with financial security, and now he hoped to live out his remaining years at home instead of going to prison. The argument did not have its desired effect. The judge who sentenced Fain after his second arrest had been a fan of his back in the San Francisco Seals days. He lectured Fain about responsibility as a role model. 

“I hope you understand this, Ferris,” the judge told him at sentencing. “Men such as you are idolized. It’s painful to look at a man who’s crippled...and think in terms of prison. But the court can’t, by way of extortion or other means, deny to society that which the crime dictates.” 

Fain, who was wheelchair bound, was sentenced to three years in state prison. He would serve 18 months. In typical Ferris Fain fashion, he was not particularly contrite upon his release. 

''I knew how to grow the stuff,'' Fain told the Sacramento Bee in 1994. ''I was as adept at it as I was in playing baseball.''

By all accounts Fain never smoked marijuana. So why grow it? Well, he was good at it. He enjoyed it, in much the same way he enjoyed growing fruit trees on his property. Arthritis had made it impossible for him to work as a carpenter. He had a gambling problem exacerbated by his proximity to Reno. And hell, in Georgetown, California amongst the streams that had once yielded gold nuggets to lucky prospectors, this was now the closest thing there was to easy money. It’s not like Ferris Fain was the only farmer growing weed in that part of California in the 1980s.

Fain died in 2001. 

''I never abused or shot anyone,'' Fain told the Bee. ''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.''

Related Reading

There’s a fair bit out there on Ferris Fain. With baseball, your best bet is almost always going to be something from SABR—in this case his bio written by Gregory H. Wolf. The SABR biography is a good rundown on Fain’s early life and career, but doesn’t get too deep into his legal problems. For that, I recommend a 1988 Sporting News featured by Dave Nightingale, with the delightful title “A Batting Champ Gone to Pot.” Another good overview comes from Richard Goldstein’s New York Times obituary of Fein

I found the contemporaneous reporting from the Placerville Mountain Democrat to be detailed and colorful and a good reminder of everything we’re now missing when it comes to strong local news institutions in this country. 

To learn more about the collusion scandal in the 1980s (and really about the business of baseball in general), I recommend John Helyar’s The Lords of the Realm. Also, I haven’t read it yet, but Dave Parker has a new autobiography out this year that I’m excited to pick up called Cobra.

After Fain’s funeral, the pro-medical marijuana publication O’Shaughnessy’s published a short article on the proceedings that included an interview with Fain’s son John. 

John described a home scene with ups and downs, alienation and love. His dad did not smoke marijuana, according to John, and disapproved of its use. Ol’ Ferris had once kicked him out of the house when he learned that John was growing the illegal herb. “I had a wife and a one-year-old baby, and it was really my house,” John said matter-of-factly. “He knew I needed the income,” he added.

Thanks for reading Sports Stories. We’ll see you next week.