Philadelphia Phillies – The Players: Charlie Ferguson, the Phillies’ unknown first star.
I’m sure that most Phillies fans have probably never even heard of Charlie Ferguson, or if they have, know very little about him. Well, to be rather frank, I was among those who have never even heard of him, until I’d started doing my year-by-year look at our loveable losers and discovered him for the very first time, while also discovering that before his untimely death in 1888, at a very young age, from typhoid fever, he was developing into the team’s first true pitching star, way before the more well known Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Ferguson was born on April 17, 1863, in Charlotteville, Virigina, the home of American Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, and located near the strategic Shenandoah Valley, an area that during his youth would be constantly fought over by Northern and Southern troops during the country’s Civil War, while the city would itself be spared. Going to the University of Pennsylvania for his college education, where he would learn to play baseball, Ferguson would come back home after graduation and proceed to play for the Virginia member of the Eastern (now International) League in 1883. His team would win the Eastern League pennant that year, while his pitching would catch the eyes of the Philadelphia Quakers (now Phillies), who were preparing for their second year as a member of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, or the NL. After signing a contract, he would make his Major League debut on May 1, 1884, pitching against the Detroit Wolverine in Philadelphia at Recreation Park. He would be the game’s winning pitcher, as the Phillies would trounce the Wolverines 13-2. During his rookie season, he would pitch in 50 games, starting in 47 of them, and completing all but one of his starts, while finishing up three more. His record would be 21-25, thus becoming the franchise’s first twenty-game winner, as well as saving one other game, and throwing two shut outs, as he ended the season with an ERA of 3.54. Ferguson would pitch in 416.7 innings that year, giving up 297 runs, 164 of which would be earned, on 443 hits, as he struck out 194 batters while walking only 93 and giving up 13 home runs. In his rookie season he would be among the NL leaders in games (6), games started (6), complete games (6), games finished (3), wins (7), loses (2), saves (2), shut outs (10), innings pitched (6), strikeouts (7), hits allowed (6), walks (7), earned runs allowed (1), home runs allowed (7) and walks (7).
After helping lead the team to a 6th place finish in 1884, he would lead them to a third place finish in 1885, as he would have his second straight twenty-win season, as he would go 26-20 that year, with an ERA of 2.22. Ferguson would this time pitch in only 48 games, starting and completing 45 of them, of which five were shut outs, while finishing three other games. He would pitch in 405 innings, giving up just 197 runs, only 100 of which would be earned, on just 345 hits, as he would rung up 197 strike outs while walking just 81 batters and giving up only 5 home runs. On August 29, 1885, in Philadelphia, he would pitch the first Phillies’ No-Hitter, as he would blank the Providence Grays, 1-0. In his second season as a Phil, he would be among the league leaders in games (8), games started (9), complete games (8), games finished (1), wins (5), win/lost percentage (8), ERA (7), shut outs (6), innings pitched (7), strikeouts (6), hits allowed (10) and walks (10). He would also hit .306 for that year, in which he would play 15 games in the outfield for a grand total of 61 games.
1886 would be his breakout season, as he would become the Phillies’ first thirty-game winner as he would go 30-9, with a 1.98 ERA, in 48 games pitched, of which 45 would be starts, completing 43. He would also pitch four shut outs that year, while he would finish two other games, and collect two saves. In 395.7 innings of work, he would give up just 145 runs, of which 87 would be earned, on only 317 hits, while striking out 212 batters and walking only 69, while giving up 11 home runs. In his junior year as a Phil, he would be among the leaders in games (7), games started (9), complete games (7), games finished (7), wins (6), win/lost percentage (2), saves (1), ERA (2), shut outs (2), innings pitched (7), strikeouts (8), and home runs allowed (6). Although his efforts would help to improve the team’s overall record, the Phillies would end the year in fourth place in the National League.
In 1887, his pitching record would drop as he would end the season going only 22-10 with an ERA of 3.00, in just 37 games, of which 33 would be starts, he would complete 31 of them, with 2 of them being shut outs, while he would finish four out other games, collecting a save. In only 297.3 innings of work, he would give up 154 runs, of which 99 would be earned, on 297 hits, while he would strike out 125 batters, while walking only 47 and giving up 13 home runs. In his fourth season as a Phil, he would be among the league leaders in only games finished (2), wins (8), win/lost percentage (3), saves (1), ERA (3), shut outs (5) and strikeouts (5).
The main reason for his pitching drop was because the Phillies’ manager, future Hall of Famer Harry Wright, an early strategist of the game, had decided to place Ferguson’s strong bat into the Phils’ regular lineup for the pennant run, as Ferguson would end up playing six games in the outfield, five games at third base, and twenty-seven ballgames at second base, playing that position for the final eight weeks of the season, as he would replace the bats of a couple of second baseman who were hitting a combine total of only .214. In 72 games, Ferguson would hit .337, going to the plate 264 times, knocking in 85 runs on 89 hits, while scoring 67 runs, Ferguson would hit 14 doubles, 6 triples and 3 home runs, while stealing 13 bases. He would walk 34 times while striking out only 19. He would miss out being the team’s leading batter for that year, because he would not have enough plate appearances. He would, though, end up leading the team in RBIs. Ferguson’s strong bat would help the Phillies end up a strong second to the Detroit Wolverines.
The Phillies’ strong finish at the end of the 1887 season, going 16-0-1 in their last seventeen games, would make the team confident of being able to challenge for their first NL pennant when the team entered spring training in 1888. Sadly, it was not to be as they would be struck an early blow in camp as Charlie Ferguson would be struck down by typhoid fever, dying to the dreaded disease on April 29, at the young age of 25. Ferguson would be sent back home to Charlotteville, Virginia, where he would be buried in Maplewood Cementery. During the 1888 season, in which the Phillies would drop to third place in the standings, the Phillies, the Giants, the Beaneaters and the Washington Nationals would all commemorate his passing by wearing a black crepe on their left shoulders of their team uniforms.
During his four years as a Phil, Charlie Ferguson would pitch in 183 games, starting in 170 and completing 165, while finishing 12 others. He would have a winning record of 99-64, with a winning percentage of .607, having 13 shut outs and four saves. In 1514.2 innings pitched, he would give up only 793 runs, 450 of which would be earned, on 1402 hits. He would strike out 728 batters while only walking 290, while giving up only 42 home runs. His career ERA would be 2.67. His career batting average would be .288 in 257 total games played, getting 191 hits in 963 at-bats, knocking in 157 runs while scoring 191. He would have a career total of 37 doubles, 13 triples and 6 home runs, while stealing 22 bases. Ferguson would walk 113 times while striking out 119. His 99 wins would land him in 8th place on the all-time Phillies’ win lists, trailing the likes of Hall of Famers Steve Carlton, Robert Roberts and Alexander, as well as Chris Short and possible future Hall of Famer Curt Schilling, while his 64 losses would have him tied for 24th place on that list. His ERA would place him 6th. Ferguson would also be 17th in games started, 4th in complete games, 11th in innings pitched and strikeouts and tied for 14th in shut outs, as well as be among the top 50 in several other pitching categories.
With Ferguson’s death, the Phillies would lose a chance to win a NL pennant before the turn of the century. Although the team would remain a member of the first division, except during the period 1895-97, they would not reach second place again until 1901. His early death would also deny Ferguson a place among baseball immortals at the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., as it would be more than likely he would have won enough games, based on his winning 99 games in just four years with a then good Phillies team, to get the nod via the Veterans Committee, if not for his being stricken down by typhoid.
Main sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Ferguson_%281880s_pitcher%29 – Wikipedia page
http://www.19cbaseball.com/players-charlie-ferguson.html – Biography at Baseball History: 19th Century Baseball.com
http://www.baseball-reference.com//f/ferguch01.shtml – Stats at Baseball-reference.com
http://www.thedeadballera.com/Obits/Obits_F/Ferguson.Charles01.Obit.html – Charlie Ferguson’s Philadelphia Inquirer obit – TheDeadballEra.com
Other sources: Wikipedia, Baseball Almanac.com, Baseball-reference.com, Phillies.com: Team History, Baseball History: 19th Century Baseball.com