‘Death to Flying Things’: The Life and Times of a Spurious Nickname

This article was written by Richard Hershberger

This article was published in Spring 2024 Baseball Research Journal

“Death to Flying Things” is one of the all-time great baseball nicknames, routinely included in lists of such things. Indeed, it serves double duty, attributed to two players: Robert Ferguson and John Chapman. Ferguson joined the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn in 1866 and played for various clubs through 1884. He managed clubs into 1887 and died in 1894, aged 49. Chapman was of the same generation. He also played for the Atlantics in the 1860s. He had a shorter playing career, through only 1876, but a longer managerial career, running various major- and minor-league clubs up to 1899, dying in 1916, aged 73.

Sadly, neither Ferguson nor Chapman was called “Death to Flying Things” during their playing careers, or for many years after. The nickname is entirely spurious. This article will attempt to explain where the supposed nickname came from in the first place, and how it got assigned to two different persons.


First, we must establish that it is indeed spurious. In one sense, this is unknowable. Stating that it was not used during either player’s career just means that no examples have been found. This does not, in principle, mean that they might not be found in the future. Nonetheless we can have high confidence that no such examples are waiting to be found. This comes from the nature of baseball nicknames. When we talk about players’ nicknames, we really mean two distinct varieties: the baseball version of ordinary nicknames, and colorful sobriquets that replace the player’s real name. “Death to Flying Things” is of the latter sort, which has distinct and readily identifiable characteristics.

The first variety acts like an ordinary nickname, used in place of the person’s given name and suitable for ordinary speech. Both Ferguson and Chapman had ordinary nicknames: “Bob” and “Jack” respectively. It is entirely likely that they were called these in ordinary speech, both referring to them and directly speaking to them. The baseball version is somewhat more colorful, but still plausibly used in everyday speech. It does not stretch the credulity that Adrian Anson’s players might have called him “Cap,” that George Ruth’s teammates might have called him “Babe,” or that any of various southpaw pitchers were called “Lefty.”1


John C. Chapman might have been called "Young Jack," or perhaps Al Spink made that up, as well. (SABR-Rucker Archive)

John C. Chapman might have been called “Young Jack,” or perhaps Al Spink made that up, as well. (SABR-Rucker Archive)


It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a baseball nickname and a nickname that has nothing to do with sports. Taking an example from football, Gus Dorais, the quarterback for Notre Dame during its rise to prominence as a football power, was actually named Charles. He got his nickname from an art history class, attended in those innocent days even by football stars. The class included studying the work of nineteenth-century French artist Gustave Doré. His classmates were struck by the identical pronunciation of Doré and Dorais, and as a joke started calling him Gustave. This was quickly shortened to Gus, and the name stuck.2 Turning to baseball, it is not immediately obvious if Camp Skinner (real name: Elisha Harrison Skinner), a utility player in the majors in 1922–23, or Duffy Lewis (real name: George Edward Lewis), a Deadball Era left fielder, mostly for the Boston Red Sox, had baseball nicknames, or simply nicknames. Either way, the key is that these act like ordinary nicknames, used similarly to and in place of the formal given name.

Then we come to colorful nicknames. These are journalistic inventions, not generally used in everyday speech, and whose use is distinctly different from ordinary nicknames. It is hard to imagine a teammate telling Ted Williams, “Hey, Splendid Splinter! You’re up next.” This is not their function. Their purpose is to enliven a newspaper article or headline. To the extent that they are used in real life, they displace the entire name, not merely the given name: “The Splendid Splinter,” not “Splendid Splinter Williams.” If used with the real name, the nickname is used as an aside: “Walter ‘Big Train’ Johnson.”

“Death to Flying Things” falls solidly into the colorful category. This is why we can be confident that it was not in fact used while either Ferguson or Chapman was active. The careers of both are well documented in the contemporary press, and these press accounts have been studied by modern researchers. Use in newspaper reports is the whole point of a colorful nickname like this. It is very unlikely that it would have gone unnoticed. Nor should we be surprised by this absence. Colorful nicknames were very rare during Ferguson and Chapman’s playing heydays. The only clear example is that of George Zettlein, whom contemporary accounts often called “The Charmer.” This establishes that such nicknames were not entirely unknown, but “the Charmer” is the exception that proves the rule.


So if it was not a contemporary nickname, when did it finally appear and where did it come from? The first of these questions turns out to be straightforward. The earliest known attestation is from The National Game, published in 1910 by Alfred Spink, the editor of The Sporting News. Spink was of the same generation as Ferguson and Chapman, but where they came out of the Brooklyn baseball fraternity, Spink was a westerner. He was born in Canada, his family emigrated to Chicago in 1867, when he was 14, then in 1875 he relocated permanently to St. Louis. There he was a sports reporter for various newspapers and in 1886 founded The Sporting News, establishing himself as one of the leading baseball journalists in the country.3

Buried in a discussion of the Capitoline Grounds of Brooklyn, in a list of players who appeared there, is this:

Here John C. Chapman of the Atlantics, “Young Jack,” as he was then called, often surprised the natives by his wonderful running one-hand catches and earned the name of “Death to Flying Things.”4

Given the Sporting News connection, we might suspect that the nickname can be found there, but this seems not to be the case. The expression simply does not occur—at least not within the limitations of optical character recognition. Nor, as we shall see, does it occur in the years following. The 1910 use is a one-off.

We do not know precisely where Spink got the name from, but there are some hints. The Eckford and Atlantic clubs played September 22, 1868. A reporter praised Dave Eggler, the Eckford center fielder: “Eggler at centre field covered himself with glory. He was ‘sure death’ to any ‘fly’ that went towards centre field, and is entitled to the highest credit for general good play.”5

Six years later, a reporter for the Middletown Constitution, assessing the lineup for the new Hartford club, praised outfielder Jim Tipper: “He is regarded among the ball-playing fraternity as one of the most promising players in the country, and is ‘death on fly-balls.’”6

Neither of these is cast as a nickname, but they show that the metaphor of a catch being death to a fly ball was in use, if not widespread, during Chapman’s playing career. There is no evidence that it was ever applied to him, much less as a nickname, but these uses hint that Spink may have had a distant memory of the metaphor and, for unknown reasons, applied it to Chapman.


The nickname would be ascribed to Chapman alone for over half a century after Spink’s imaginative invention. But not often, and not until decades later. The next known use would not be until 1947, in a history of baseball by Robert Smith. He has an account of early sportswriter Henry Chadwick, who

had met and known such pioneers as Catcher Bob Ferguson, Asa Brainard (the bearded pitcher), and outfielder John Chapman (called, in the stilted catch phrase of that naive day, ‘Death to Flying Things’).7

The 37-year gap is understandable. Spink’s 1910 book was one of several baseball histories published within a few years, most notably Albert Spalding’s America’s National Game in 1911 and Francis Richter’s History and Records of Base Ball in 1914. These works collectively established a conventional narrative of early baseball history. While Spink’s book was unquestionably influential, details could easily get lost in the mix. The book is densely written, not particularly well organized, and printed in small type. Both Spalding’s and Richter’s books compare favorably in ease of use for the reader. The supposed nickname, for all that it is striking, was buried in the mass of verbiage.

The nickname remained obscure after 1947. The next known ascription to Chapman is again from Robert Smith, this time from 1961:

“Young Jack” Chapman, left fielder for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1860s, brought kranks to their feet with his one-handed catches, his fleetness of foot, and the strength of his throws. Such sensation did his one-handed catches create (remember, most players still caught balls with their wrists together and fingers extended toward the ball) that Chapman earned, in print at least, the name of “Death to Flying Things.”8

There is a lot wrong in that excerpt, starting with Smith confusing the Athletics of Philadelphia, whom Chapman never played for, with the Atlantics of Brooklyn, his club of many years. This is followed by the anachronistic use of “kranks,” a piece of baseball slang from the 1880s. The repetition of the “Death to Flying Things” tale only incrementally adds to the problems.

There is one other use, sandwiched between Smith’s contributions. This middle contribution is neither a Chapman nor a Ferguson example, but rather is openly fictional. It comes from The Sunlit Field, an obscure baseball novel by Lucy Kennedy published in 1950. The story is set in Brooklyn in a fictionalized version of the early amateur era. Many of the players have colorful, and ahistorical, nicknames such as “Bushel Basket” and “Twinkle Toes.” Kennedy picked up on “Death to Flying Things” and added it to her roster:

A tall lanky man with a rectangular jaw, wearing butternut shirt and breaches, a long whip stuck in his boot top, was standing up, arguing angrily. Brian said it was Hank Collins, a teamster at Quimby’s, and left fielder, called “Death-to-Flying-Things” because he could catch anything passing through the air.


The nickname was, outside Kennedy’s purely fictional context, only applied to Chapman, and only rarely. This changed in 1969. The nickname suddenly burst forth, cited by numerous sportswriters across the country, inevitably applied to Ferguson. Here is a typical example:

Many nicknames are included for old-timers and maybe the fact our modern stars don’t use them much is one of the reasons the game seems to sometimes now lack color.

I mean like, Hawk Harrelson is OK, but could it ever compare with Joe “Horse Belly” Sargent, or Doggie “Calliope” Miller, Jack “Stooping” Gorman, Bill “Barnyard” Henderson, Joe “Ubbo Ubbo” Hornung, Dain “Ding-A-Ling” Clay, Nick “Tomato Face” Cullop, Pat “Whoops” Creeden?

Or how about my all-time favorite, Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson who played nine years as an infielder in the 1800’s?10

This set the pattern to the present day. The nickname turns up from time to time, often in the context of sepia-tinged discussions of baseball nicknames of an earlier era, where it is assigned to Ferguson far more often than Chapman.

The source for the nickname spreading to Ferguson is clear from the 1969 citations. It came from The Baseball Encyclopedia, published that year and familiarly known (speaking of nicknames) as “The Big Mac.” This work is rightly famed for bringing rigor to baseball’s statistical record, but it included ancillary material as well. This included player nicknames, presented in a format to accommodate the peculiarities of the genre. Each entry in the player register has up to three different names listed. The front matter explains the system: The main listing is a shortened version of the name most familiar to the fans, followed by the player’s full name, and finally any nickname or nicknames.11 The main listing is shortened in that it has the surname and either a single given name or a single nickname. If the latter, it will be of the less colorful variety, which can be used in place of the given name. What the introductory matter calls the player’s nickname is what I have been calling here the colorful nickname. Taking the most famous example, the three entries for the longtime home run king lists “Base Ruth,” “Ruth, George Herman,” and “The Sultan of Swat.”12

This is essentially the same format still used in modern online sources such as Baseball Reference. Retrosheet omits the colorful nickname but keeps the main listing and full name distinction: Babe Ruth and George Herman Ruth. Baseball Reference not only includes the colorful nickname, but will provide a longer list: Babe, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, Jidge, the Colossus of Clout or the King of Crash.

Alas, while the Big Mac’s statistical record was exquisitely researched, it did not bring this rigor to its nickname listings. Indeed, this would hardly be possible. The statistical record is a synopsis of discrete events. To the extent that our knowledge of these events is complete, the statistical record is objective fact. The name entries, on the other hand, necessarily are fuzzy editorial judgments. How do we determine which is the name most familiar to the fans? It may be obvious, but some are borderline cases. What are the criteria for inclusion of colorful nicknames? How often does it have to be used? By how many reporters? This is before we even consider editorial bias. Adrian Anson is listed as “Cap Anson,” which is fair enough, but surely his list of nicknames should include “Baby Anson,” which was more common through much of his career and not meant as a compliment.

Put together, we have research ancillary to the Big Mac’s main purpose, in a domain that is necessarily subjective. In this light, it is unsurprising that pure errors crept in. This is where we get the expanded use of “Death to Flying Things.” There not only was no serious examination of the authenticity of the nickname, it was mistakenly assigned to Ferguson rather than Chapman.

The publication of the Big Mac was a huge event in baseball history. It brought attention to earlier players, with authoritative data about them. The difference in rigor between the statistical data and the nicknames was a nuance that went unnoticed, which contributed to errors writers made in articles reviving colorful nicknames of the past. Some writers eventually noted that Chapman also had the same nickname, but this has generally been taken at face value. Baseball Reference lists “Death to Flying Things” as nicknames for both players.13


“Death to Flying Things” is not going to go away. It is too good a nickname for that. It is, in the big picture, a harmless myth. A reasonable person might believe that Ferguson or Chapman or both were called this, while still maintaining a solid grounding in early baseball history.14 Compare this with, for example, the Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright myths. These are not mere peccadilloes that can exist within an otherwise sound grasp of early baseball history, but incompatible with it.

It is, nonetheless, worthwhile to keep in mind that “Death to Flying Things” is folklore, not history. Keeping this distinction is always beneficial, and in this instance it can serve as a cautionary tale about how we understand early baseball. It is no coincidence that the supposed nickname makes its appearance just five years after the Doubleday and Cartwright myths make theirs.15 The modern understanding of early baseball came out of the early twentieth century. Its creators, even when well-intentioned, often indulged in the telling of tales. And, not a few times, the grinding of axes. Rigorous fact checking and analysis did not enter in. These narratives established themselves as the baseline for early baseball history. They often do not stand up to modern scrutiny, yet they’re hard to dispel.

One might, in a burst of sunny optimism, think that “Death to Flying Things” proving an early twentieth-century fantasy might give onlookers pause, inducing them to consider what else was equally inventive.

RICHARD HERSHBERGER is a paralegal in Maryland and the author of the book Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball. He has written numerous articles on early baseball, concentrating on its origins and its organizational history. He is a member of the SABR Nineteenth Century and Origins committees. Reach him at rrhersh@yahoo.com.



1 On the other hand, Allen Wood states that Ruth’s teammates usually called him “Jidge,” a variant of George. Allen Wood, “Babe Ruth,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/babe-ruth/

2 Joe Niese, Gus Dorais: Gridiron Innovator, All-American and Hall of Fame Coach, with Bob Dorais, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018).

3 Bill Pruden, “Alfred Henry Spink,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/alfred-henry-spink/

4 Alfred H. Spink, The National Game (St. Louis: National Game Publishing Co., 1910), 10.

5 “The National Game.” New York Herald, September 23, 1868. There is no byline, as is typical in this era, but it probably was Michael J. Kelly, the Herald ’s regular baseball reporter.

6 “The Hartford Base Ball Club,” The Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), March 18, 1874. This was brought to the attention of the author by David Arcidiacono.

7 Robert Smith, Baseball: A Historical Narrative of the Game, the Men Who Have Played It, and Its Place in American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1947), 79.

8 Robert Smith, Baseball in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), 25–26.

9. Lucy Kennedy, The Sunlit Field (New York: Crown Publishers, 1950), 57.

10 Jack Patterson, “Baseball Buffs Get A ‘Bible.’” Akron Beacon Journal, December 28, 1969.

11 The Baseball Encyclopedia, (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 495.

12 The author has a longstanding suspicion that the underlying motivation for this format is to avoid an entry headed by “George Ruth.”

13 Baseball Reference also lists the nickname for twenty-first century outfielder Franklin Gutierrez. Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus hung the throwback nickname on him during his years with the club.

14 The exception is the “vintage base ball” historical reenactment community, who have embraced the colorful nickname far more than can be supported.

15 Richard Hershberger, “The Creation of the Alexander Cartwright Myth,” Baseball Research Journal, 43, no. 1 (Spring 2014).