Bob Ferguson


By Eric Miklich

O Bob Ferguson. Click to enlarge.

n June 14, 1870 the Brooklyn Atlantics were playing host to the powerful Cincinnati Red Stockings at Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn, NY. The Red Stockings last loss occurred on October 1, 1868 to the same Atlantics of Brooklyn, on the same field. Since then the Red Stockings managed to win 89 straight games (the August 26, 1869 match against Troy is considered a forfeit win since the Haymakers walked off the field). At the end of nine innings, the Atlantics walked off the field proudly with a 5-5 tie. The crowd of between 9,000 and 20,000, who paid 50 cents to watch, was thrilled to see the Atlantics come from behind to tie the historic game.

The Captain of the Red Stockings, Harry Wright, claimed the game was not over. He said the rules stated that "unless it be mutually agreed upon by the captains of the two nines to consider the game a draw," a tie game must continue into extra innings. Atlantics Captain, BOB FERGUSON, announced that they were more than happy with a draw and perhaps thinking of the money that could be made for a second match.

Wright consulted Henry Chadwick, Chairman of the Rules Committee of the newly formed National Association, who was in attendance. Chadwick ruled the game should continue.

In the top of the 11th the Red Stockings pushed across two runs. In the home half of the inning, Cincinnati's pitcher Asa Brainard gave up a single to first baseman Charley Smith and allowed him to move to third on a wild pitch. Joe Start hit a drive to right field that went into the crowd. Cal McVey managed to get the ball from the crowd but not before Start ended up on third. With Smith scoring, the Atlantics were down by one. Left fielder John Chapman grounded out to third but Start was unable to score. Third baseman Bob Ferguson hit a grounder to Charlie Gould at first base. Gould allowed the ball to go through his legs. Start scored the tying run and Ferguson rounded second and headed for third. Gould threw the ball over third baseman Fred Waterman's head and Ferguson scored the winning run.

Each Atlantic was paid $364 for their effort. The mighty Red Stockings continued to play, however, and after succumbing to five more losses the team disbanded six months later. Investors withdrew their support citing poor attendance and rising costs as the main reasons.

Robert Vavasour Ferguson was born on January 31, 1845 and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He was an overall average player. But it was his character and unquestioned honesty during a period when games were often decided by gamblers which made him different. His bad temper, stubbornness and honesty were traits that caused him to be disliked.

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He became the first captain, and third baseman, of the New York Mutuals in the first professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, formed in 1871. In the first season the Mutuals would finish fourth. Ferguson who "insisted upon implicit obedience from his men" was forced to leave because of the heavy rumors of gambling surrounding the team. He was also a substitute umpire for the National Association that inaugural season.

The year of 1872 was a busy for Ferguson. He was a convention delegate for the Brooklyn Atlantics, the team he would return to as the player/captain, for the '72 season. During the convention, held in Cleveland, he would be elected president of the National Association. Some ball players felt this was only a figurehead position. Ferguson felt otherwise. He wanted the players to have a representative. He would hold that position until the collapse of the NA, in 1875. He also became a regular umpire for the NA. On September 1, 1872 Ferguson arranged a benefit game for Albert Thake, a 22-year-old left fielder for the Atlantics, who drowned off Fort Hamilton, in New York Harbor, while fishing. The old Brooklyn Atlantics and Members of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings played against each other in the benefit game. The Atlantics ended the season in 6th place; the first of three consecutive 6th place finishes.

In 1873, Ferguson was once again a convention delegate for the Atlantics during the meetings held in Baltimore, MD. He stayed on as a regular umpire for the NA but was involved in an incident during a game on July 24. While umpiring a game between the Baltimore Canaries and Ferguson's former team, the NY Mutuals, he was loudly abused throughout the game by notorious umpire-baiter, Mutuals catcher Nat Hicks. The game was close and the Mutuals produced a three-run rally in the ninth to win 11-10. Ferguson and Hicks got into an altercation at the conclusion of the game. Ferguson hit Hicks with a bat in the left arm and had to have a police escort to get to the clubhouse. Although Hicks ended up with a broken arm in two places and would not play for two months, he refused to press charges and the two reconciled after the game. As a result, Ferguson was only a substitute umpire in the '74 season.

In 1875, Ferguson again became a regular umpire but he left the Atlantics, along with pitcher Tommy Bond, to become the player/captain of the Hartford Dark Blues. This would be his first, and most successful, of three straight winning seasons with the Dark Blues. The team would finish in second place at 54-28, 18½ games behind Harry Wright's powerful Boston Red Stockings. As for the Atlantics, they started the season at 2-11 and finished with a 31-game losing streak and a 12th place finish.

Ferguson became a League Director when the National League was formed in 1876. He was involved in a landmark decision that season. Jim Devlin, a pitcher for the Louisville Grays, wanted to be released from his contract. He claimed that the team had failed to fulfill the terms of his contract. Surrounding Devlin were rumors of "hippodroming." Ferguson, along with fellow League Directors Nicholas Appolonio, Boston President and St. Louis club Secretary Charles Chase ruled in favor of the Gray's VP Charles Chase. Devlin was compelled to remain with the Grays. The following season, Devlin and three other teammates, SS/2B William Craver, OF George Hall and 3B Al Nichols would be suspended for life for throwing games. Devlin would attempt for a number of years to be reinstated, but never was.

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In 1878, Al Spalding hired Ferguson to captain the Chicago White Stockings. Spalding openly said he admired Ferguson's style and leadership that made the Hartford teams successful. Ferguson personally had his most successful season as a player. He hit .351, third in the league, led the league in on-base percentage, tied for fourth in RBI and ranked fourth in hits. The supposedly high-powered White Stockings finished at .500. In Spalding's memoirs he called Ferguson "tactless" and hopelessly lacking any knowledge "of the subtle science of handling men by strategy rather than by force." Spalding's harsh words helped end Ferguson's career as a player and manager.

In 1879, Ferguson played in only 30 games and managed the last 29 games for the Troy Trojans. He also resumed umpiring for the National League. From 1880-1882 he managed and played full time for the Trojans but did not umpire. Ferguson played for and managed the Philadelphia Quakers in the National League in 1883, but was replaced by Blondie Purcell with just 17 games remaining.

On August 21, the Quakers traveled to Providence to play the Grays. He needed to increase ticket sales on the road because the American Association entry in Philadelphia had forced the Quakers to reduce prices to 25 cents a game. He gave the ball to Rhode Island native Art Hagen who had several rough outings during a recent road trip. Ferguson hoped Hagen's appearance would draw the locals. The people came in large numbers to watch the hometown hero. Hagen surrendered 28 runs and the Quakers made 20 errors behind him. Philadelphia didn't score and to this day it's still the most lopsided shutout in major league history. Ferguson was labeled a sadist for not relieving him.

Ferguson found work in the American Association in 1884 with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. He would be the second of five managers for the team that season and he would also play the last 10 games of his career. He returned to umpiring in the National League for the first time in four years, working part-time in '84 and full-time during the '85 season.

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In 1886, 17 games into the season, Ferguson took over the managing duties for the New York Metropolitans, in the American Association and finished eighth. He also became an umpire in the A.A. in 1886 and continued until 1889. Ferguson would begin the season managing the Metropolitans in '87 but was replaced 30 games into the season.

Ferguson would never again manage. He turned full-time to umpiring and was a replacement umpire in the first game of the first all-New York World Series in '89 between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. He worked for the Players league in 1890 and returned to the A.A. in 1891 and then retired. Ferguson would pass away in Brooklyn on May 5, 1894, at the age of 49.

Ferguson would play in 562 games and manage another 949. He was the only person to umpire in four leagues in the 19th century as well as the only person to be an umpire, player, manager and league official at one time. Unfortunately, he is mostly remembered for one thing:

Question: Who was the first switch-hitter in professional baseball?

Answer: Bob Ferguson.


Total Baseball, Sixth edition, 1999
The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Baseball, David Nemic, 1997
Baseball, Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, 1994
The Ballplayers, Edited by Mike Shatzkin, 1990
A History of Early Baseball, Warren Golstein, 1989
Diamonds in the Rough, Joel Zoss and John Bowman, 1996