Fergie Jenkins: An interview with a winner

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Welcome to Metanoia from TheBestSchools org, where we explore the beliefs, events and pursuits that shape the minds and lives of both ordinary and extraordinary people.

On Saturday, January 14, I enjoyed an incredible opportunity to attend the 2017 Cubs Convention, the first Cubs convention ever to celebrate a world championship. There, I was privileged to interview one of baseball’s true legends, Chicago Cubs All-Star pitcher, Cy Young award winner, and the only Canadian in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Ferguson Jenkins.

Jenkin’s star is so bright, even this non-athlete found himself occasionally tongue-tied in the interview. While Major League pitchers are a breed apart, the gentle six-foot-five Fergie Jenkins stands out more than most. A nearly perfect pitcher, Jenkins struck out over 3,000 batters and allowed less than 1,000 walks during his entire career. For Fergie, every pitch against a batter was an opportunity to win against an opponent.

Listen in as we explore just what constitutes the mind and attitude of a lifetime winner.

Rich Tatum:

I’m here in lovely frigid downtown Chicago with the inimitable Ferguson Jenkins. Your friends and your fans call you Fergie.

Fergie Jenkins:

Definitely, yes.

Rich Tatum:

You really almost need no introduction. You’re like royalty in baseball with over 3,000 strikeouts with less than 1,000 walks, seven seasons with over twenty wins—it’s incredible, your accomplishments. You’re a Hall-of-Famer, you’ve led the league in a number of stats—but what I’m interested in is what goes into that mindset? What makes a winner?

Fergie Jenkins:

I think it was from 1967 through maybe ‘82 or ‘83 I led the league in wins percentage-wise and, as you said, 3,000 strike-outs. To prepare yourself for a game, a lot of times with a four-man rotation you knew if you pitched on a Monday you were pitching again on Friday. So, you could just look at the schedule a lot of times and see what team you were going to face.

And I used to keep a—they call it just a “theoretical book,” on hitters. From spring training through maybe the All-Star break until they started bringing up rookies or bringing players up that maybe might have an injury on a ball club, so they would substitute players—what I tried to do is understand if he was a right- or left-handed hitter, or a switch-hitter, what his dominant pitch was he liked to hit. If he was a first ball hitter, a hitter that hit deep in the count, or a good breaking-ball hitter. I would have that book and I would check off if Bill Hands is pitching or Kenny Holtzman or whoever the pitcher that pitched before me, I would watch hitting tendencies: guys that shortened up on the bat, like Rico Carty, with two strikes.

Rich Tatum:

Right.

Fergie Jenkins:

Guys that--Pete Rose, took the first pitch every time you were out there pitching against him in Cincinnati, when he was a lead-off hitter back in the 60s.

Rich Tatum:

You were looking for their signature, their style, their patterns of habit.

Fergie Jenkins:

Ferguson Jenkins, MLB Hall of Famer
Definitely, right. That’s something that a pitcher should learn. You shouldn’t have to look in a scouting report because sometimes scouting reports are not good. Some of them are, some are not. They look at the hitter’s tendencies—I looked at their strengths. I was pitching to my strength, trying to work on their weaknesses.

Rich Tatum:

Right, so you were matching strength against strength.

Fergie Jenkins:

A lot of times, yes. Every hitter has a weakness. Maybe late in the count he chases breaking balls. Maybe late in the count or early in the count he chases high fast balls. So this was part of what the catcher—whoever I had. Here I had Randy Hundley, Texas I had Jim Sundberg, Boston I had Carlton Fisk, and with the Phillies I either had Dalrymple or Corrales, who—Corrales and I would play together in the minor leagues, Double-A, Triple-A, then the big leagues.

At lot of times the catchers and yourself would have an understanding of how we’re going to pitch a certain guy. When the game started if I was able to pitch through the middle innings and maybe get to the ninth, we understood that if we had to get to the top of the lineup again and we had a one- or two-run lead, now is the time to not make mistakes to put runners on. Don’t walk anybody, don’t give up the extra base hit and try to make the hitter hit the ball in the ground. I was—especially in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and even in Texas—ballparks are small. My plaque in Cooperstown, it says “out of my nineteen years”—which I didn’t play nineteen years, I played eighteen years—I played in hitters’ ballparks, twelve of those.

Rich Tatum:

I was going to talk about that.

Fergie Jenkins:

The six years I played in Texas, we played in a stadium called Turnpike Stadium, right along the turnpike, a very small ballpark, it had a short porch to left field, not bad to right. But the thing is that you had to be very careful with the wind factor in Texas. The wind blew across and out to right and later on as nighttime really showed up, you had to be careful of the left field. In Wrigley Field you had to be careful all the time.

Rich Tatum:

All the time, right.

Fergie Jenkins:

At Fenway, same way—ball jumped to left field. They had the wall, sixty-foot wall.

Rich Tatum:

You’ve been quoted as saying that when you step up to pitch against a batter you always respect the batter.

Fergie Jenkins:

Oh, yeah, definitely. They got to the big leagues similar to what I did: working hard to get there, to get established. Then you looked at veterans, guys like Mays and Aaron and Tony Oliva. There were so many guys, Clemente, Cepeda, so many good hitters, Rose, that that respect—they’re not trying to hurt you but they’re trying to beat you. The beating part of it is, to me, wins and losses. And that’s the only way you can tell a pitcher with a strength, how many games he pitches in and the end result, how many wins he had over the course of a season or the course of his career.

Ferguson Jenkins - Philadelpha PhilliesI had pretty good winning percentage against certain ball clubs. I tried to utilize that every time I went out there. The team that traded me, the Philadelphia Phillies, I have an outstanding winning record against their organization, only because—I wasn’t mad because I got traded, I didn’t use that as a focal point to pitch better against them—I just wanted to prove to them they made a mistake.

Rich Tatum:

That made them losers.

Fergie Jenkins:

Definitely, and I tried to win. I tried to win every game I pitched, but that’s not going to happen.

Rich Tatum:

But you did a pretty good job.

Fergie Jenkins:

Tried to, yes.

Rich Tatum:

When you step up on the mound and you face down your opponent, the batter as your opponent, what goes through your mind at that point? What frame of mind do you have? What’s your mentality?

Fergie Jenkins:

The first time I face a hitter, regardless of if he’s a veteran or rookie, if I know who he is, I’m trying to get ahead in the count, stay ahead in the pitcher’s count, not the hitter’s count. The pitcher’s count is, it could be one ball, two strikes, it could be oh-and-two—means I’m ahead in the count. If I fall behind two-and-one or three-and-one, now I’ve got to throw a certain pitch that maybe he likes better than others because I don’t want to walk him. I always said that walks score eight or nine out of ten times. The lead-off hitter in innings scores.

Rich Tatum:

It’s been said of you that you pitch from behind better than anybody many of your team mates knew. Is that what you’re talking about?

Fergie Jenkins:

Right, I had to get even in the count. I didn’t like to get to three-and-two because that meant you’ve got to come in and throw a certain pitch. If I got to three-and-two, the number one thing is I wasn’t going to walk you. Don’t look for a walk, because I’m not out there walking you. I can throw slider, curve ball, fast ball, even the change-up, three-and-two and throw a strike with it. If you’re up there to get a walk—you’ve got the wrong pitcher!

Rich Tatum:

So there are winners and there are losers, but a lot of contemporary, modern culture is giving everybody a trophy for playing. How do you feel about that? You probably didn’t raise your kids that way.

Fergie Jenkins:

Ferguson Jenkins
Well, I tried to get them to work hard at whatever they tried to accomplish. My first three girls, Kelly, Delores, and Kimberly, I tried to emphasize: nobody’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to work at it. They were very fortunate. I didn’t get a chance to go to college…so I gave them the opportunity. They all graduated and they all have really good jobs. Raymond, my son from my second marriage, he’s trying to get his master’s degree right now in criminology. He’s a pretty smart young man.

The thing was, I had the money because of the fact that there was a good pension plan, thanks to Marvin Miller.

Rich Tatum:

Back to winning and losing, some people believe or seem to feel that when they face tragedy that they’re losing somehow and there are very few people that I’ve read of that have faced the kind of tragedies that you’ve had to survive.

Fergie Jenkins:

Right.

Rich Tatum:

How do you take a winner’s attitude and deal with tragedy? Because you don’t feel like you’re winning when you’re suffering that way or your family is suffering.

Fergie Jenkins:

I try to stay positive most of the time. I’ve had as tragedies in my life, I lost my mother early, she was very young, to cancer. I lost a wife and a daughter to a car accident. I just think that talking to people, talking to the clergy, my second wife was Catholic so I had a chance to sit down and talk to a few people of the church. I’m a devout Baptist, I’ve always been a Baptist, my mother was a Baptist. I tell people I had to go to church sometimes three times on Sunday! I taught Sunday School, I sang in the choir, and my mother wanted to go to church in the evenings, so if I had to play sports on a Sunday I would try to convince my mother to have my grandmother or someone take her to church because of the fact that I had to play sports.

When I lost my wife and my daughter I sat in a group session with people that had other tragedies, seeing drownings, or fires, or car accidents, things like that, and we all have a story in our life.

Rich Tatum:

You can’t compare.

Fergie Jenkins:

No.

Rich Tatum:

Everyone’s tragedy is…

Fergie Jenkins:

Totally different.

Rich Tatum:

Is different and it’s their own.

Fergie Jenkins:

Sitting and listening, having a discussion with other people that have had things like that in their life, I feel their pain, too. I had pain but I tried to make it positive. When it was done, you sit down and I have a quiet time after funerals. A lot of people to think if you cry, that’s a weakness. No, I’ve sat down and a lot of times cried by myself, sat down and cried with Raymond, my son, who at the time when he lost his mother was only eleven. When I lost my mother, my dad and I just sat. My dad was kind of the—

Rich Tatum:

Stoic?

Fergie Jenkins:

Cubs Legend Fergie JenkinsWell, he had a bit of weakness, too. My mother was only fifty-two when she died of cancer. My dad didn’t remarry. He stayed at home. When I bought my first ranch he ended up living with us. I had a very large house—I converted a basement into an apartment—and he lived with us for like ten years. The thing was that we just sat and we discussed that tragedy is part of life. We’re not all going to live on this earth for a hundred years. Things can happen—and my mother died young at fifty-two with cancer. I lost my wife in a car accident. She was only thirty-two at the time, and my daughter, she was only three. It was something that you can’t foresee.

Rich Tatum:

No.

Fergie Jenkins:

Nobody can foresee.

Rich Tatum:

Or prepare yourself for.

Fergie Jenkins:

Right, and you can’t compare yourself to other people. I always said you climb up that mountain and you hope the climb is gratifying, but when you’ve got to go down the other side of the mountain, a lot of times there’s tragedies.

Rich Tatum:

You said once in an interview when somebody asked you about this, they asked whether you were being tested or punished and you said that sometimes you felt it was a bit of both. Do you still feel that way? Is there punishment in it or is it something else?

Fergie Jenkins:

One time I thought maybe I was getting tested. They say the Lord, in the Bible, won’t give you more than you’re able to handle. At one time, I said, what is going on here? I don’t need to be tested anymore, especially when you have to bury loved ones.

Rich Tatum:

Just because you can survive it doesn’t mean you should, right?

Fergie Jenkins:

Yeah, right, and to go to funerals, go to funeral homes or wakes, and you’re sitting there and people are trying to give you well wishes, things like that, and your loved one is in a casket. It’s a tragedy, sure, but how do you cope with it? There’s some quiet times that I’ve had by myself and just said, you know, I’m going to get through this. I’ve got three daughters, I talk to them all the time. I have a son, and we just got through it.

It took a little while. There were some times that Randy Hundley, who’s a really good friend of mine, and Ernie Banks, and Ron Santo—Ronnie and Ernie are gone, but Joe Pepitone, Billy Williams, we’ve talked about, how are you going to get through this? I said, hey, I’ve got plenty of friends, things have been working out and I talk a lot.

If it happens, I just talk about it.

Rich Tatum:

You talk it out.

Fergie Jenkins:

Yeah, don’t hold it in.

Rich Tatum:

So what gives you joy today?

Fergie Jenkins:

You know, I do a lot of appearances. I started this charity: we thought about it 20 years ago, of putting on a golf-outing for the Red Cross. The second year we did it, we did cancer research for my mother and we did the CNIB, which is Canadian Institute for the Blind. Then I started Boys and Girls Clubs, other different situations, juvenile diabetes—Ron Santo had it, because he had diabetes. We started a meeting where we’d bring other ball players in, sign memorabilia, and donate monies to different charities.

I like to see people smile. I come to this Cubs Convention—this is like my twenty-first, and little kids come up to you, they’ve got no idea who you are, but the parents are telling them, “Hey, I saw Fergie Jenkins pitch, da, da, da.… He did this, he did that.” The kids, it goes right by them, but you sign their ball and they look at it and they go, “Wow, I can read it.”

I always said that, I had a math teacher, Robert Waddell, when we’ve have a test he would always tell his students, “If I can’t read your name, you get no marks. It’s not a puzzle, it’s just writing your name so I can read it, and things will be just fine.”

These situations here now of signing your name, memorabilia, people want it on a bat, they want it on a ball, on a shirt and you love to see them smile, and they thank you for it. That’s gratification and it’s respect.

Rich Tatum:

Fergie Jenkins in the StadiumYou said you never had a chance to go to college but I’ve been told you’re a great reader.

Fergie Jenkins:

Yeah, I read a lot of books.

Rich Tatum:

What do you like to read?

Fergie Jenkins:

Right now I probably read a lot of hunting books, of how to hunt, how to survive if I’m out someplace that I haven’t hunted before, maybe Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, wherever, Pennsylvania. I don’t get cold. I’m very lucky, I don’t get cold. I hunt with no gloves sometimes—or the fingertips cut out of the gloves. I’ve hunted in blizzards, I’ve hunted in windstorms and I’ve had to walk back to my truck.

I’ve been lost only one time. I was hunting up around James Bay and I got turned around in what they call a pine forest. The trees were really close together and we were hunting moose. It had snowed earlier so I had followed some tracks and all of a sudden the tracks crossed. I followed another track. The sun was in front of me at the beginning and all of a sudden, boom, the sun’s on the side of me. I went, Whoa, here. I said, do I follow my tracks back? I said, no. I didn’t have a compass, I just said, the sun’s on my right side, I’m going to continue to keep it on my right side and I’m going to go straight back. I found the logging road. I was supposed to be back at this logging road at five o-clock. I didn’t show up to the logging road until like nine! I had a flashlight, and I had matches, and I had a gun with shells. I knew I wasn’t lost to the point where there was going to be, I’d have to make a fire.

Rich Tatum:

A search party.…

Fergie Jenkins:

I’d have to make a fire and stay out overnight. I walked back. It took me an extra three and one-half hours. Finally, I got back to my truck and got back to the camp and the guys were all, “Where were you? We thought you shot a moose and you had a problem!”

I said, “No, I got turned around but I’m fine, I’m back here at camp.” I got back to the camp, it was like nine o-clock.

Rich Tatum:

You played at the top of your league at hockey in high school. You played basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters and you played basketball in high school. You lettered five times in high school, hockey, track and field, basketball, and baseball and now you’re telling me about exploits as a hunter, and you’ve run for office!

Fergie Jenkins:

Right, yeah, parliament, run for the liberal party.

Rich Tatum:

You’ve managed a farm. You had to learn how to ride a horse. What can’t you do? What’s next for you? What are you going to learn how to do?

Fergie Jenkins:

The Fergie Jenkins FoundationThis Foundation: we’re trying to make sure it’s successful, working on it. It’s been twenty years. I don’t know how many more years I’m going to do it. As of right now I’m enjoying doing it. We go to different functions, we go to All-Star games, we do minor league teams. I get invited to men’s clubs and we talk, basically about my career. It’s like a meet-and-greet type situation. I sign autographs.

The other thing about reading books, I love to read sports books because every athlete has a different story, from Whitey Ford, to Willie Mays, to Frank Robinson, to Wade Boggs. Reading their biographies, it seems like after their fifth or sixth year of playing professional baseball, basketball, or hockey, everybody has a theory on what got them to where they’re at now. Bobby Hull, Wilt Chamberlain, and I’ve got all these books, and I’ve got a lot of them signed by the athletes and I had a chance to meet them, like maybe at banquets.

A rare situation, Vada Pinson, and Ernie Banks, and Curt Flood—all born in the southern states—had a chance to play under discrimination. I didn’t have a chance at that early in my life because I was born in Canada, but when I had to face it at eighteen-nineteen years old, I kind of looked at it a little differently because of the fact that, “Why do these people dislike me all of a sudden? All I’m trying to do is to be a professional athlete, move on in my career and get to the major leagues.” But there’s always something that you hear and you say to yourself, this individual doesn’t even know me, but that’s part of what discrimination is all about.

Rich Tatum:

You speak about the story that every athlete has their story of what got them… What do you think your story is? What do you want people to know about the Fergie Jenkins story?

Fergie Jenkins:

I’ve always told people I’m a hard worker. I enjoy work. My dad always told me that nobody’s going to give you anything, you have to earn it. My mother used to always say, “What you start, finish.” I tried to have that theory when I pitched a lot of times. I went out there, you’re the starting pitcher, if you can get to the ninth inning and be winning in this situation, why do they need to have the bullpen help you out? Just go out there and do your job. Your job is to be a winning pitcher. I tried to keep that theory going throughout my career.

It’s just something that, it’s worked for me. I’m not saying it’s going to work for half-a-dozen other athletes, but other athletes, they have their theory on what they try to do to be a winner. It could be a hitter, base-stealer. Maury Wills’s story: he played nine years in the minor leagues before he got to the big leagues because he was a switch-hitter and the Dodgers organization didn’t need switch-hitters at one time. Then he said to himself, if I can get on base I can steal bases. He studied the pitchers, stole a hundred bases a couple of times.

Rich Tatum:

Reinvented himself.

Fergie Jenkins:

Yeah, really, that’s it. As I said, everybody has a story. I think when you look at it, because of the fact that the odds weren’t against them but you worked to achieve a goal. I think everybody has a goal.

Rich Tatum:

At seventy-four years of age, I can’t tell that you’re a day over fifty!

Fergie Jenkins:

I think I’ve got my father’s genetics. He still looked young when he passed away and he still had all his hair. I started shaving my head when I was thirty. I started losing my hair.

Rich Tatum:

You are finishing well, friend, and thank you for the time for this interview….

Fergie Jenkins:

Pleasure, my pleasure!

Rich Tatum:

And for your generosity. You’re a pleasure to meet and you’re a hero to many.

Fergie Jenkins:

Thank you, appreciate that.

Rich Tatum:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Metanoia. If you have any feedback, please leave comments at our website, TheBestSchools.org, where you’ll find this interview and many others. Be sure to subscribe to our feed, leave a review in iTunes and tell your friends. Thank you.

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