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GLORY Amid GRIEF

July 15, 1991
July 15, 1991

Table of Contents
July 15, 1991

Focus
Games
Sideline
Wimbledon
Baseball Court
Mark Henry
Summer Basketball
Jenkins
Del Mar
Spotlight
Point After

GLORY Amid GRIEF

Battered but unbowed by family tragedy, Ferguson Jenkins looks toward his induction into the Hall of Fame

Posthole digging is a sweaty chore, even in the sticky red clay of Oklahoma. Ferguson Jenkins is going at it hard—digging holes, mixing concrete, placing posts, shoveling concrete, on down the line. Twelve posts yesterday, 11 today, and he's nearly halfway done, at least on the front stretch of pasture. There are easier ways to put in fence, with metal posts that slip into the ground like pins. But Jenkins has a vision of a field ringed by wooden fence poles painted brown with white tips (to match the color of his house and the window trim) and, inside the fence, a herd of Appaloosas. "I just need to take my time," he says. And he stomps down the clay with his boots and moves 10 feet farther down the line, taking his time, a giant in overalls, with arms that stretch out like wings and a somber, fatherly face that goes warm and wrinkly whenever he smiles.

This is an article from the July 15, 1991 issue Original Layout

Jenkins's Lakeview Ranch is roughly 160 acres of rolling clay bordered on three sides by gravel roads and on the west, along the far ridge, by a high-tension power line. It was his wife, Mary Anne, who picked out the place in 1989. They rode the eight miles from Guthrie one day with the real estate agent, and as soon as they turned the corner and topped the ridge, she saw the big house and the flowery meadows and said, "I want it," and Fergie went along. Back then he was the pitching coach of the 89ers, the Rangers' Triple A team, in Oklahoma City—a one-hour drive from the ranch—but he went along. It was what she wanted.

They bought the ranch from the Guthrie Savings and Loan, which had reclaimed it from an oilman who had gradually gone bust (he's now a fishing guide down on Lake Texoma). The main house is modest—three bedrooms, a living room, a good-sized kitchen—but the addition is stupendous, 5,000 square feet on two levels, with a wraparound deck, a second-floor porch, a swimming pool, the works. When Fergie and Mary Anne and Raymond (Mary Anne's son, now 11, from her first marriage) moved in, the addition was just a shell. But Fergie took his time (he had a lot more of it after he was let go by the 89ers at the end of the '89 season), going to work on the walls and the ceilings and the windows and the trim, doing everything except the plumbing and wiring with his own two hands. The master bedroom is bigger than a hotel kitchen. The walls are painted a reddish orange, the color of the clay outside, with pink trim (Mary Anne's choice). The tall windows overlook the blue lake and the green pastures and the frame of the horse barn that Fergie is putting up. There are matching walk-in closets, a separate "water room"—sinks, shower, sauna, even a hot tub that the oilman left behind, still in the box—and his-and-her bathrooms.

On rainy days, Fergie works inside. He thinks he can finish the upstairs by the end of the summer; then he'll get started on the downstairs. All the details, all the decisions, were settled long ago by Mary Anne. Fergie's just carrying them out, taking his time, everything the way she would have wanted.

There are plenty of sad stories to tell about old ballplayers, but not about Ferguson Jenkins. It's true he missed the era of the really big bucks, never had a million-dollar contract, but he's far from broke. He held on to his money, and what with weekend card shows and projected income from the ranch, he's not worried. He's not a drunk, not a drug addict. He was almost indestructible when he played—never once hurt his arm, never even felt the need to ice it down after starts—and at 47 he's strong, eager to work, happy to play catch and go bow hunting with Raymond, no visible scars.

And no invisible scars, either, no regrets for what might have been. He pitched for 19 years in the big leagues, from 1965 to '83, for the Phillies, Cubs, Rangers and Red Sox. He won 20 games seven times (six years in a row), was named to three All-Star teams and won the Cy Young Award in '71. Pitching was easy for him, he says, once he found the key. He used to tease the hitters, throwing inside and outside, up and down. His dominance was a matter of control (no one else ever combined more than 3,000 career strikeouts with fewer than 1,000 walks). There were days, he remembers, when pitching was like shaking hands with his catcher ("He'd put the target there and boom, I'd throw it to the target," Jenkins says); days when he felt as if he controlled everything—the batter, the game, even the crowd. It thrilled him to learn he could quell 50,000 hostile fans just by throwing strike after strike after strike. "I'd go like this, this and this," he says, dabbing at the corners of an imaginary plate like a priest making a blessing. "I used to set people up and play with them. It was uncanny."

Oh, he never played for a championship team; he's sorry about that. And he fell short of 300 career wins, but not by much; he won 284. When the Cubs released him in '84 (the year they finally won something, it turned out), other teams asked about him. He might have hung on long enough to win 16 more games or maybe pitch in a World Series. But by then he was satisfied with his accomplishments, and he didn't need the money. So he went home to Canada, back to the farm outside Chatham, Ont., the town where he had grown up, back to the land, back to life.

Luckily for Jenkins he never was fooled. That's probably what saved him later on. He never let himself imagine that the mastery he had achieved in baseball could somehow be carried over to the rest of his life. In life, he had learned, you never know what can happen. Life is beyond control.

The roads around Lakeview Ranch follow the contours of the land, up and down like a roller coaster, through sweeping fields of wheat and sorghum and alfalfa, past staring cows. If you're not careful on the unpaved roads, you'll slip right off the shoulder and into the sucking clay, and then you'll probably need a tractor to pull you out. The paved roads are more treacherous still, if only because people tend to drive them twice as fast. Up and down, up and down, over blind humps and, every so often, a 90-degree turn around somebody's property line. When it rains, the clay washes over the road like grease.

Mary Anne and Fergie moved to Oklahoma from Blenheim, Ont., at the end of 1987, after Jenkins's divorce from his first wife, Kathy Williams. Mary Anne and Fergie were married in Las Vegas in 1988, and right away she got pregnant. Jenkins already had three daughters, two of whom are now in college, the last in high school. He had long assumed that that part of his life was over, had even gotten himself snipped. But Mary Anne was only 29, and she wanted kids. So Jenkins went along, had the second operation, and everything worked out. Samantha was born in August '89. After Fergie got fired by the 89ers and Samantha stopped nursing, it was Fergie who stayed home and looked after the farm and the baby while Mary Anne went to work.

She commuted 37 miles every day to Town and Country Ford in Oklahoma City. She started out in sales and worked her way up to finance officer. She had a good mind for business, knew what she wanted and how to get it. When the only Ford dealership in Guthrie closed down, she went to work on Fergie and convinced him that they ought to open one of their own. He was skeptical, but he came around. He liked Guthrie; liked the Old West feel of the place, the redbrick downtown (the Blue Belle Saloon and Restaurant, where Tom Mix, the cowboy star of early Hollywood, once tended bar; the corner of Oklahoma and Division, where a scene in Rain Man was filmed); liked the friendly way people accepted him and let him live his life. He joined the Rotary club, pinned down a couple of investors, got going on the paperwork. Assuming he got lucky this January, he and Mary Anne were going to call their business Hall of Fame Ford. So many plans they had.

It was on Sunday morning, Dec. 9, that Fergie got the word about Mary Anne. He was in Arizona on a two-month job coaching for the Sun City Rays in the Senior Professional Baseball Association, one week away from Christmas vacation. "There's been an accident at home," the clubhouse boy told Fergie when he arrived at the park. "You gotta get home as soon as possible."

He found her in intensive care in Memorial Hospital in Oklahoma City, heavily sedated, with tubes in her mouth, her nose, her arms (everywhere, it seemed that first shocking moment, except her ears). She had a broken neck, a broken clavicle, two broken ribs and a punctured lung. She was lucky to be alive.

Fergie leaned over the hospital bed, brushed his lips against her ears. "I'm here, Mary," he said. "I'm here, honey." And she started to cry. Fergie knew then that she was going to be O.K.

Route 33 west of Cimarron is not a bad road, not as bad as others. It runs straight and flat for miles through a lush landscape dotted with pumpjacks (only one in five in motion), grazing cattle and, here and there, a lonely spruce-ringed farmhouse. Two miles before 33 intersects with Route 74, 10 minutes from Lakeview Ranch, it makes a long, gentle bend to the right. Road conditions that Saturday night had been ideal—clear, dry, 57°. Mary Anne had driven this way hundreds of times before. It was her regular shortcut. She had to have known the curve was coming.

Her truck—a red 1991 Ford Explorer, a comp from the dealership—flipped three times before coming to rest in the gully beside the road. Mary Anne went through the windshield—sideways, probably, because two hours later, when the ambulance finally arrived and the attendants found her lying in the grass, her pretty face was unscarred and her body was hardly bruised.

Afterward, at the hospital, Fergie claimed Mary Anne's belongings: her trench coat, her handbag, her jewelry, nearly $500 in cash (she had been paid that morning), the dry cleaning (she had picked it up on the way home) and some Christmas boxes filled with sausage and cheese that Raymond was selling to raise money for his school. But what Fergie really wanted were her shoes, which no one found at the scene of the accident. He thought maybe she had been wearing high heels, and maybe her foot had slipped and somehow jammed the accelerator, and maybe that was why she had been driving 90 mph around that curve, the way the police said. He had to know; otherwise it made no sense. Back home he pulled out every pair of shoes in her closet. It was hopeless, of course. He never figured it out. And he never asked her to explain.

Fergie stayed by Mary Anne. Every day after he dropped Raymond off at school he drove straight to the hospital and sat with her through supper. Sometimes if he had chores to do he wouldn't arrive until midafternoon, but then he always stayed late. He was there at least seven hours every day, sometimes all night. The nurses never bothered him.

Mary Anne wore a metal halo that was so heavy she couldn't lift her head, so Fergie would prop her up in bed and fix the pillows. He would rub her back, her legs, her arms, her fingers. She complained of numbness in her left hand, and at first she couldn't move all her fingers. But as time went on, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that she was improving. Eventually she was taken off the respirator and was moved out of intensive care on the ninth floor and down to the seventh. She got so she could swing her feet down from her bed and touch the linoleum with her toes without getting dizzy. Raymond was still frightened; he was afraid to visit. But Fergie brought Samantha to the hospital, and Mary Anne held her in her arms.

Apart from Fergie, Mary Anne didn't get many regular visitors. The Jenkinses were new in Guthrie, comparatively speaking, and it was Fergie's way—an athlete's way, a farmer's way—not to lean on others in a time of emotional need. Folks watched him as he went about his business around town and never imagined how bad things suddenly had gotten.

On the morning of Jan. 8, Dennis Clark, pastor of the First Christian Church in Guthrie, got to chatting with Jenkins. He'd heard about the accident. "By the way," he said, "how's your wife?"

"Terrible," Fergie said. Mary Anne hadn't lasted very long on the seventh floor. On Dec. 27, the day that she held her baby for the first time since the accident, the hospital had called Fergie at home. Mary Anne's lung had collapsed. They had sent her back up to the ninth floor. After four weeks in the hospital, she had developed pneumonia.

The afternoon of Jan. 8, Clark drove down to Memorial Hospital to look in on Mary Anne. Fergie was already there. He was telling her that he might not be able to visit the next day, that he was expecting a phone call, and if the news was good, if he had made the Hall of Fame, he would have to fly to New York City in the morning for a press conference.

While Clark stood by, Mary Anne spoke to Fergie too. She had a tube in her trachea and could make no sound, so Fergie read her lips. Clark had trouble making out the words, but he understood "I love you."

That evening, while Jenkins was home fixing supper for Raymond and Samantha, the telephone rang. "This is Jack Lang," the executive secretary of the Baseball Writers Association of America said when Fergie answered. "Let me be the first to congratulate you on your election to the Hall of Fame."

Jenkins had made it on his third try. His credentials were solid, but there had been speculation that he might never get in because of his 1980 trial in Toronto for possession of cocaine. (He was found guilty, but the judge gave him an absolute discharge, clearing his record.) Whenever anyone had asked him what he thought of his chances, he had always given the same reply: If it was going to happen, he hoped his father would still be alive to see it.

Ferguson Holmes Jenkins, 83, was the first person Ferguson Arthur Jenkins called after Lang hung up. The elder Jenkins (himself the son of Ferguson Joe Jenkins) was once a speedy center-fielder for the Windsor (Ont.) Black Barons and played on a couple of Ontario championship teams in the late '30s. But because there was no future in those days for black ballplayers, eventually he moved back home to Chatham. He married and earned a living as a chauffeur and a chef.

The Jenkinses lived on the edge of town, practically in the country. Fergie was their only child; his mother, Delores, went blind after his birth and never had any more kids.

Like every other boy in Chatham, Fergie played hockey. He was a defenseman, talented but not talented enough to go all the way to the NHL. (Even after he made it to the big leagues in baseball, Jenkins continued to play amateur hockey in the off-season. Once, during a playoff game in an industrial league in 1975, he got speared in front of the net, dropped his gloves, hit the offending opponent "about five times in the forehead" and shattered the second knuckle of his pitching hand. The cast was supposed to stay on for two months, but after six weeks Jenkins removed it himself the night before reporting to spring training with the Rangers. He won 17 games that year without ever telling anyone why he soaked his hand in the whirlpool after every start.)

When hockey didn't work out, Jenkins tried basketball, and he became a star center at Chatham Vocational School in '61 and '62. No college offered him a scholarship, though he was good enough to spend parts of two winters in the late '60s touring with the Harlem Globetrotters. Baseball was his third choice. As a child he had honed his control by throwing rocks down the ice chutes of a neighborhood coal yard and through the doors of moving boxcars. When the Phillies offered him $7,500 in 1962, he signed and went off to play ball.

On Jan. 8, after Fergie spoke to his dad—who, immediately upon hearing the good news, packed his bags for the summer trip to Cooperstown—he rushed to the airport in time to catch the last flight to New York. There was a press conference at the Sheraton Centre in Manhattan the next morning with two other inductees, Gaylord Perry and Rod Carew, and then it was on to O'Hare for a quick go-around with the Chicago writers, and finally back home to Oklahoma. By the time Fergie reached Mary Anne's bedside on the evening of Jan. 9, it was late, and she was already sedated for the night.

"I told [the nurse] I'd be back around nine [the next morning]," Jenkins says. "I came. She was awake. I told her. And that was the only time she ever really smiled. So she was happy. And I was really happy that she was recovering."

Two days later, Jenkins was back at the airport in Oklahoma City, on his way to a card show in Fort Wayne, Ind. He had checked with the doctors and been assured that Mary Anne's condition was stable. Besides, he would be away only one night. But before he got on the plane, he called home. Dennis Miller, Mary Anne's brother, told him to go to the hospital right away. By the time he got there, Mary Anne was gone. She had died, not of her injuries but of pneumonia.

There are five people Jenkins will be thinking of at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown on July 21.

Mary Anne, of course. Jerry McCaffrey, the English teacher and gym assistant in Chatham who recommended Fergie to the area scout for the Phillies. (McCaffrey died of a heart attack in the late '60s, at age 32.) Tony Lucadello, the Phillies scout who signed Fergie—and 48 others who made it to the major leagues. (Two years ago the 77-year-old Lucadello committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.) Kathy Jackson, Fergie's late grandmother, who had looked after Delores so selflessly after Delores lost her sight. And Delores herself, 140 pounds of maternal love and order ("Now Fergie, finish whatever you start, son"), who saw so much ("C'mon, sit down and tell me what's wrong") but never saw her son play ball. She fell sick the winter of 1968, after Fergie's first 20-win season in the big leagues, and died two years later of stomach cancer at the age of 52. All that was left of her at the end was 60 pounds of flesh and bone.

How does a person deal with so much loss?

"I don't know," Jenkins says. "In some cases, uh, maybe I haven't dealt real good with it. They all wanted good things to happen to me, they're all influential. Out of those five people who died, I went to three funerals. And god, it's a terrible situation. It's a gut-wrenching feeling, sometimes. I miss my mother, I miss my wife. I just try to.... I handle it."

When Fergie's mother died, he was crushed, and he wondered why God would choose to punish again and again a good woman who was already blind. He put a tattoo on his left arm—a cross with a rose and the words TRUST IN GOD, because he wasn't so sure he did, and he felt the need to be reminded. But the day after she was buried, he flew to Montreal, took his regular turn on the mound and won.

And years later when his career ended abruptly, he didn't retreat like so many other ballplayers, the ones who find the only way to get the game out of their systems is to go cold turkey—no trips to the ballpark, no watching games on TV, no playing catch with the kids. Jenkins handled it. When his buddies from Blenheim wanted to drive over to Tiger Stadium in Detroit for Opening Day, he went along and sat there in the stands like a fan and endured the teasing in the beer line, everybody saying, "Fergie, what are you doing here?"

So it's really not surprising that Fergie made it to that card show in Fort Wayne; flew up Sunday morning, the day after Mary Anne died. "I don't think I spoke to a lot of people," he says. "I just signed for them, did it, and they took me to the airport and I flew on home. I guess [the promoter] was happy that I showed up. I think"—and he pauses before he goes on—"I was happy that I went, maybe. I don't know. At least I did what I said I would."

Six months later, life on the farm has settled back into a routine. Fergie is home most of the week, away on weekends. A family friend helps look after Samantha, who's 23 months old now and starting to talk and who cries "Da-da!" whenever Fergie walks in the door and sometimes, still, "Ma-ma!" ("Daddy's here," Fergie always tells her then, "Daddy's here.") Eventually, Jenkins figures, he can handle maybe three dozen head of cattle, plus the Appaloosas. Nothing too serious, just a nice little operation, something he and Raymond can take care of by themselves. Meanwhile, there's a barn to finish and doors to hang and a garden to plant, and somewhere back there in the brush is a 500-pound Charolais bull calf who broke loose last week and was last seen by Raymond grazing in the neighbor's pasture and who'll have to be captured soon before he goes wild. Not to mention, oh, another three or four hundred feet of that fence to be put up.

"I'm trying to whip this place into shape," Jenkins is saying to a neighbor who happened by with a load of hay and stopped his pickup truck in the middle of the road. Jenkins is leaning on his post-hole digger, catching his breath.

"Slowly but surely," he goes on. "Slowly but surely. It'll take a little while, but I'm doing it slow. Patience. Patience, that's the whole thing."

PHOTORONALD C. MODRATwo decades after his Cy Young year (top), Jenkins has branched into ranching.PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.]PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Jenkins hit his stride in 1967, the first of six consecutive 20-win seasons with the Cubs.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERIn 1979, his 15th year in the majors, Jenkins won 16 games for the Rangers.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAt home, the man who once trimmed the corners of the plate now applies his skills to wood.PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONJenkins is a regular at card shows, where his John Hancock can add value to old glossies.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhat Little Leaguer wouldn't be tickled to have a Hall of Famer for his coach?PHOTOTogether, Fergie and Mary Anne enlarged the ranch home in which he continues to live with Raymond and Samantha.PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.]