Facing Bob Gibson often brought out the best in Ferguson Jenkins.
Fifty years ago, on April 6, 1971, Jenkins and Gibson pitched into the 10th inning on Opening Day at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Jenkins won when Billy Williams hit a walkoff home run against Gibson for a 2-1 Cubs victory over the Cardinals.
The game, completed in one hour and 58 minutes, was typical of most duels between Jenkins and Gibson: low-scoring, briskly played.
From 1967 to 1972, Jenkins and Gibson started against one another nine times. Jenkins won five, Gibson won three and one resulted in no decision for either.
Jenkins’ three losses to Gibson were by scores of 1-0, 2-1 and 1-0.
The Cardinals scored one run apiece in four of Gibson’s five losses to Jenkins.
In their starts against one another, Jenkins had a 1.78 ERA and Gibson’s was 2.43. The games were completed in an average of two hours and six minutes.
“I always try to get myself up against him,” Jenkins told the Chicago Tribune. “When you have Cy Young out there against you, you always try a little harder.”
Pair of aces
Jenkins and Gibson were right-handers destined for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I had four pitches and I could control them all,” Jenkins told the Tribune. “I thought I threw relatively hard. I had a very easy motion. I used to get angry when I was compared to Gibson. I didn’t want to be compared to anybody. I pitched like Fergie Jenkins.”
They faced one another as starters for the first time on June 3, 1967, at St. Louis. Billy Williams hit a three-run home run in the fifth, knocking Gibson from the game, and Jenkins got the win. Boxscore
A year later, on April 20, 1968, at St. Louis, Williams drove in three runs against Gibson and Jenkins pitched a three-hitter for the win. Boxscore
“I didn’t really know him then,” Gibson said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1995. “Most of the guys I played against I didn’t like when we played.”
Jenkins recalled, “We were both competitors. We didn’t take each other out to dinner.”
Among the best
In 1970, Gibson had 23 wins and received his second National League Cy Young Award. The Cardinals rewarded him with a $150,000 salary for 1971.
Jenkins won 22 in 1970, becoming the only pitcher in the big leagues with 20 or more wins in each season from 1967-70. He wanted a $100,000 salary for 1971, but the Cubs balked and he signed for $90,000.
“The only difference between me and Bob Gibson is $60,000,” Jenkins told The Sporting News. “The front office doesn’t think I rank up with Gibson, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver, but I’m going to prove I do.”
The 1971 season opener was a good place to start.
“I like facing the good ones,” Jenkins said to the Tribune. “I’ve always done well against Bob Gibson. I think I’ve had some of my best games against the top pitchers.”
It was sunny in Chicago for Opening Day, but a 17 mph wind blew in and the temperature struggled to see 40, “the kind of day more appropriate for bears,” Tribune columnist Robert Markus noted.
Seven future Hall of Famers were in the starting lineups: Gibson, Lou Brock, Ted Simmons and Joe Torre for the Cardinals, and Jenkins, Ron Santo and Billy Williams for the Cubs. Another two were managers Leo Durocher of the Cubs and Red Schoendienst of the Cardinals.
Jenkins retired the first six batters until Simmons led off the third with a single. Gibson didn’t allow a hit the first three innings.
In the fourth, the Cubs reached Gibson for three hits and a run. With runners on first and second, one out, Gibson threw a pitch up and in to Johnny Callison, who blooped it over the head of first baseman Joe Hague. The ball landed barely inside the foul line in short right _ “a sick pigeon” is how author Roger Kahn described it _ for a double, scoring Santo from second.
“You couldn’t have placed the ball better than Callison did, about four inches from the line, if you threw the ball out there,” Cardinals coach George Kissell told the Post-Dispatch.
Gibson “in the opinion of several Cubs pitched better than they had seen him in two years,” the Tribune reported.
“He was just throwing darts,” Santo said.
Glenn Beckert told the Post-Dispatch, “It looked like he was throwing from 30 feet.”
With two outs and none on in the seventh, Jenkins tried to get a fastball inside to Torre with the count 0-and-2. The pitch moved across the plate and Torre lined it onto the catwalk in left for a home run, tying the score at 1-1. Video
“The ball Torre hit was my mistake,” Jenkins told the Tribune. “I had been getting him out on curves and was just showing him the fastball, but I got it out over the plate and he went out and got it, just muscled it.”
Catcher Ken Rudolph took the blame, telling the Post-Dispatch: “I called for a fastball and when Fergie shook me off I called for it again.”
After Torre’s home run, the Cardinals didn’t get another baserunner. Jenkins retired the next 10 in a row.
Jenkins “in the judgment of a number of players on both sides hurled the best game of his life,” the Tribune reported.
Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger said, “I’ve never seen him throw better.”
Jenkins was helped by a dazzling play by Kessinger in the ninth. With one out, Matty Alou bunted and pushed the ball past Santo at third. Kessinger, charging, scooped the ball with his bare hand and while stumbling and falling made a perfect peg to first baseman Joe Pepitone in time to nab Alou.
Pepitone told the Tribune it was “the best shortstop play I’ve seen in my life.” Durocher, a former Cardinals shortstop, said it was the “greatest play I’ve ever seen by a shortstop.”
In the 10th, shadows covered home plate, making it tough for the batters to see, but Williams was undeterred. When the count got to 1-and-1, Gibson threw a fastball and Williams hit into the bleachers in right. Video
In the book “The Head Game,” Roger Kahn wrote, “Standing on the mound, Gibson twice quietly repeated the same phrase, ‘Oh, fuck.’ Then he squared his shoulders and walked off the field.”
“Sometimes this game will drive a man crazy,” Gibson told the Tribune.
Williams, whose 10 career home runs versus Gibson were the most anyone hit against him, told the Post-Dispatch, “I don’t normally see him make a pitch like that to me, a fastball down the middle.”
Gibson responded: “It was not down the middle.”
The catcher, Simmons, confirmed the pitch “was on the outside corner down around the knees. He just golfed it.” Boxscore
Jenkins said of Williams: “My old fishing buddy took care of everything. He’s got the sweetest swing in baseball.”
For the season, Jenkins made 39 starts, won 24, completed 30 and issued a mere 37 walks in 325 innings. He earned the National League Cy Young Award, the first Cubs pitcher to receive the honor.