SOUTH BEND — Fergie Jenkins’ pitching motion for the Chicago Cubs was the epitome of free and easy. His life, on the other hand, has been taxing and hard.
Yet, to every bit the same extent Jenkins refused to ever miss his turn in the rotation, the Hall of Famer refuses to be beaten down off the field.
Jenkins, 73, remains steadfastly dug in for the long haul, just like he was during his playing prime, when he was completing more of his starts than not.
“You can’t protect everybody,” Jenkins said Tuesday night during a promotional appearance at a South Bend Cubs game.
“I lost a wife and a daughter,” Jenkins openly reflected in a clubhouse at Four Winds Field before heading out to sign autographs. “ ... You know, tragedy’s just a part of life. I went to (counseling-related) meetings. You sit around in a (small) room with four or five other families that have had tragedies, and as you think about it, maybe yours wasn’t that tough, or it’s tough, but you’re not as dramatic.
“I remember a family, a fire, a gentleman who wanted to go back into the house and get his kids, and the firemen stopped him. Another gentleman, his kids fell into a well. He wanted to just dive in and get his kids and couldn’t do it. They had people trying to rescue them and it didn’t work out.”
While tragedy’s not a competition, Jenkins’ share has been staggering.
Wife Maryanne died Jan. 12, 1991, due to complications from injuries she sustained in an auto accident the previous year. Her death came four days after Jenkins’ Hall of Fame selection. Then on Dec. 15, 1992, his 3-year-old daughter, Samantha, and his fiancee’ died in an apparent murder-suicide.
“You wish you could (understand) those situations to clear your mind a little better, cause I think about it all the time,” Jenkins said.
Still, he carries on productively, and with a smile and gentle nature toward those he meets. He describes himself thankful for four adult children whom he says have brought him much joy, and his current wife, Lydia, of 23 years. He says he enjoys his promotional job with the Chicago Cubs and appreciates fans remembering him.
How could anyone who is old enough forget?
From 1967 to 1972 for the Cubs, Jenkins won 20 or more games six straight years. His earned run average over that span was exactly 3.00. Each figure utterly ridiculous by today’s standards, he averaged 39 starts, 23.3 complete games and 312 innings. He went 127-84 overall and wound up top-three in Cy Young voting four times, including his 1971 Cy-winning season.
Then, after one bad year — 14 wins, a 3.89 ERA and seven complete games qualifying as bad by his standards — Jenkins was dealt to Texas, where he wasted no time proving he was still elite. He went 25-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 29 complete games on his way to being Cy Young runner-up, then had several more productive seasons.
He finished his career 284-226 with a 3.34 earned run average and 267 complete games. During 10 ensuing years as a pitching coach, he often threw batting practice.
Remarkably, Jenkins underwent the very first surgery of his life to an arm or shoulder a little over two months ago.
“Bone spur, shoulder locked up and was messing with my golf game,” Jenkins said. “Had it shaved off, put a cap on, cleaned out the arthritis and bursitis. Whatever junk was in there was cleaned up.”
Jenkins doesn’t thump his broad chest when asked about his durability relative to today’s pitchers, and says he understands that owners are protective of their investments.
“Maybe genetics,” Jenkins said with a shrug of his own staying power. “I just had a good, smooth motion, never had any problems. ... I never had a sore arm. I was very fortunate.”