Monday, November 11, 2019

The Death of "Death to Flying Things"


The Web is chock full of lists of the greatest (coolest, most unusual, favorite, etc.) nicknames in big league baseball history. Here are just a few such lists:

All of these lists (and lots of others) call out the eminently enjoyable nickname “Death to Flying Things.” I think we can all agree that it’s cool, fun, and unique. Well, except for the part about its being unique. Indeed, most sources today attach this nickname to not one, not two, but three big leaguers.


Jack Chapman — A baseball “lifer” who played the outfield from 1860 through 1876, he also managed in the big leagues for 11 seasons.


Bob Ferguson — An infielder and catcher whose on-field career lasted from 1865 through 1884, he is often credited with being the game’s first switch-hitter.


Franklin Gutierrez — A veteran of 14 years in the big leagues, he won a Gold Glove Award in 2010 as a center fielder.

Gutierrez was certainly an exciting outfielder and talented with the glove. And I love that, soon after his trade to Seattle in 2009, Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus christened him with the “retro” nickname, both as a compliment to the Venezuelan’s abilities and a nod to the nickname’s prior attachment to Chapman and Ferguson.

As for Chapman and Ferguson, the “Death to Flying Things” sobriquet makes sense, as well, for both players were known to be excellent fielders.

For example, in a much-anticipated, well-attended, and exciting contest between the Mutuals of New York and the Atlantics of Brooklyn on August 17, 1868, Atlantics left fielder Chapman saved the day. As reported in the next day’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle:



Regarding Ferguson, time and again contemporary newspaper accounts sang his praises as a stellar third baseman:

  • “Ferguson made a splendid catch of a line ball, and stopped the run-getting.” — The Brooklyn Times-Union, June 10, 1873
  • “Ferguson made a great running catch, and this was the only brilliant play of the game.” — The Philadelphia Times, May 18, 1883
  • “Ferguson made a brilliant catch of a hot liner and made a double play.” — The Philadelphia Times, September 23, 1883
But in researching the nickname, I simply cannot find any contemporary evidence that the sobriquet was used for either Chapman or Ferguson. The first reference of any player being dubbed “Death to Flying Things” is found in Alfred Spink’s “The National Game,” a history of baseball published by The Sporting News in 1910. On page 10, Spink recounts how Chapman earned the nickname:



After this mention, I don’t find another independent reference to the nickname until 1969, when the inaugural edition of “The Baseball Encyclopedia” included it in its entry for Ferguson ... but surprisingly not for that of Chapman. Here are those entries from the 10th edition of “The Baseball Encyclopedia”:





To add to the confusion, while the entire run of “The Baseball Encyclopedia” tags Ferguson with the nickname and Chapman without it, the exact opposite is the case for the full run of “Total Baseball”: Chapman is listed with the nickname and Ferguson is not. Here are those entries from the fourth edition of “Total Baseball”:





(For what it’s worth, baseball-reference.com gives the nickname to Chapman, Ferguson, and Gutierrez.)

Note that in Spink’s “The National Game,” the statement about Chapman’s nickname comes just a few paragraphs below a note about Ferguson and under a heading calling out Ferguson as “THE FIRST GREAT CATCHER.” Here’s that full paragraph:



Perhaps in prepping “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” a researcher found the nickname in Spink’s book and made two errors:

1) mistakenly assuming the nickname to be accurate; and,
2) mistakenly assuming the nickname belonged to “THE GREATEST CATCHER,” Bob Ferguson.

Who knows?

For now, all we can say for certain is that while the nickname is most certainly fun, there is no evidence that it was contemporaneously connected to either Ferguson or Chapman. Ironically, despite being based on the erroneous belief that the moniker first belonged to those two 19th century ballplayers, the nickname can only truly be linked to Franklin Gutierrez!

1 comment:

  1. I concur Tom. In my research on the Hartford Dark Blues for whom Ferguson played from 1875-1877 (the last year in Brooklyn)never once did I see him referred to as DTFT. "Old Fergy" was a popular title but never DTFT.

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