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Cubs give Fergie Jenkins his statue at Wrigley Field at long last

Billy Williams could only laugh.

Standing underneath the newly revealed statue of Ferguson Jenkins, just to the left of the recreations of himself, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo — the four horsemen of the Cubs’ renaissance in the 1960s — Williams was asked a question.

If the four of you were around today, could the Cubs afford you guys?

Imagine how much money the Cubs’ bronzed quartet could have commanded in its heyday? More than Tom Ricketts would want to shell out now, let alone P.K. Wrigley back in the days when players got offseason jobs.

We were standing outside in the lovely green space of Gallagher Way, amid the splendor of a renovated Wrigley Field, a living baseball museum tuned up to extract as much money as possible from Cubs fans and tourists alike.

As we talked about the glory days when the Cubs thrilled and ultimately disappointed their fans, it wasn’t hard to think about what was missing with the present team. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javy Báez were traded last season. Kyle Schwarber is hitting dingers in Philadelphia. Jon Lester retired as a St. Louis Cardinal.

The next statue that goes up shouldn’t be for Ryne Sandberg — no offense Ryno — but it should be a collective one of the 2016 team. Don’t wait 10 years to honor the winners.

Most of that team has moved on and what’s left lost 10-6 to the Arizona Diamondbacks on a windswept day at Wrigley where both teams combined for 11 home runs, seven of which were from the visitors.

Jenkins joked about the wind blowing out during his speech. That’s one thing Cubs of every generation have in common: they always check the wind in the morning.

Jenkins didn’t care about the wind when he pitched, Williams said. He knew he could pitch around it.

It’s always heartwarming to see “Sweet Swinging Billy Williams from Whistler, Alabama” at the ballpark and he was in a gregarious mood on this warm May afternoon because his longtime friend Fergie finally got his statue in the sun.

“Yeah, this is great,” he said. “I thought Fergie deserve this a long time ago. But better late than never.”

Jenkins has long been at the back of the line when it comes to honors among his teammates. He was the third of the four to make the Hall of Fame, finally inducted in 1991. Banks was enshrined in 1977 and Williams in 1987. Santo made it posthumously in 2012.

Ernie Banks got his statue in 2008, then Williams in 2010 and Santo in 2011. Harry Caray’s statue was installed outside of the bleachers in 1998, shortly after his death.

Banks’ number was retired in 1982, Williams’ in 1987 and Santo’s in 2003. The Cubs retired Jenkins’ No. 31 in 2009 in a joint ceremony with Greg Maddux.

“I had the numbers, but the organization has to do it,” he said. “It’s like retiring my number. They waited for Maddux to retire and be retired together. He wore 31 for quite a few years just like I did. But I was here for Ernie’s. I was here from Billy’s and Ronnie’s. Believe me, it’s an honor.”

But now Jenkins is immortalized forever outside of Wrigley Field. The statue’s pose is inspired by Jenkins’ 1971 Sports Illustrated cover. Jenkins won the Cy Young Award that year, throwing 30 complete games in 39 starts and pitching 325 innings.

“It looks like me,” Jenkins said with a smile.

His numbers have grown even more impressive over time. He pitched for 19 seasons, starting in 1965 with the Phillies and ending in his second stint with the Cubs in 1983.

At 40, he threw the last of his 267 complete games, a four-hit shutout against the Cardinals on June 10, 1983. Jenkins threw just over 4,500 innings for his career.

He ranks 63rd all-time in complete games and 27th in innings, but those around him in those categories are mostly guys from the early days of baseball, along with a few fellow travelers like Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton.

It’s easy to say today’s players are soft, but it’s not like every pitcher of Jenkins’ era was a workhorse like he was. Guys had bum arms and short careers. Jenkins was just special.

“I ran a lot, I stayed in shape,” he said. “My dad was a chef and told me what to eat and what not to eat. The biggest thing is what you put in your body is going to make you perform well. And I tried to understand that out there playing. I gotta have stamina. So I just kept my body in good shape. I had never had a sore arm. In 21 seasons, I never had a sore arm and that’s probably genetics.”

Kerry Wood was in attendance for the event. Imagine Wood with Jenkins’ longevity. Or Mark Prior.

While never pitching for the Cubs, C.C. Sabathia also showed up for the event. The two became friendly when Sabathia won the Warren Spahn Award, which is given by the Oklahoma Sports Museum to the best left-handed pitcher in baseball, and through their association in the Black Aces, a group founded by Mudcat Grant to honor Black starting pitchers who have won 20 games in a season. It’s a dwindling group. Since Dave Stewart did it in four straight seasons from 1987-90, only Dontrelle Willis (2005), Sabathia (2010) and David Price (2012) have pulled off that feat.

Jenkins did it seven times, the most of any of the aces.

“When I see Fergie’s stats, I’m like, should I even be in this group?” Sabathia said.

There are nine living Black Aces. J.R. Richard and Grant died last summer. Bob Gibson passed away the previous fall and Don Newcombe back in 2019.

Santo and Banks died before the Cubs finally won the World Series. It was almost a close call for Williams, who caught pneumonia during the series and had to watch the pivotal last two games from home. He forced himself to go to the parade and the rally, but it sent him to the hospital. That’s the Cubs for you.

Thankfully, Williams and Jenkins are still here, hanging out at the ballpark, dispensing wisdom and giving the franchise some much-needed gravitas.

What would Jenkins, who won 167 times as a Cubs pitcher, be worth today? Hundreds of millions of dollars that he’ll never see. But there’s one word to describe his legacy, which is now complete with a statue to match his Hall of Fame bust and retired number: priceless.

(Top photo: AP Photo / Nam Y. Huh)

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