During Wednesday’s Grapefruit League game between the Cubs and the Rangers, a signing booth was set up with several Hall of Famers and legends. George Foster, Gaylord Perry, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Bert Campaneris, Willie Wilson, and Fergie Jenkins were hanging out, taking pictures, and signing memorabilia for the fans, all in support of the Fergie Jenkins Foundation. Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins (played 1965-1983) and Royals legend Willie Wilson (played 1976-1994) very generously took some time to answer a few questions for the blog.
First up: Fergie Jenkins
Those who’ve seen the movie “42” got a glimpse of what African Americans had to go through in the Major Leagues. Would you say you’ve had similar experiences in your career?
I signed in 1962, and I played my minor league career in the South. Basically Miami, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas. I was one of the first players to play in Little Rock, with Dick Allen, Marcelino Lopez, and Richie [Ricardo] Quiroz: players of color. And it wasn’t tough, because sure, people were going to say things in the stands, but we’re on the field, and I felt safe on the field.
I’ve heard that the harassment wasn’t just coming from the fans, that it was coming from the players, too. Did you feel safe with your teammates, or ever ostracized by coaches?
No, not really no. I think the players all understood what we were there to accomplish, and that was to play baseball, and to try to win the division. Either in AA, AAA, or wherever it was at in the South. Let the chips fall where they may…we played every day, for a hundred and forty-some games in the minor leagues. Different than in the big leagues, you play 162, but in the big leagues there wasn’t that much discrimination, and I never felt discriminated against. Because of the fact that I knew that my job was to go out there and to try to win ballgames, and I tried to do my job every time I played.
Guys like Jimmy Rollins, Gary Sheffield, and other big name, African-American players have spoken out, saying that it’s still not fair for minorities in today’s game. The Fergie Jenkins Foundation already supports many charities, such as the Red Cross of America, YMCA, and many youth organizations. Would you entertain the idea of teaming up with other prevalent figures, not just in the baseball community, to bring attention to this issue?
We have, really. Because we’ve been in Detroit, doing Boys and Girls camps, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Chicago. We’ve done some in LA, some in Pittsburgh, and next year the All Star Game’s gonna be in San Diego, and our theme is gonna be whatever their charity is. So we’ve teamed up with a lot of different organizations. I just think that some players feel under a lot of pressure when they take the field. When I played I never felt pressured, or like I had to prove that I was the better player on the team. I went out there to prove that I was capable of doing what was asked of me, and that was to win the game…I had the ability, god given, and I worked at it.
The recent news regarding Cuba should mean great things for the league moving forward. What do you see as the next step in that process, specifically for the inclusion of minorities in the U.S.?
Being a Canadian, I’ve been to Cuba several times. I was there in ‘94 and also ‘96. We talked to Castro about certain things…we formed a committee. We tried to entertain the opportunity for players, not specifically front line players, but athletes. Swimmers, divers…volleyball, and soccer, to go to different countries. And if they signed with these countries, they’d get a portion of the money to go to their village. Castro couldn’t see that. I know that things are being done…This was back in the ‘90s. He had a problem. He didn’t want his players to leave. We weren’t taking boxers or baseball [players], which is their #1 sport. I just think that if he’d have known that we were trying to help some of the villages, and help their minorities, and some of the people. Because I’ve been there, they need a lot of work. The infrastructure of their streets…they need more buildings. I mean, the hotels are great, and the beaches? They’re great. Some of the other places need a lot of work. And as people said, they didn’t want it to turn into another Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, where it’s a tourist trap. They want to be proud of where they’re living. So I think the infrastructure has to take the time…to get the right kind of contractor. To fix the streets, to fix the cities. And I think that they’ll really understand that we’re trying to help them.
Goose Gossage made some comments recently about the nature of the game. He talked about a lot of things, but he specifically brought up the “Chase Utley Rule” (forbidding takeout slides) and the “Buster Posey Rule” (banning home-plate collisions). Do feel that these changes are good for the game? Do they soften it? I was always taught that these things, specifically takeout slides, are a part of the game. You have to accept the risk, as a second baseman or as a catcher, that a collision is possible.
I think they understand that. I think the player, when he’s taking the field, he knows that guys are trying to break up the double play, to take you out. You’re not trying to hurt the individual. The biggest thing in baseball? When they lowered the mound back in 1968. It gave the hitters the opportunity to basically swing better at that slider, because it’s a “down” pitch. Now you see better equipment, better bats, and the infields are all pristine. At Wrigley Field we used to grow the grass 6-7 inches high in the infield, and the ball couldn’t get through the infield. So there’s little things, and tricks of the trade…slanting the baseline so the ball goes foul, instead of fair. Guys that throw at people? I think that’s totally wrong. Guys can get hit in the head. We’re taught to pitch down-and-over the plate. Not down-and-in to players. It takes control to learn this, and if someone throws at somebody, it’s a purpose pitch, totally.
So now we’re talking about Unwritten Rules. Say someone hits your guy…
Oh yeah, you’ve gotta protect him.
Is it protecting him? Or is it retaliation?
It’s the retaliation part of it. You’re letting the other team know that we don’t want that to continue. If you knock my player down, I might retaliate. Then it’s over. We don’t need to fight. The player should know, when he comes to the plate, “Hey, they just knocked that guy down.” Look for it, because it might happen to you.
And for the fans, who’s your favorite active player?
Oh, geez. You know, as a pitcher, David Price. He’s got great stuff. And you’ve got Greinke, [formerly with] LA, and Arrieta with the Cubs. I mean, he’s really learned how to pitch, because two years ago, he only won a few games in The Bigs. Last year, he wins the Cy Young, he wins 22 (games), and he was unhittable in the second half of the season. He understood what his job was all about, and he really learned how to pitch.
Last one. Who’s your pick to win it all this year?
Well I’d like to see the Cubs win the division this year. If they can win 97 games again…and I think they’ve got the personnel to do it.
So you think they’re going to win the World Series this year?
Well I don’t know about that. It’s a one step at-a-time sort of thing.
A major thank you to Mr. Jenkins for taking the time to do this interview. As his event coordinator put it, “There’s a line of people here, Fergie!” Keep a lookout for my Q&A with Royals legend, center fielder Willie Wilson.