#CardCorner: 1974 Topps Joe Ferguson
One of the first examples for me occurred in the early 1970s, when Jim Hart was wrapping up his career with the New York Yankees and Jim Hart was playing quarterback for the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals. (And that team name created even more confusion; why was there a St. Louis Cardinals team in both baseball and football?) Clearly, it was not the same Jim Hart playing both sports; one was white and the other was African American. And at times, the big league outfielder was referred to as Jim Ray Hart, while the NFL quarterback was simply known as Jim Hart.
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A more confusing situation involved the dual Joe Fergusons of the mid-1970s. One was an above-average quarterback whom the NFL’s Buffalo Bills drafted in 1973. Durable and capable of making the deep throw, Ferguson was a pretty good quarterback, good enough to tie Fran Tarkenton for the NFL lead in touchdown passes in 1975. Then again, he also had the luxury of being able to hand the ball off to O.J. Simpson and an underrated fullback named Jim Braxton.
The other Ferguson, the lesser known of the two players, was a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers and a few other teams during the course of the 1970s and early 80s. Both of the Fergusons happened to be Caucasian, and both went by the first name of Joe, so it was a bit more difficult to distinguish between the two. I think I was smart enough to realize that they were two different people, but my memory is a bit sketchy, so I could be wrong about that.
As a follower of both baseball and football, I became familiar with both of the Joe Fergusons, but my love of baseball made the catcher more of a known entity. That Joe Ferguson had several characteristics that made him memorable. For one, he not only wore a helmet when he caught, but also at times when he played the outfield. Second, he owned one of the most powerful outfield throwing arms I’ve ever seen, even though the outfield was not his position of preference. And third, he had the kind of physique that indicated an affinity for spending some time at the food spread after each game.
It seemed that Ferguson had found a long-term home, but the situation soon changed radically. Over the first half of the 1978 season, he fell into a terrible slump and lost playing time to a pair of younger catchers. When the Astros fell out of contention, they decided to move toward youth, trading the 31-year-old Ferguson for two prospects. The latest transaction reunited Ferguson with the Dodgers, at the cost of outfielder Jeff Leonard and infielder Rafael Landestoy.
The trade also put Ferguson back in the pennant race. Splitting the catching duties with Yeager, Ferguson posted a respectable OPS of .749 during the stretch run, as the Dodgers won their third straight Western Division title. In the World Series, Ferguson came off the bench to pick up two hits in four at-bats, but the Dodgers lost the Series to the New York Yankees, four games to two.
In 1979, Ferguson resumed his backup catching role, but his playing time in the outfield increased when Reggie Smith went down with an injury. Appearing in 122 games, Big Fergie hit 20 home runs, dew 70 walks, and posted an OPS of .845, the best mark of his career.
That turned out to be the last banner season for Ferguson. He returned to his role as a backup player in 1980 and did not hit nearly as well.
The following August, Ferguson drew his release from the Dodgers, but soon found another job. On Sept. 1, 1981, the California Angels signed him, using him as a backup catcher and outfielder for the remainder of the season. Ferguson played two more seasons for California, but his hitting skills had left him, resulting in his release in July of 1983.
Ferguson soon turned to coaching, at first with the Dodgers and later with the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. He then became a manager at the Single-A level for several seasons before moving on to independent baseball. In 2007, he was named manager of the Camden Riversharks of the Atlantic League. He held that position for three seasons before being let go.
Ferguson is retired now, having enjoyed a full career as both a player and a manager. I imagine that when some people meet him for the first time, even all these years later, they still confuse him with the former quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. Well, our Joe Ferguson is a little bit bigger, made one of the most remarkable throws in World Series history and also gave us the gift of a memorable baseball card from 1974.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum