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Pat Hughes probably said it better than anyone else could have as he opened up the Friday morning festivities.
“Let’s cut right to the chase,” the longtime Cubs radio broadcaster said. “Fergie Jenkins is the greatest pitcher in the long and legendary history of the Chicago Cubs.”
Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins spent 19 seasons pitching in Major League Baseball, with 10 of those coming on the North Side. Take a look at what he did in that time, and you can see why he’s been so celebrated since his retirement in 1983. Here’s a snapshot of just some of the accomplishments from the now-79-year-old’s career:
Those earned him an induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, his No. 31 retired by the franchise on May 3, 2009, and finally, on Friday, another incredible honor that will forever immortalize Jenkins at Wrigley Field.
The area outside of Gallagher Way was lined with rows of chairs filled with guests. Reporters and cameras were scattered around the space sectioned off for the event, while outside of those lines, Cubs fans packed in to catch a glimpse of it.
On a stage set up in front of the area now known as “Statue Row,” Hughes sat in line with Darrin Canniff, the mayor of Jenkins’ hometown of Chatham, Ontario, Canada; Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts; and fellow Hall of Famer Billy Williams. The guest list also included other Hall of Famers who wore the uniform (Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Lee Smith) as well as other notable former Cubs (Ryan Dempster, Kerry Wood, Randy Hundley). Even a row of trumpets and the Chatham town crier, George Sims, were there, ready to introduce one of the all-time greats in Cubs history.
As Jenkins made his entrance in the area, the trumpets blared and the crowd roared. The four on stage proceeded to give their speeches, thanking Jenkins and congratulating him on his illustrious career. And after Williams finished came the moment everyone had been waiting for: the unveiling of the brand new statue depicting the legendary Cubs pitcher.
The crowd chanted “Fergie, Fergie, Fergie” as Jenkins walked to the stage and kept it going after he’d finished his speech, all in honor of the man who would tell reporters not too long after that this ballpark was his “second home.” Now, as they’ve been able to over the years with the statues of Williams, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo — which also line “Statue Row” — Cubs fans will have a place to honor Jenkins forever, too.
“Now this statue is sitting beside my fellow teammates — Ernie, Billy and Ronnie,” Jenkins said as he addressed the crowd. “Believe me, I’m humbled.”
Kyle Hendricks didn’t come all that close to recording a complete game in the Cubs’ 10-6 loss to the Diamondbacks on Friday. He allowed seven runs and eight hits in five innings, and he was already at 93 pitches by the time manager David Ross put Daniel Norris in to begin the sixth.
Not that Ross would’ve necessarily allowed him to go a full nine innings anyway.
Through 38 games this season, not a single pitcher has finished all nine frames in a game for the Cubs. Hendricks came close when he lasted 8 2/3 innings against the Padres in May 9, but even that came on an absolute gem that Ross let him stretch out to 116 pitches.
Ross probably didn’t even think twice about telling Hendricks that he was going to the bullpen for the sixth. Yet, he also didn’t want to know what it would’ve been like if he was instead telling Jenkins that his day was done early.
“What I think about is what he might do to me if I had to take him out in the fourth or fifth. Can you imagine that?” Ross quipped.
Ross also had a request for the reporters in the room: “I’d like to hear his quotes on that. You guys get those.”
OK, here you go, Rossy.
“I’d give it to him,” Jenkins said when asked what he’d do if Ross came out to take the ball from him. “I never had a problem with managers taking it from me. I used to give it to Leo (Durocher), (Don) Zimmer, Billy Martin, (Billy) Hunter, Gene Mauch. Hey, if they wanted the ball, hand it to them.”
That’s good news for the current Cubs skipper, but it doesn’t change the fact that things are very different from when Jenkins used to take the mound every four days.
The amount of innings starters have been allowed to go in each outing so far this season, though certainly affected by the lockout and the shortened spring training, are as low as ever. That shortened spring excuse only goes so far, however, as teams are using multi-inning relievers and openers and are playing the matchups more and more.
Essentially, the days of starters going out there and expecting to throw a full nine-inning game are long gone. Take these findings, for example:
- Heading into Friday, only four complete games had been thrown through 1,140 MLB games this season. When Jenkins led the big leagues with 30 in 1971, 90 different pitchers ended up throwing at least four complete games apiece
- Entering Friday, starters across MLB averaged just five innings pitched per game started in 2022. In a career in which Jenkins started 594 games, only 97 times did he pitch five innings or less
- Overall, Jenkins threw 4,500 2/3 innings. Of the all the active pitchers in MLB entering Friday, only Zack Greinke (3,154) and Justin Verlander (3,033 2/3) were over the 3,000 mark (and if we’re being honest, there’s really no chance either them or anyone else comes close)
- Zack Wheeler led the majors with 213 1/3 innings pitched in 2021. If you want to go back to the last season before COVID-19 in 2019, Verlander led all pitchers with 223 innings. Jenkins averaged nearly 237 in his 19-year career, topping out at 328 1/3 and hitting the 300-inning mark five times
“That’s too bad. Way too bad,” Jenkins said. “I don’t think they give them an opportunity to show what their ability is all about. These guys train to do a certain thing, and to pitch 2 2/3 innings, you haven’t even touched a part of their ability. I mean, you don’t really get into a ballgame until after the fifth or the sixth.”
It’s just as pronounced when it comes to the Cubs. In all of the seasons combined since Jenkins retired (1984-present), there have been 293 complete games by the team’s pitchers. That’s only 26 more than Jenkins had himself over his career, and 139 more in 39 years than he had in his 10-year Cubs tenure alone (which, let me tell you, is not a very big difference).
“Pitchers don’t go that long. You might see one or two complete games with each ballclub,” Williams said. “A complete game is when you go to the catcher and get the baseball that you had won. They don’t leave the game. They want to be out there to win.”
Also in that time frame, only 49 times has a Cubs pitcher reached 200 innings in a season. Jenkins did that 13 times (eight times with the North Siders). And remember that thing about him hitting 300 innings five times (of which four came with the Cubs)? Greg Maddux — the other retired No. 31 — had 268 in 1992, which is still the closest any Cub has come to that mark since Jenkins left the game.
You can argue whether or not Jenkins was indeed the best pitcher in Cubs history all you want. What you can’t argue against, though, is that Jenkins was a workhorse unlike any baseball will likely ever see again.
Following the 1981 season, which he spent with the Rangers eight years removed from his first stint in Chicago, Jenkins got a call from Cubs general manager Dallas Green.
“He wanted to know, can I still perform?” Jenkins said. “I told him, ‘Yeah, I can still pitch. I’m still in great shape.'”
At that point, Jenkins had 264 wins in his career. What better way to reach 300 career wins — basically an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame — than to do it in a Chicago Cubs uniform?
That was what Jenkins was focused on as he embarked on his second stint on the North Side, where he managed to start 63 more games over two more seasons. Reaching 3,000 strikeouts, another one of those magic numbers? He was only 38 away at that point (and he ended up with 3,192). It was that 300 wins total that mattered most to him.
Unfortunately, he never could reach that milestone. Jenkins hung up his cleats after racking up 284 wins in 19 years, an incredible number that still puts him 29th all-time but just short of the big 3-0-0.
Still, he can hang his hat on another number involving wins: 20.
Jenkins had seven seasons of 20-plus wins in his career, including six straight with the Cubs from 1967-72. The former is tied for 20th all-time, while the latter sits atop the Cubs’ leaderboard with Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and Clark Griffith.
“It’s just crazy numbers. Stuff that’ll never be touched again: 25 wins, 24 wins, 30 complete games,” 2007 American League Cy Young CC Sabathia said. “These are things that guys are never going to do again. I mean, there may not even be guys who throw 30 complete games in their career. It’s just awesome that he’s getting his due and getting honored.”
Yes, you read that name right. Sabathia was in attendance to help honor Jenkins on his special day.
The relationship between the two began when Sabathia won the Warren Spahn Award in 2007, which is given to the best left-handed pitcher in MLB by the Oklahoma Sports Museum, and Jenkins was living in Oklahoma at the time. The two formed a friendship from there, aided by Sabathia winning the next two awards, too, and the bond grew even stronger when Sabathia won 21 games with the Yankees.
With that accomplishment, Sabathia earned a spot in the Black Aces, which was a term coined by former MLB pitcher Mudcat Grant for Black pitchers who won 20 games in a major league season. Hall of Famers Jenkins and Bob Gibson as well as others including Don Newcombe, Dave Stewart and JR Richard were in the group when the term was created, while Sabathia, Dontrelle Willis (22 wins in 2005) and David Price (20 in 2012) have since become members.
Really, that bond between a small group of pitchers is what led to Sabathia being at Wrigley Field on Friday.
“It’s a complete honor, and that’s one of the main reasons why I’m here is because of the Black Aces,” he said. “When I see Fergie’s stats, I’m like, ‘Should I even be in this group?’ You know what I mean? The man’s got more complete games than I got wins in my career.”
And it isn’t just Sabathia who looks up to a pitcher like Jenkins.
If you play for the Cubs these days, it’s normal to look around on any given day and see legends like Williams, Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe.
“It’s incredible to have these guys, have Cy Young winners and MVPs and Hall of Famers to be able to look up to and to pick their brain and to just have walking around among them,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said.
It’s no different with Jenkins, and in fact, he’s one of those all-timers that the pitchers on the staff can try to emulate, regardless of how much the game has changed.
Said Hendricks: “Just the consistency of what he did for so long. It’s awesome seeing all the highlights that they’re always showing here. Just the huge part of Cubs history that he is. He really set the tone, just the way he attacked hitters, not walking guys. That’s kind of what I try and do every time I go out. Obviously, one of the best to ever do it and so deserving of what he got today.”
Said Justin Steele: “At some point in my career, I want to throw a complete game, just to say I’d done it, because it’s so rare nowadays. Every time they went out back then, if they didn’t go a complete nine, it was kind of like a letdown almost. It’s pretty amazing how he used to do that back then, and hats off to him.”
That’s the kind of impact Jenkins has had. His spot on various leaderboards aside, Jenkins’ influence has been and will continue to be felt both in the Cubs’ organization and in the game of baseball.
“Fergie would come in and tell me who he likes and what pitch he likes from them,” Ross said. “I think it’s just valuable to have that kind of seniority around. I mean, Hall of Famers, the more you have around, the better.”
What’s left to be said about Fergie Jenkins?
The list of stories that can be told about him go on and on and on.
Want a story from Ricketts about Jenkins’ athletic ability outside of baseball? You’ve got it.
“A few years ago, I was at an event and I was fortunate enough to meet the legendary, late, great Meadowlark Lemon,” Ricketts told the crowd at the ceremony, referring to the famous Harlem Globetrotter. “Meadowlark told me that if Fergie wanted to go into the NBA, he would have been a perennial All-Star.”
Want a story about Williams standing in the way of a Jenkins no-hitter? You’ve got that, too.
“So this particular night, we’re playing a game, and Fergie pitched a two-hitter against the Oakland A’s — and I got the only two hits,” said Williams, about a game between his A’s and Jenkins’ Rangers on April 22, 1975. “I said, ‘If I had known you were going to do that, hell, I’d have gave you the two hits so you could pitch a no-hitter!'”
If Friday’s ceremony feels like a long time coming, it’s because it kind of was.
It’s been 13 years since Jenkins’ number was retired, and had Maddux not worn the same number and done so well in it, the Cubs probably wouldn’t have waited until Maddux retired to take the No. 31 out of circulation. Which means more years would’ve passed in between the two ceremonies, possibly making it feel even less likely to happen.
Regardless, Friday was the day that Jenkins received his own form of immortality from the Cubs.
And with that, he was finally able to join the row of his old teammates, outside the place they loved to play baseball.
“I was here for Ernie’s, I was here for Billy’s and Ronnie’s,” Jenkins said. “Believe me, it was an honor to see them being humble, because the fact was they were Chicago Cubs players. And to me, my career was in Chicago.
“That was my second home, playing right here in Wrigley Field.”