284 WINS AND A SAVE By Maxwell Kates

284 WINS AND A SAVE

THE IMPROBABLE SABR JOURNEY OF FERGIE JENKINS

By Maxwell Kates

Maxwell Kates

Prior to my introduction to Bob Dorrill in 2013 and my involvement with SABR in Houston, I served as part of a steering committee with the chapter in Toronto for twelve years. It was a four man operation which also included a retired teacher, a banker, and a fraud investigator. We were fortunate to have formed a strategic alliance with the Fergie Jenkins Foundation. Back when I worked in radio in St. Catharines, Ontario, the station promoted the Fergie Jenkins Golf Tournament each year. It was a fundraiser for cancer research and other charitable activities in the Niagara region of Ontario. Through my involvement with the Fergie Jenkins Foundation, I became familiar Fergie and his entourage, including Carl Kovacs, John Oddi, Brent Lawler, and the late Gene Dziadura. We would often contact Fergie’s people to arrange an opportunity for him to speak at a SABR meeting. If he were in Toronto for another event, SABR bore no responsibility for Fergie’s travel costs. On three separate occasions, in 2003, 2005, and 2009, we were successful to organize SABR meetings with Fergie Jenkins. This is the story of the Fergie Jenkins event from 2009.

Fergie’s story is rather well known. He was born on December 13, 1942, in Chatham, Ontario, about an hour northeast of the Windsor-Detroit border. Fergie’s father, ‘Big Ferg,’ was a Barbadian immigrant while his mother, Dolores, was descended of former slaves who fled antebellum America through the ‘underground railroad.’ Fergie broke in with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1965 and a year later, was traded to the Chicago Cubs. He won 20 games each year with the Cubs from 1967 to 1972, garnering the National League Cy Young Award in 1971. In 1974, Fergie was traded to the Texas Rangers, where he won an additional 25 games. He later pitched for the Boston Red Sox before ending his career with the Cubs in 1983. When he retired, Fergie’s lifetime record was 284-226 with a 3.34 ERA. Astonishingly, he struck out 3,192 batters over his career while walking only 997. In 1991, Fergie became the first Canadian to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Fergie was one of thirteen pitchers immortalized in Jim ‘Mudcat’ Grant’s 2006 book entitled The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners. David Price and C. C. Sabathia have since joined the fraternity for a total membership of fifteen.

Fergie Jenkins’ Jacket

Fergie’s life in civilian clothes is as noteworthy as his accomplishments on the diamond. As a child, he adopted cooking, fishing, and hunting as passions that have lasted a lifetime. Fergie was an outstanding all-around athlete; the 6’5″ righthander played basketball for two seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters and according to his father, his best sport of all was hockey. As a baseball player, he was active in the Major League Baseball Players’ Association. After he retired, he ran for the Liberal party in an Ontario election in 1985. Unfortunately, Fergie also endured his share of adversity. His mother became blind while giving birth to him; she died of cancer in 1970, age 54. When Fergie received news of his enshrinement into Cooperstown, his second wife Marianne was fighting for her life after sustaining injuries in a horrific car accident. She died four days later. Their three year old daughter, Samantha, also died tragically in 1992.

Fergie was scheduled to appear at the annual Maple Leaf Baseball Forum hosted by Jack Dominico on May 2, 2009. Several months prior, we received a tip from Carl Kovacs that Fergie had planned to spend the preceding week in Toronto. As long as we gave Carl a time and place, he could arrange for Fergie to speak before us. Considering the time of year, this was no easy task. Unlike American accountants, who celebrate their tax day on April 15, the end of our tax season in Canada is ‘deferred’ to April 30. When I met with the other members of the steering committee, they assured me not to worry, that they would look after a meeting location for Sunday, April 26.

Inside Pitching – Fergie’s First Book

The weekend before the meeting, I had not heard any resolution on the location. Accordingly, I called each member of the steering committee for updates. Each of their answers were virtually identical, something like “Oh, I thought you were going to take care of that.” Fergie was coming in a week’s time and we had no place for him to speak. Things weren’t looking good for us at that moment.

Now I live in a condominium in the Davisville section of Toronto where there is a party room with two rooftop patios on the top floor. If worst came to worst, we could hold the meeting there. But with every condo there are condo rules. Rule #1, the suite owner must attend all functions in the party room. As the meeting was scheduled for the final Sunday in tax season, there was no guarantee I could even attend. And Rule #2, the party room must be arranged more than one week in advance. The event was now six days away which was less than the required lead time. Fortunately, I had neighbours who agreed to reserve the room and attend the meeting in case I had to work. Moreover, the condominium corporation waived the seven-day requirement in this particular case.

The Author and Fergie at the 2009 Maple Leaf Baseball Forum

At this stage, we could begin to think about the meeting. It was all Fergie Jenkins. The program included a screening of “King of the Hill,” a 1974 documentary by the National Film Board of Canada about Fergie’s 1972 and 1973 seasons with the Cubs. Fergie had just written a book, “Fergie: From the Cubs to Cooperstown,” and we had planned to organizing a book signing. One of the chapter members prepared a Fergie Jenkins trivia contest and Fergie agreed to participate in a question and answer session. Preparing for the meeting was no easy task. It proved to be a comedy of errors, hits, and runs.

In those years I worked for a boutique accounting firm in Concord, Ontario, a suburb to the northwest of Toronto. As we were about to be dismissed on Saturday, April 25, I noticed the sky turn black very quickly as both wind and rain intensified. None of this was in the forecast. I got in my car and headed towards Highway 400, an arterial freeway leading into Toronto. Although I was driving the speed limit, I had to grip the steering wheel because the wind was going even faster. There was almost nobody on the roads. Highway 401, the Allen Expressway, and city streets home were no different. It dawned on me that if weather conditions in Buffalo were this bad, there was no way Fergie’s plane could land. Finally I arrived home where I was greeted by Chuck Rodgers, an elderly security guard originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland.

“You must be out of your mind!” Chuck said to me.

“That was proven long ago,” was my reply.

“Do you have any idea what you just did? You just drove home in the middle of a tornado!”

The Quiet Winner

My 1997 Honda Civic was old and compact but seemingly invincible. I had driven it up a major hill on a sheet of ice without snow tires the previous winter, and now the car got me home safely through a tornado. Somehow, Fergie and his inbound flight from Phoenix managed to land safely in Buffalo that evening as well. We were not out of the woods yet.

It was now April 26, a workday and the final Sunday of tax season. Around 11:00 am, there was a telephone call to the office. It was Carl. He was with Fergie at a hotel near Pearson Airport. The Fergiemobile had broken down and they needed a lift to the meeting. Could I help?

Both Editions of “The Game Is Easy, Life Is Hard”.

“Ordinarily,” I replied to Carl, “I would only be too happy to chauffeur you and Fergie to and from the meeting. The problem is that I have to work all day and I’m not even sure I will be able to attend.” I reached out to the other members of the steering committee to enquire if they could provide Fergie and Carl with travel arrangements to and from the meeting. There was no commitment. Fortunately, Brent Lawler was available to drive up from St. Catharines to Fergie’s hotel in Toronto, and then to the SABR meeting. I thought to myself, “You better stop by the liquor store on your way home from work in order to buy each of them a nice bottle of wine.”

Then there was another phone call. It was a fellow named Peter. He wanted to know if he could RSVP for the meeting at the last minute. I put my head on the desk and thought to myself, “What do I do now?” This was quickly becoming an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” You see, Peter is an Orthodox Jew who adhered to strict dietary laws. In order for him to feel comfortable at the meeting, I would have to stop by a Kosher supermarket in order to purchase snacks for him to eat – not to mention paper plates and plastic cutlery to eat them on. And still there was no guarantee that I would complete my work in time to even attend the meeting.

Big League Dreams

We were dismissed at 4:00, which gave me an hour to get to the liquor store before it closed, another hour to the Kosher supermarket on Bathurst Street before it closed, and a third hour to arrive home for the 7:00 meeting. To my good fortune, there was a private liquor store on the same block as the supermarket. It was open late and their wines were all Kosher. I managed to purchase everything I needed, go home, shower, change, and arrive at the meeting with minutes to spare before 7:00. Someone was looking over me that day.

I’m sure my friends at the Larry Dierker chapter have echoed this concern as they planned SABR meetings. What if the speaker doesn’t show?   The guests were all there. Besides the usual core of regulars, they included Andrew, a sports statistician and Boston Red Sox fan vacationing Toronto from Johannesburg, South Africa. And then there was Bob, who was actually a native Houstonian. A retired teacher, Bob chose to become Canadian after fulfilling his military duties in the United States. Svend was celebrating his birthday and so was Lewis. Even my brother, Ben, attended the meeting, convincing his friends to join him with the incentive to meet “a Baseball Hall of Famer and [eat] free cake.” And Peter was there. I took him aside and explained that all of the baked goods and soft drinks were from Hermes, the above noted Kosher supermarket. The only food that was not prepared under rabbinic supervision was the fruit salad. In other words, there was nothing that he could not eat.

What It Means to Pull a “Pascual Perez”

There was just one problem. It was now 7:00 and where was Fergie? 7:10, no Fergie. 7:20, still no Fergie. At 7:26, Hooshmand Khamooshi the night security guard ran up to the party room to explain that he had a telephone call for me at the front desk. It was Carl. They were lost. As recently as 2009, I still did not own a cell phone. One of the other members of the party asked Hooshmand to give his cell phone number to Carl to call.

Carl called the cell phone number at 7:33. They were still lost. I got on the phone and asked them where they were. It turns out they had pulled a Pascual Perez and had been driving around the block for the past 20 minutes. I asked Carl what street they were on; they were driving west on Merton Street. I told them to drive to the end of Merton and that was Yonge Street. Turn right on Yonge and make another right at the next street, which was Balliol Street (yes, the neighbourhood surveyor was an Oxonian). Once they got to Balliol, I would direct them to the meeting from the roof.

Fergie and a fan named Andrew; at the 2009 Forum.

I described every car I saw driving east on Balliol to Carl and asked if it was their car. After about six vehicles, I had identified the correct one. My instructions were to pull into the parking lot of the supermarket on the north side of Balliol, turn around and revert towards Yonge, turn right, take another quick right on Davisville, and then one final quick right into the first parking lot they see. If they passed the Hasty Market, they went too far. I made a bee line for the elevator to meet them in the parking lot.

There they were, Carl, Brent, and wearing a vintage 1969 Cubs jacket was Fergie. He was not sporting his trademark white cowboy hat but he did wear his cowboy boots. And there were boxes of books. After I signed them in we took the elevator to the roof. That was when we realized one last problem. Both Brent and Carl assumed that the other one had brought the DVD. Neither one had. I got off the elevator at the next floor, returned to my apartment, and somehow managed to find my copy of the DVD in the very first place I looked.

Fergie and Ben Kates, the Author’s Brother; 2009 Maple Leaf Forum.

Problems aside, the meeting went off without a hitch. Fergie was informative and entertaining in the question and answer session. He did not hold back about his managers, identifying Leo Durocher as “the Devil” and Billy Martin as “Simon Legree.” Fergie was equally candid when discussing the effectiveness of umpires.

“We had two American League umpires, Dale Ford and Ron Luciano. I used to call them Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. I’d argue balls and strikes and call him Ray. Ray, replied, It’s not Ray, it’s Ron’ and I’d say ‘Sure it is, Ray Charles.’ Hey Ray, you know Jose Feliciano? Need a seeing eye dog or something?” Fergie continued to display his sense of humour in the trivia contest. There was one question to which nobody knew the answer.   It was Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Dick Selma. Nobody, that is, except for Fergie. You could hear a pin drop as the audience tried to figure out the answer. That’s when Fergie said, “Come on, this is easy. Didn’t they name a city in Alabama after him?” Only Fergie could get away with that.

Next came the book signing. “Fergie: From the Cubs to Cooperstown” was brand new and still did not have a Canadian distributor. Therefore, the SABR meeting marked the first time the book was ever sold in Canada. Fergie had published several books before. There was “Like Nobody Else: The Fergie Jenkins Story” in 1973, “Ferguson Jenkins: The Quiet Winner” in 1975, and “The Game Is Easy, Life Is Hard” in 2003.

One of the more memorable conversations I can remember having that evening was with Svend. He was an older gentleman, a Danish immigrant who had lived most of his adult life in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Svend was telling me about a business trip he took to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in March of 1974.

A funny thing must have just happened on the way to the forum;
Fergie and a fan named Svend smile,
With the author smiling in the far left background.

“I was sitting at the bar all by myself when a man walked in. He was a black man and he introduced himself as a baseball player. I had no interest in baseball so I’m sure he appreciated just a normal conversation. I wish I could remember his name. He was famous. I think he said he played for the team in Atlanta.”

My jaw dropped. “Svend, you met Hank Aaron. He was weeks away from breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in March of 1974. He was under constant FBI security at that time. He received hundreds of thousands of letters, not all of them friendly or supportive. Hank Aaron was the most recognizable man in American not named Nixon, and you met him…by accident!” Svend said that Aaron could not have been nicer.

I’ve met Fergie Jenkins several times since the meeting and he usually greets me with the same expression, “You’re like bad weather, you never seem to go away.” Fergie Jenkins may have won 284 games in the major leagues, but on the evening of April 26, 2009, he recorded his greatest save.

The Black Aces

APPENDIX A: THE BLACK ACES

BLACK ACES WHERE AND WHEN
DON NEWCOMBE BRK DODGERS, 1951, 55-56
SAM JONES SF GIANTS, 1959
BOB GIBSON CARDINALS, 1965-66, 68-70
JIM “MUDCAT” GRANT MINNESOTA TWINS, 1965
FERGIE JENKINS CHICAGO CUBS, 1967-1972
FERGIE JENKINS (Same Guy) TEXAS RANGERS, 1974
EARL WILSON DETROIT TIGERS, 1967
VIDA BLUE OAKLAND A’s, 1971, 1973-75
AL DOWNING LA DODGERS, 1971
J.R. RICHARD HOUSTON ASTROS, 1976
MIKE NORRIS OAKLAND A’s, 1980
DWIGHT GOODEN NEW YORK METS, 1985
DAVE STEWART OAKLAND A’s, 1987-1990
DONTRELLE WILLIS FLORIDA MARLINS, 2005
C.C. SABATHIA NEW YORK YANKEES, 2010
DAVID PRICE TAMPA BAY RAYS, 2012

 

 

 

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Thank You, Maxwell Kates. The Pecan Park Eagle and its readership wish to thank you again for another feels-good walk through the eternally green pastures of baseball literature that grow from a writer’s walking company with those who have played the game. If a reader only grasped the deeper meaning of Fergie Jenkin’s book title, he or she would have picked up a priceless wisdom, even if they never read a word of the lessons within. We thank you for repeating it here.

“The Game is Easy, Life Is Hard.” ~ Fergie Jenkins

********************

Rest in Peace, Tito Francona.

********************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

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One Response to “284 WINS AND A SAVE By Maxwell Kates”

  1. Sam Says:

    Maxwell, thank you for the great story and the pictures added a nice touch as well.

    Well done!

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