By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
The scene was about 6:05 Chicago time this past Saturday night and Fergie Jenkins sauntered into one of his favourite haunts, the Nil Tap Tavern, on the Windy City's northwest side for what he thought was a drink with some friends.
Instead, the Canadian baseball legend and Cubs' iconic pitcher was taken aback to see about 75 people, who had already packed the cozy, intimate bar 35 minutes earlier. It was a surprise shindig to celebrate his 75th birthday, a gig that had been kept a closely guarded nugget by organizers.
"It was a total surprise for him,'' said Rich Nye, one of Jenkins' 1960s Cubs' teammates, who was honoured to be one of the invitees. "Fergie's an upbeat guy and he got things going at the party. They were doing karaoke and he started singing and dancing. He had a ball. He's a fun guy to be around.''
There are a few people in the world who know Jenkins pretty well and one of them is Nye, a left-handed pitcher, who threw for the Expos in 1970 before calling it quits shortly after because of shoulder problems.
"I will tell you that Fergie's roommate was Ernie Banks and if you were ever around Ernie Banks in a social situation, he was always upbeat,'' Nye was saying on the phone from Chicago. "Everything was really positive. Whether it was storming outside, it was always a good day to play two. Part of that picture Ernie presented came from being a black man. He didn't step out and speak his piece. He played under the radar and was voted MVP two years in a row. He never stirred up any trouble.
"Ernie was a mentor to Fergie so when Fergie pitched, good or bad, Fergie seemed happy. I wouldn't say he was emotionless but you never saw him throw his glove down, there was never a tantrum. He was cool, calm and collected day after day.
"When you are around Fergie, it's a sunny day. Some people walk around with a rain cloud around them but I don't think I've ever been around him when he was in a bad mood. He probably has his good times and bad times but sort of like his mentor Ernie Banks, you never saw pain, hurt or anger in him. You never saw that side of him.''
Nye himself was fancy-dan in his first full season with the Cubs going 13-10 in 1967 when Jenkins was 20-13 in the first of six consecutive 20-win seasons. To see Jenkins produce clockwork statistics season after season was a pure joy for Nye and Jenkins' long time catcher Randy Hundley, who also attended the party.
Among the others in attendance were Cubs chairman and owner Tom Ricketts, Jenkins' fellow Chatham, Ont., native Billy Atkinson, Kitchener, Ont., lawyer David Morneau, Blackhawks goaltending legend Tony Esposito and American author George Castle, who is working with Jenkins on a book about the Cubs' 1969 season.
As a Cub, Jenkins was 167-132. Lifetime, he was 284-226 with a 3.34 ERA, 3,192 strikeouts, an astonishing 267 complete games and 49 shutouts. No wonder he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
On Jenkins' 68th birthday in 2010, Canada Post honoured him with his own postage stamp.
"Look at those stats of his. Fergie would pitch his usual 300 innings a year and win his usual 20 ball games and you almost never knew what he was doing,'' said Nye, who enjoyed a long career as an exotic-bird veterinarian. "Fergie was so slick. He had a phenomenal muscular physique. It wasn't like he was so strong. "He didn't throw that hard but he knew where he wanted to throw. He threw to spots, he moved the ball around, he had the ability to throw a ball at a spot. He had great control. He had such an amazing arm. He would pitch nine innings every four days.
"No matter what, he was going to get 40 starts a season. He pitched so many complete games because he had the attitude. There was no way the manager, Leo Durocher, was going to take him out of the game so he would send the pitching coach out, if Fergie wasn't really sharp or had a rough first or two innings.
"To me, Fergie is still a Cub. I don't care if he pitched for the Rangers or whoever else, he was one of the most famous players to play for the Cubs.''
So it was no surprise that Jenkins' birthday cake at the Nil Tap had the Cubs' logo imprinted on it.
"I've been friends with Fergie for over 50 years,'' Nye said. "We see each other at oldtimers' functions. I continue to be very friendly and close with Fergie. We're on very good terms.''
You can't put it much better than that, Rich.