Happy Birthday: Jackie, Ernie and Nolan

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
3:06
PM ET
Is Jan. 31 the greatest birth date in major league history? We have Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Nolan Ryan -- three all-timers, three legends. There are eight other dates with three Hall of Fame players -- and one with four -- but no other trio can match up with Jackie, Ernie and Nolan. You only need first names for those guys.

The trouble with calling Jan. 31 the greatest birth date ever is that there isn't much behind our three Hall of Famers. There are two other All-Stars, pitchers Josh Johnson and Hank Aguirre, a lefty who led the AL in ERA in 1962 and won 75 games. After that? George Burns was a first baseman with five different American League teams from 1914 to 1929. A good player (34.2 career WAR), and he even won the 1926 AL MVP Award. The rules were different then, as previous winners were ineligible, so no Babe Ruth. Burns hit .358 and drove in 115 runs although with just four home runs. The Indians finished three games behind the first-place Yankees so that helped him in the voting.

But you know who's fourth on the games played list for Jan. 31 birthday boys? Yuniesky Betancourt. After that is 1970s catcher Fred Kendall, father of Jason. Ryan is seventh, and he was a pitcher. There hasn't been even one middling outfielder born on this date. I'm not sure if you fielded teams for every calendar date that the Jan. 31 team would be near the top, but I haven't done the research to say that with any confidence. I do like the double-play combo, however.

Since you know all about Robinson, Banks and Ryan, let's write about the No. 6 guy in games played born on Jan. 31.

Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson: Born 1845

Yes, that really was his nickname, one that certainly qualifies as one of the most creative in major league history. You'd think he was an outfielder, but he was primarily a third baseman (although he played many positions earlier in his career), so Death to Flying Things must have been pretty nifty at snaring line drives -- particularly impressive since it's believed he never used a glove.

Born in Brooklyn in 1845, Ferguson was 26 when the National Association, the first professional league, was formed in 1871. In "The New Bill James Historical Abstract," James writes that "Ferguson was one of the best players in the nation for many years before the major leagues were organized. James quotes an 1871 article in the New York Herald Tribune:
Ferguson, captain of the Atlantic nine, was formerly a quiet hard working member of the nine but since he has been crowned with a little brief authority, he lords over his men in an insultingly demonstrative way that cannot fail to wound the feelings of the nine, make them sulky and indifferent and act against the interest and success of the club.

I'm not sure about the date of that piece. Ferguson was the player-manager for the New York Mutuals in 1871 and then returned to the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1872, 1873 and 1874, so I'm not sure if the article is referring to Ferguson's time with the Mutuals or Atlantics. Anyway, he moved around: Hartford for two years (the Dark Blues were an inaugural member of the National League in 1876), Brooklyn in 1877 when the franchise moved, Chicago in 1878, Troy from 1879 to 1882, Philadelphia in 1883 and then Pittsburgh of the American Association in 1884. That ended his days as a player-manager and he would manage the New York Metropolitans of the AA in 1886 and 1887. Ferguson's teams never finished higher than third place and his career winning percentage was .447, so maybe his insultingly demonstrative ways did have a negative influence on his clubs.

Ferguson's biggest claim to fame is that he was apparently the first batter to switch-hit, or at least the first on record. He did this in 1870, in a famous game between the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Atlantics in Brooklyn, before an estimated crowd of 20,000. The game went extra innings and Ferguson apparently switched to the left side so he could avoid hitting the ball to Cincinnati shortstop George Wright. Ferguson's grounder went under the first baseman's glove to tie the game and he came all the around to score the winning run when the Red Stockings threw the ball away. It was Cincinnati's first defeat since 1868 and Ferguson was the hero.

It's not known how often Ferguson would switch-hit; he would apparently use it as a strategic initiative rather than to get a platoon advantage. His statistical record in the National Association and then the National League suggests a good player, but not a great one. He had little power (one career home run), even for an era when nobody hit home runs, and was a .265 career hitter. He did hit .351 for Chicago in 1878 and Baseball-Reference rates Ferguson as the second-best position player in the National League that year.

Why did he move around so much? This quote from an article on 19th-century players perhaps sums it up: "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."

Indeed. From the excellent SABR bio of Ferguson:

Sam Crane wrote of Ferguson, “Turmoil was his middle name, and if he wasn’t mixed up prominently in a scrap of some kind nearly every day, he would imagine he had not been of any use to the baseball fraternity and the community in general.” The Sporting News put it this way: “Ferguson had few friends among the players. He was a man of too blunt ways to cultivate friendships of many and he courted the ill rather than the good will of his fellow men.” A striking example of this could be boldly seen on his very person. With Hartford, he wore a white belt with the words “I AM CAPTAIN” in capital letters just in case someone was unsure of who was in charge. The Brooklyn Eagle exclaimed, “Ferguson is the sternest manager in the country.” Naturally, this tended to alienate the other men on the field. The New York Clipper took it a step further: “He is a bully who most players are afraid of and consequently none respect.”

By the way, that article points out something very interesting. Ferguson was apparently shifting his defenses against pull hitters, at least more than other managers of the day. "Many years’ active service on the ball field has given Ferguson an excellent opportunity for studying batsmen, and he has not failed to profit by it," wrote the Louisville Courier-Journal. "No nine in the country last season excelled the Hartfords in fielding, and Ferguson was at the bottom of it all." Against some hitters, Ferguson would play his third baseman in the shortstop's position. Eat your heart out, Joe Maddon.

In his spare time, Ferguson umpired games and served as one of the initial directors of the National League. After his managing days, he continued to umpire for a few years. He collapsed in his Brooklyn home at the age of 49 in 1894 and died a few hours later. A lifelong bachelor, he was a smoker; the likely cause of death was a stroke, aneurysm or heart failure.

This is just a brief synopsis of one baseball's most prominent figures from the 19th century. I urge you to read Brian McKenna's in-depth essay for more details on one of baseball's pioneers.

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