Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ferguson Jenkins: Best NHL Hall-of-Famer Canada Never Had?

Ferguson Jenkins:  Best NHL Hall-of-Famer Canada Never Had?

Abstract: Baseball has begun again.  The Cubs have a new manager, by any estimation a fine man and fine baseball mind, Joe Maddon.  They also have about seven top shortstop prospects.  Can the Cubs go all the way in 2016 or 2017?  We’ll see.  This post is about the 1974 National Film Board Donald Brittain documentary, King of the Hill, in turn about Ferguson Jenkins and the Cubs in ’72-’73.  Don’t bother with this post; just watch the documentary:  (You can also find it on youtube, just as you can Dennis Martinez’s Perfect Game, which I wrote about a long time ago on this blog.)  If Frank Mahovolich can become a senator, then how, in the world, didn't Ferguson Jenkins?

 April 2015 – Well, baseball is upon us again; “hope springs eternal” has given way almost already to “the boys of summer.”

For those parched nomadic Expos fans out there. . .there is no relief.  There is none.

Yes, we were the champions in ’94. . . .

By any “metric,” and any non-metric, Chatham, Ontario’s Ferguson Jenkins put up just about the best numbers one could conceivably put up—mostly with the Cubs . (!)

 He probably would have won about 360 (ok well, 320-325) with the Cardinals or Dodgers, say.  Numbers kids doing graduate theses should study Jenkins’s numbers to see what a perfect, durable, 4-pitch pitcher he was.  But caution: in the search for someone more metrical than him, they might never finish their dissertations.

For any baseball fans out there, check out King of the Hill (1974), an hour-long documentary about Fergie, following him from spring training to. . .well, it’s the Cubs, off-season hunting and fishing (in NL!!!).  It’s an NFB (National Film Board) production, made and narrated by the redoubtable Donald Brittain, who also brought you unforgettable portraits of people like Leonard Cohen, if you weren’t watching ( Brittain’s dry, repressed, “I’m-almost-afraid-of-doing/saying-this-on-film” narration actually works well, all these decades down the road, for those of us who still love baseball love the dry and wry, nostalgic and modern-weary delivery, just like we like the canny Woody Fryman or Doyle Alexander pulling the string on those kids, just one more time.  It isn’t that we’re old farts; we just appreciate it more, each time it happens, because it reminds us that we aren’t old farts, and once upon a time, we didn’t have to pull that string.  In a way that never could have been grasped in 1974, Donald Brittain actually makes a great throwback commentator for today—the same ones you Cardinals and Padres fans of today, and ye old Tigers fans of yesteryear, clutch so close.  No, for anyone who watches this documentary and finds the voiceover silly, I say this to you: “Yes, it is incredibly silly.  It was incontestably silly in 1974, when there were helicopter shirt collars and bell bottoms that could make you Mary Poppins on a steam-grate, but now, in our petticoated age of mass porn and invented heritage, it strikes. . .just. . .the right. . .note. . .for baseball.”

And if you listen (and watch) carefully, of course, Brittain is very sly and ironic, in a way those who love and appreciate the game will grin at, rather than rebuke.

 It’s crucial to remember, here, that the Harper Conservatives have cut the NFB and will probably cut it again, within weeks of this post; the erasure of Canadian history, and its replacement with “values” (code: “mine: not yours”) is just one more reason for this post.  When slaves were transported to North America, one of the first things slavebuyers did was try to break those slaves down, according to language, so that slaves from Africa couldn’t communicate with each other.  The Harper government, using taxpayer money, is doing precisely the same thing, trying to break down national, shared, communal and family-generational institutions by breaking them up and degrading them so that they can be replaced with blanket media advertising propounding shared “Harper” values that will instill fear and greed leading to greater class separation and greater entitlements for the already entitled.  If you were to say to me, “oh, come on, come off it, Dan, you’re way too cynical,” all I could say would be, “ok, how?”  Watched the hockey playoffs and YOUR money being used by the Conservatives to promote themselves, lately?  Dictators could only hope for such freedom and access to public money and airwaves.

I’m kinda starting to feel it, so should stop.  The ways I could conflate baseball and society and morality are almost limitless.  Therefore, I’ll draw it down to three (all probably related) things that really stood out for me in the documentary (other than Joe Pepitone at first, for you ball fans out there):

1) NHL star--about 17:20, Fergie’s dad talking about what a great hockey player Fergie was, and about his mom.  We sports fans, we all live in the world of what-ifs, especially in baseball, but if you can imagine Fergie’s frame and touch and talent, and pace the Herb Carnegies and Will O’Ree’s and Mike Marstons, well, it’s hard, so very hard not to think that Ferguson Jenkins would have been a once-in-a-generation winger, warding off bodies and settling pucks for goals or assists like few others of his time.  Odd that, although we congratulate ourselves, in Canada, that Jackie Robinson could play for the Montreal Royals, we (our “values”?) elide what others might have done.  (To read more about Herb Carnegie, see:  It’s a sad reflection, but based on any evidence, probably a true one, that Ferguson Jenkins had a lot more opportunity to pursue his athletic talents in the U.S. than he did in Canada.  Oh, it’s complicated, but maybe not that much.

 2) Composure—about 22:00 and throughout the documentary, you see the reserved and guarded and mature nature of the black ballplayers, Fergie with Billy Williams in probably a hotel room.  Players like Fergie and Billy and Cito Gaston came up through times when they had to stay at different hotels, eat in different restaurants, etc.  That no doubt instilled a certain guardedness, maybe even a “secret code,” like the one Harper is trying to instill in us now—a sense that we’re not all humans, but that others are somehow less human than us.  Anyway, it will strike anyone who watches Donald Brittain’s documentary just how much fun and yakkety-yak and haw-haw the white guys are having, while the black guys are all pretty business, at least off the field—they’ve got much more on the line, and that’s largely counter to any stereotypes, then or now. (If anyone wants to argue re: Ernie Banks, who we see briefly, then ok, let’s talk.)  I could be wrong about this, but only a bit.  You tell me.  It’s a blog.

 3) Expos—former champions, 1994.  Jarry Park. 34:40 As the Cubs were (of course) collapsing, Ron Santo made it to first base on a walk.  The following is his conversation with Ron Fairly, a man who had a heck of a career and played a heck of a lot of ball in Canada.

 Santo: I don’t git it.

Fairly: It’s a tough fuckin’ ballpark.

 Santo: Damn right it is.  Bad.  Tough to hit, tough to field, tough to do everything.

 --It’s a nice town, though.

 Fairly: Oh yeah.




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