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'We were just a bunch of kids'

JenkinsFergie Jenkins will be in Kitchener Wednesday night for a charity event at themuseum. The museum is also launching its Bases Loaded exhibit, which includes Kitchener Panthers' artifacts dating back to 1919. 

KITCHENER — To the rest of the world, he’s Fergie Jenkins, arguably the greatest pitcher Canada has ever produced. But to Kitchener’s Jim Baker, he has another name — Fergburger.

In the late 1950s, Baker and Jenkins were teammates on the Chatham All-Stars baseball team, a group of teenagers who for a time were unrivalled across Ontario, winning three consecutive provincial championships.

Jenkins, the only Canadian in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., would go on to become one of professional baseball’s most dominant pitchers. But in 1956, he was just an unknown 13-year-old from Chatham, pulled up from the younger ranks and stuck at first base on Baker’s elite Bantam squad.

You can see Jenkins, 70, and Baker, 71, together in an old black and white team photo in Themuseum’s new Bases Loaded exhibit, which celebrates baseball history. And on Wednesday night, the former teammates will be reunited when Jenkins is in town for a charity event at Themuseum.

Baker, who played outfield for the All-Stars, remembers Jenkins in a way few do. Back then, the Cy Young-winning pitcher was a tall but scrawny teen known as Fergburger, because he liked to eat hamburgers on road trips.

Since everybody on the Chatham team needed a nickname, it just stuck. Baker was Bake, the third baseman was Porkie, and there was Kneebone at second.

“Everybody had a name. He was just one of us. We were just a bunch of kids,” Baker said. “He was brought up to help us because he was so tall and he was a good hitter. But he wasn’t pitching yet.”

Like the other teenagers from the small farming community, baseball gave Jenkins and Baker a chance to travel Ontario at a time when few families owned cars. The game led them to all kinds of new experiences — from riding their first subway in Toronto to playing their first game under lights in Kitchener’s Victoria Park.

“I was a pretty green rookie then. Playing with those older guys was a great experience,” said Jenkins, over the phone from St. Catharines. “It was outstanding. You’re just a kid and you’re leaving Chatham to go across Ontario, that was something special.”

Jenkins and Baker were rivals in the local house league but teammates on their city’s rep squad. That made for some strange encounters when they met up as opponents, like the time Jenkins was knocked down by a hard tag on the head from Baker while trying to steal second base.

He came up “like he wanted to fight,” but he soon calmed down, Baker said.

In the winter, when Jenkins was honing his throwing for hours with a string “strike zone” in his high school gym, Baker and his teammates would take turns swinging away.

“We used those red, white and blue sponge balls. Once, I broke the electric scoreboard. I just busted it,” Baker said, laughing. “But even at a young age, Fergie has a phenomenal command of the strike zone.”

By the time Baker’s team advanced to the midget level, Jenkins was no longer a first baseman, but a promising talent on the mound. He was the winning pitcher when Chatham claimed its third straight championships in Niagara Falls in 1958.

Although he’d practised his accuracy by throwing coal at passing rail cars near his house, he didn’t seriously try pitching until some of the older players moved on and the team needed someone to fill in.

“I volunteered to pitch. I said ‘I’ll give it a try.’ And that’s how it started,” Jenkins said. “There were so many things I had to learn. You can’t just go out there and pick up the ball and throw.”

He credits a local high school teacher, Gene Dziadura, with teaching him the finer points of pitching.

After high school, Jenkins pursued his pro career by signing with Philadelphia, and Baker got a job in a bank and transferred to Kitchener. But they remained friends, and Baker became a fan, following his old teammate as he turned into the Chicago Cubs’ and Texas Rangers’ legend who racked up 284 career wins.

When Jenkins was inducted into Cooperstown, Baker was in the front row. He had tears in his eyes, and got so excited he jumped a fence, and then another — and wound up standing shoulder to shoulder with Yogi Berra and Ernie Banks.

“I was like a 50-year-old kid,” he said. “I was just so proud of him. And what he’s accomplished.”

On Wednesday, they’ll have another chance to remember their baseball memories when they were literally just boys of spring.

Today, both men lament the number of empty baseball diamonds in cities across Ontario. And they agree on the problem — the prohibitive costs of playing. Jenkins says in his amateur days, service clubs sponsored teams and covered most of the bills.

That doesn’t happen much anymore, he said, and that’s a shame.

Both Baker and Jenkins say some of their best times were still back on those old diamonds where they spent their summers as teenagers. And they want more kids to have that experience.

Baker considers himself lucky he was there when Jenkins, that lanky teenager who figured he’d try his hand at pitching, got his start. His old teammate just considers himself lucky.

“I had a dream as a kid to become a major-leaguer. And it worked out,” Jenkins said.

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An evening with Fergie Jenkins

Tickets are still available to Wednesday night’s event at Themuseum. Jenkins will talk about his baseball career, answer questions, sign autographs and pose for photos. There will also be a live and silent auction, with proceeds going to the museum and Cystic Fibrosis Canada. For information, visit themuseum.ca.

Themuseum’s Bases Loaded exhibit will continue throughout the summer. It features baseball memorabilia from some of the game’s great moments and players, including a signed Babe Ruth ball, bats autographed by Hank Aaron and Ted Williams, and special Blue Jays artifacts.

There are also historical items on loan from the Fergie Jenkins Baseball and Black History Museum and the Kitchener Panthers, the local Intercounty Baseball League team that began in 1919.

Comments

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 Mike Wilson

Thanks for a great profile of one of the best pitchers in baseball. Growing up near Chicago all I wanted to do was play ball like Fergie Jenkins!

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