Robert Vavasour “Bob” Ferguson shares claim, with Brooklyn Atlantics teammate Jack Chapman, to the nickname “Death to Flying Things,” although it will likely never be resolved which had the name attached to him first.
What is clear is that Ferguson was an important figure in 19th Century baseball –a player, manager, umpire and executive, and the game’s first switch hitter.
Ferguson was, given the reputation’s of 19th Century umpires, uniquely popular.
The St. Louis Republican said he was “about the most brilliant of any…He never allowed his word to be questioned and was the most successful umpire in that regard ever in the profession”
The Louisville Post said “Ferguson plays no favorite from the time he calls play. He sees all men alike and tries to do justice to them.”
The Sporting Life said he was “The only umpire who can satisfy New York audiences.”
In May of 1886 Ferguson resigned from the American Association’s umpire staff to manage the New York Metropolitans, until May of 1887, when he was let go by New York and returned to the association staff. The Philadelphia Times said his services were so sought after that he was offered “$1200 for the remainder of the season. This is much in excess of the regular umpire’s salary, but (the Cleveland Blues, Brooklyn Grays and St. Louis Browns) have agreed to stand the additional expense if Ferguson will accept the position.”
Even when criticizing Ferguson for possessing “a whole barrel full of that commodity known as mulishness” The Cincinnati Enquirer said, “There is no disputing his honesty.”
Intractability was the one major criticism of his work, but Ferguson thought it an asset. Shortly after returning as an umpire in 1887 The Washington Evening Star said during a game between New York and Philadelphia, a runner starting from second base, noticing Ferguson’s back turned after a passed ball cut third base and scored easily. Ferguson was alleged to have said:
“I felt morally certain that he did not go to third base, as he scored almost as soon as the base runner who was on third at the time. But before I could do anything in the matter the crowd began to hoot and I declined to change my decision. Let an umpire be overcome just once by the players or the crowd and he never will be acknowledged afterward.”
But, despite the respect he sought and received, on and off the field, in 1888 Ferguson told a reporter for The New York Mail and Express—which said Ferguson was noted for his “bluntness and firmness” as a player– how he really felt about being an umpire:
“I did not choose it; that is to say, I did not seek it very earnestly. I had been active on the ball field for so many years that I knew it would be only a question of a short time when my efficiency as a player would be impaired to the extent of my being forced to retire, and the position of umpire being possible for me to obtain and in fact offered to me, I accepted it that I might surely be able to continue upon the field, where I have spent most, and in a general way the happiest years of my life.
“How do I like it? I do not like it at all. An umpire, not withstanding newspaper talk regarding his being master of the field, is practically a slave to the whims of players. He does not, as is generally supposed, go upon a field, and upon the slightest provocation fine a player to any amount simply because that man does not act in accordance with his ideas. He is not there for that purpose. He is simply the representative of the officers of the association in which he happens to be employed.
“I give all clubs, whether weak or strong, an equal chance. The position of an umpire is one that no self respecting man can hold long without wondering whatever possessed him to accept it, and wishing to be free from it.
“But everyone has to earn a livelihood, and I am endeavoring to earn mine, but I will say I am thoroughly disgusted with the business and will welcome the day when I can say: ‘Robert, you are free; your slavery days are over; you can now enjoy the fruits of your labor.’ Don’t misquote me now and say that I am disgusted with the national game, for it would be utterly untrue. I am fond of baseball, as my many years on the diamond will attest; but to be a player, which position I loved, is one thing; to be an umpire is another.”
Ferguson remained in the American Association through 1889, then joined the Players League as an umpire in 1890, and returned to the American Association for the 1891 season, his last; The Sporting Life said “the Association soured on him” because “his expense bill” was much larger than any other umpire.”
Ferguson tried to get a position with the National League in 1892, but according to The Chicago Tribune he “does not seem to be much sought after.”
Ferguson retired to Brooklyn where he died in 1894 at the age of 49.
Oliver Perry Caylor said in The New York Herald said he was “an umpire of recognized fairness and merit…His honesty was always above suspicion, and scandal never breathed a word against his upright life professionally.”