When Fergie Jenkins attended the statue’s dedication ceremony for his former Chicago Cubs teammates at Wrigley Field, the thought had to cross his mind.
Will the Cubs ever honor me?
It took longer than necessary, but that day finally arrived at Gallagher Way on Friday.
The sculpture of Jenkins in his windup brought back memories of his duels with Bob Gibson at Wrigley Field at a time when starters grabbed the ball and wouldn’t give it up until it was snatched from their hands. Jenkins stood in front of his statue after the ceremony on Friday afternoon, turned to take a long look, then smiled at the familiar pose.
“It’s me,” he said. “It looks like me. I think that was (of) a prom game, a (TV) ‘Game of the Week’. They used it on a Sports Illustrated cover. That was the pose because they wanted to show the Cubs logo on the chest and cap.”
When you think of Jenkins in Cubs uniform, you think of his 284 career wins, 3,192 strikeouts, 267 complete games, and of course that fateful 1969 season. He waited a long time to join Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo. like statue-worthy Cubs, but it was worth the wait.
“Fergie deserved this a long time ago,” Williams said. “But better late than never.”
Jenkins never grumbled about the wait, even though he admitted on Friday that he “had the numbers” to deserve the credit.
“But the organization has to do it,” Jenkins said. “Just like my number (31) is retiring. They waited for (Greg) Maddux to retire, and we (the number) retired together (in 2009).
“I was here for Ernie’s (ceremony). I was here for Billy’s and Ronnie’s. Trust me, it was an honor to see them humble because the fact was they were Chicago Cubs players. For me, my career was in Chicago. My second home was playing here at Wrigley Field.”
Jenkins’ speech was short and sweet, and like his pitching days at Wrigley, he was forced to battle against a 25mph wind to keep his notes from blowing away. He thanked everyone from the Rickettses to former Cubs owner PK Wrigley, from manager Leo Durocher to the Bleacher Bums. Jenkins told a humorous tale of the day Durocher had Frank Sinatra manage a few innings of a spring training game in Palm Springs, California, in 1968.
But it was Banks, Jenkins said, who “teached me to respect the game and always be professional.” That was a lesson Jenkins never forgot.
“Fergie is very humble and you wondered if he could get the credit he really deserves,” said former Cubs battery mate Randy Hundley. “He’s starting to get it and I’m happy for him.”
Williams, Hundley and the rest of Jenkins’ friends seemed as happy for him as they were for themselves. The Cubs community showed up for the ceremony, including Jenkins’ former teammates Williams, Hundley, Byron Browne, Lee Smith and Steve Trout and former players including Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood.
Former Blackhawks goalkeeper Ed Belfour was also one of the guests on a warm day with the kind of wind blowing to the right, forcing Jenkins to hit his spot or see the ball fly, as with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hit seven home runs on Friday. in a 10-6 win.
“He wasn’t worried about no danged wind,” Williams said of Jenkins. “If the wind was blowing at him, it was in his favor because he had a good slider, and he knew it.”
The statues of Jenkins, Banks, Williams and Santo recall a season that lives in infamy — that epic 1969 collapse to the New York Mets. That those players, and that team, remain beloved in Chicago despite the tragic end is testament to the joy they brought to Cubs fans year after year.
“It’s a shame that the Mets — I hate to say it — won the Mets,” Williams said. “But I was here in 2016.”
History tends to celebrate winners, and Cubs fans finally got that chance in 2016. But Chicagoans have also celebrated athletes with character and a strong work ethic, whether they won a ring or not.
Jenkins was what we all want to be – someone who worked in his craft and never wanted to leave a job unfinished. Someone who had faith in his abilities, but never too stubborn. Someone who hated losing and would do anything to help his team win.
“As a pitcher, I’ve learned to win,” he said in his speech. “Losing never crossed my mind.”
Williams reminded writers that Jenkins went to the mound every four games in an era of four-man rotation.
“Now you have pitchers that go out every five days,” Williams said.
Or every six days, Williams was reminded.
Williams then listed the names of Jenkins, Gibson, Don Drysdale and Juan Marichal, old-school starters who didn’t believe they were doing their job unless the catcher handed them the ball at the end of a full game. Last season, the only teams with more than three complete games were the Philadelphia Phillies (five) and Chicago White Sox (four). During his Cy Young-winning season with the Cubs in 1971, Jenkins had six complete games in both May and July and a league leader of 30 overall.
Jenkins laughed Friday when asked about modern starters who threw five innings or less.
“That’s too bad,” he said. “They don’t give them the chance to show what they can do. These guys train to do a certain thing. To throw 2 ⅔ innings, you haven’t even touched any part of their power. It’s not until the fifth or sixth that you really get into a ball game”
Cubs-starter Drew Smyly lasted 4 ⅓ innings on Wednesday, while Marcus Stroman threw five innings on Thursday. Afterwards, both were satisfied with their outings. The baseball axiom “five and dive” was once an insult to starters who couldn’t throw past fifth. Now starters are awarded with high-fives for five innings.
Jenkins can only be thankful for throwing into another era.
“I ran a lot, I stayed in shape,” said Jenkins. “My father was a cook. He told me what to eat and what not to eat. But the most important thing is what you put into your body that will help you perform well. I tried to understand that if I played out there, I had to have stamina. I’ve never had a sore arm. I pitched 21 seasons and never had a sore arm. That’s probably genetics.”
The journey from growing up in Chatham, Ontario, to the Baseball Hall of Fame to the statue’s dedication on Friday was a long and difficult one. When Jenkins was 14, his father, who had played in the Negro Leagues, took him to his first game at the old Tigers Stadium in Detroit. After watching Larry Doby hit two home runs, Fergie told his father that he wanted to be a ball player.
“I didn’t know it would turn out so well,” he said.
The day was complete, just as we remembered when Jenkins climbed the hill.