Even in death, Bob Ferguson isn’t separated from the few weeks he spent in a Cincinnati Reds uniform.
Ferguson died in 2008 at the age of 88, an Alabama boy who played for a roster of Alabama minor-league teams and stayed in Alabama when he was through. He’s buried in a church cemetery in the middle of Alabama, a state overrun with middles of nowhere that fill the spaces between the hills and valleys. His grave marker is typically simple: name, dates of birth and death, a Christian cross.
And this etched at the top:
“CINCINNATI REDS PITCHER 1944”
Of all the pitchers who threw for the Anniston Rams, Ferguson accomplished something in 1950 that couldn’t be planned — he threw the Rams’ final pitch at Johnston Field and was the losing pitcher in their final game ever, a double dose of ignominy that’s impossible to ignore. But it was his brief stint in the National League that Ferguson referenced on his gravestone, not his time in Anniston or any of the other nine minor-league teams for which he played.
That eternal sentimentality can’t overshadow the facts, though.
In 1944 the Reds needed pitchers because the U.S. military needed men for World War II, and military duty superseded Major League rights. Cincinnati’s staff, decimated by the draft, was filled that spring with minor leaguers and Reds not called by Uncle Sam.
Ferguson, a minor-leaguer since 1938, was classified 4-F — unfit physically for military duty. So the Reds bought his contract from their farm team in Birmingham, invited him to spring training and had him on their roster by late April. Cincinnati didn’t have Johnny Vander Meer — the U.S. Navy did — but the Reds did have Bob Ferguson.
He lost his debut to Pittsburgh on April 29 when he gave up six runs in 6.2 innings. He allowed five earned runs in a terrible May 13 loss to the New York Giants in which he didn’t get out of the second inning. Brooklyn torched him for three runs in a single inning on May 20. Philadelphia tagged him for a loss in relief on May 31. Three days later he allowed three hits and a run in two innings against the Boston Braves.
And that was it. The Reds shipped Ferguson, reportedly suffering from a sore arm, back to Birmingham on June 9. He never again pitched in the Major Leagues.
His career line: 0-3, an ERA of 9.00, more hits allowed (24) than innings pitched (16), more walks (10) than strikeouts (9) and three home runs allowed. At least he earned a save against the Giants on May 11, though only after allowing one of two inherited runners to score and walking a batter to put both the tying and winning run on base.
Ferguson epitomized the wartime players who earned their service time largely because Major League rosters were short on talent. That he chose to honor his tenure with the Reds in such a personal way, etched in perpetuity in stone, is quite remarkable.
Left off Ferguson’s gravestone is any reference to the Rams, which is understandable. Anniston was the final stop in a 12-year baseball career that began in 1938 in Andalusia of the Alabama-Florida League and took him to Evergreen, Montgomery (his hometown), Tallassee, Memphis, Birmingham, San Diego, Seattle and Meridian, with those few weeks in Cincinnati sandwiched in the middle.
Along with his marriage, too.
In May 1941, Ferguson, then pitching for Montgomery, and his fiancee, Delma Esther Taylor, agreed to hold their wedding at home plate of Cramton Bowl, the Rebels’ home park, before a game against Jackson — a real-life example of the baseball wedding in “Bull Durham.” And it gets weirder. Two years prior, Ferguson’s sister, Mary, married her husband at the park; she returned to be a bridesmaid for her brother’s soon-to-be wife.
“The bridal couple will march to home plate under a canopy of baseball bats held by members of the two teams,” The Montgomery Advertiser reported the day before. “Groomsmen for Ferguson will be members of the Montgomery club. An orchestra will be in the stands to render such appropriate music as ‘Here Comes the Bride’ and ‘We’ll be Sweethearts Forever.'”
Weirder, still: In 2010 Delma Taylor Ferguson again celebrated at a baseball field in Montgomery when the Southern League’s Biscuits honored her 90th birthday during the sixth inning of a game against Mobile.
That joyous time of the couple’s wedding was nearly a decade old when Ferguson’s baseball journey delivered him to Anniston. The 1950 Rams were the worst Rams, an awful team mired in an awful season that ended in mid-July when the revenue vanished. Ferguson was a known commodity to the Rams because he’d played several seasons in the Southeastern League with Montgomery and Meridian; in fact, he beat Anniston on June 5 while pitching for the Millers. Needing arms — the ’50 Rams needed everything, truth be told — Anniston acquired him from Meridian that summer.
His Rams debut on July 1 was a dud, six runs and 11 hits allowed in eight innings of a 7-4 loss to Gadsden at Johnston Field. He lost 8-4 to his former Meridian teammates on July 6 — meaning that he’d beaten Anniston (while with Meridian) and lost to Meridian (while pitching for Anniston). Jackson tagged him for a loss in relief on July 13. Two days after the SEL took over the team’s operations and turned the Rams into a cash-strapped “orphan” squad that would play mostly on the road, Montgomery pounded him for a 7-1 loss on July 18.
The SEL did allow the Rams two final homes games, however, which fittingly became two more home defeats. In Anniston’s last game at Johnston Field — an 8-0 loss to Selma on July 20 — Ferguson, in relief, threw the Rams’ final pitch at their park on 18th Street, though not before allowing three runs in the eighth.
A 16-game winner for Montgomery in 1948, Ferguson recalled that form on July 22 when he threw a 7-inning 5-hitter in a 3-2 win over the Rebels. But neither Anniston nor Ferguson could outrun the obvious. The league had taken ownership of the debt-ridden team because the Rams’ stockholders no longer could pay the bills, much less the players, and hoped to move the team north to Decatur, Alabama.
That move fizzled. The league pulled the Rams’ plug. And on July 25 they played their final game — and lost that one, too, 9-8 at Selma. Losing pitcher: Bob Ferguson, who allowed four runs and eight hits in 3 1/3 innings.
The Rams sold a few players and released most others, including Ferguson, who played industrial league ball for a while after his professional career had ended. His time in Anniston lasted less than a month, not much less than his stay in the rarified air of Cincinnati.