Jenkins has always been someone special

January 10, 1991|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

FORTUNATELY for us, there is always a story behind the story, and in 1973, when Ferguson Jenkins, with the able assistance of George Vass, penned his autobiography, this is how he began:

"After winning my 18th game in the 1972 season, I beckoned to George Langford of the Chicago Tribune and said, 'On Aug. 30 I'm going to have a scoop for you writers.'

"Langford laughed. 'What are you going to do, Fergie, announce your new eight-point peace proposal?'

"'No, I'm going to give you a story. Just be there when I win my 20th game. I'm going to set the record straight about myself. I think you'll be interested.'

"It took until Sept. 8 for me to deliver. Eight days off schedule, but I made it. The reporters crowded the locker room of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. I did not even wait for them to start asking questions.

"'What I'm going to say may shock the fans, and maybe they won't take it the right way,' I began, 'but I'm going to say it anyway. I no longer want to be categorized with other pitchers. I want people to say that Fergie Jenkins belongs in a class by himself. That's a great class to be in, and these great Cubs players -- Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Randy Hundley -- have put me in that class by scoring runs for the team.

"'I'm not saying that I'm a better pitcher than anyone else, but I have done something that others haven't -- I've now won 20 games six seasons in a row. Among active pitchers, that puts me in a class by myself.' "

Eighteen years later, on a cold Chicago afternoon, Ferguson Jenkins was back in our midst, arriving at O'Hare International Airport on a flight from New York, where he had been among the featured players at the annual Hall of Fame news conference.

Jenkins, by the smallest margin ever -- one vote -- was elected for enshrinement Tuesday night. He wasn't quite in a class by himself; 78 players previously had been approved by the Baseball Writers Association of America, including 24 pitchers. But these are numbers for accountants, not for sports fans. A native Canadian who conquered the perils of Wrigley Field, was and still is "Like Nobody Else," which was the title of his book.

Jenkins was asked if it made any difference that he was elected by one vote. (Actually, it was by two. He drew 334 votes, one more than necessary.) Fergie smiled. He was in the United Airlines complex, in a conference room adjacent to Gate C18.

"I won a lot of games by one run," he said. "Lost a lot by one run, too."

Jenkins lost five games by the minimum score in 1968, his second season of 20 victories. The five 1-0 defeats, if memory serves, equaled the major-league high for frustration.

He put in a plug for Santo, who once again fell short in the balloting. Santo received 26 percent of the vote, a high for him, but nonetheless considerably less than the required 75 percent. "Some of the people casting the ballots will have to take a closer look at what Ron Santo did," Jenkins said. "It'll probably take some time, but he's a No. 1 candidate, very deserving."

Jenkins is aware, of course, that other factors come into play in the annual balloting. It is, in effect, a competition among the eligible players. There have been times when a player with borderline credentials has been given a ticket to Valhalla principally because the ballot is clogged with players of lesser credentials. Jenkins won in his third year of eligibility, as did Gaylord Perry, a confessed spitballer who had 314 career victories. Rod Carew, who also will be making the trip to Cooperstown, was only the 22nd player elected in his first year on the ballot. Carew led in the voting with 90.5 percent.

"Lot of quality people coming up," Jenkins said, indicating that this was the year he had his best chance. "I was probably going to be overshadowed. Next year it's Pete Rose, then Reggie Jackson and the Tom Seavers and Don Suttons. I could have been lost in the shuffle."

He finished his career with 284 wins and conceded he probably could have joined the 300-victory club if he had pitched another season or two. He won a total of 20 games during his last two seasons, both with the Cubs -- 14-15 in '82 and 6-9 in '83. He retired at age 41.

"I didn't want to be a 'countdown' player," he said. "I didn't want to be in a position where everyone would be saying '291, 292.' So I stayed home."

Jenkins stopped here between planes. He took an early evening flight to Oklahoma City so he could return to his home in nearby Guthrie and be at the bedside of his wife, Maryanne, who was injured seriously in an auto accident.

"She can't talk," he said. "She is on a respirator. I'm anxious to see her."

Asked if he thought she was aware of his election, Jenkins replied:

"I suppose so. Some of the doctors and nurses in the hospital are big baseball fans."

Jenkins smiled.

"Cub fans."

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