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April 30, 2009

The Legacy of Number 31

Take a look around the major leagues, team by team, and there are numbers that define the franchise.

In Boston, it is Ted Williams’ familiar Number 9.

Number 44 in Atlanta is synonymous with Hank Aaron.

And in New York, well…in New York, the Yankees have too many to mention.

On May 3, the Chicago Cubs will be adding a new number to their team’s historic legacy.

Joining Numbers 10 (Ron Santo), 14 (Ernie Banks), 23 (Ryne Sandberg), 26 (Billy Williams) and 42 (Jackie Robinson) will be Number 31.

However, the Cubs aren’t just retiring Number 31 for one player…they’re doing it one better and retiring it for two.

Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux.

And the case for both is pretty easy to make.

Jenkins made his way to the Cubs on April 21, 1966 (a week after Maddux was born coincidentally), along with John Herrnstein and Adolfo Phillips. In return, the Phillies received Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson.

Now, I’m not entirely sure how Buhl and Jackson panned out for the Phillies, but considering they were out of baseball shortly after Richard Nixon was elected suggests that the Cubs MIGHT have made out like bandits.

But what exactly did Jenkins accomplish while wearing Number 31 on his back for the Loveable Losers?


Jenkins was 167-132 with a 3.20 ERA in two stints (ten seasons) with the Cubs. In 1971, he brought home the National League Cy Young Award, while three other times, he was either the runner up (1967) or finished third (1970 and 1972).

All in all, Jenkins threw six straight 20 win seasons between 1967 and 1972 (the longest streak in the Majors since Warren Spahn did the same between 1986 and 1961), during his first stint with the Cubs.

In 1982, after eight seasons away from Chicago and stops in Texas and Boston, Jenkins returned to the North Side to push his career wins total to 284, which, at the time, ranked him 19th all-time. Twenty-five full seasons after his retirement, he is sitting at 29th all-time.

Prior to the 1984 season, Jenkins was released and left the Cubs as their all-time leader in games started and strikeouts. His 167 victories as a member of the Cubs is the most for the team since 1941.

What’s interesting about Jenkins is that he didn’t want Number 31 when he first joined the Cubs. Originally, he requested Number 30, but Cubs clubhouse man Yosh Kawano informed Jenkins that young lefty Kenny Holtzman already wore that number.“My birthday is December 13, so I reversed the numbers to make it 31,” Jenkins once told a reporter.

Given the crazy reasons that other people have had (Omar Olivares wore Number 00 to display his initials, Bill Lee wanted 337 so people could read his name while he stood on his head), reversing your birthdate makes perfect sense to me.

Maddux, on the other hand, had no such reasons.

When he made the big leagues late in the 1986 season, he stepped into the Cubs clubhouse and without asking…was given Number 31.

“I remember walking down the stairs into the clubhouse. (The Number 31 jersey) was there in my locker. Being 20-years-old at the time, the last thing I was going to do was complain about my number. I was just happy to be there,” Maddux told the Chicago Tribune last month. “I thought that was pretty cool that they gave me (Jenkins’) number.”

And like Jenkins, Maddux made the most out of his career with the pinstriped Number 31 on his back.

In his ten seasons with the Cubs, he was 133-112 with a 3.61 ERA. He also cemented himself as one of the top fielding pitchers of all-time by winning six of his 18 Gold Gloves on the North Side.

In 1992, Maddux’s best season as a Cub, he won his first Cy Young Awards. Of course, it was following that season when Chicago ceremoniously allowed him to flee to Atlanta and capture three more Cy Youngs.

All in a row.

In between his two stints with Chicago (the second coming from 2004 to 2006), Maddux finished just shy of 200 wins with the Braves and for his career, he ended with a staggering 355-227 record. He is the only pitcher in Major League history to win at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons and only Spahn and his 363 wins has more career wins in the post-1920 live-ball era.

Jenkins was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991, his third try, with 75.4% of the vote. Maddux looks to be virtually unanimous when Cooperstown comes a calling in 2014.

Separately they are sure-bet Hall of Famers. But let me ask you this…did anyone else of worth ever don Number 31 for the Cubs?

The short answer is “no”, but most perplexing is how and why did ANYONE get to wear the number once Jenkins left the first time? Why wasn’t Jenkins’ number, at the least, the second number retired by the Cubs (Banks’ being the first in 1982) instead of the sixth?

I mean, here was a guy who, from 1967 to 1972 led the Majors with 127 victories, averaged 248 Ks (compared to 63 walks) and a 3.00 ERA. How did the Cubs dare relinquish his jersey to the likes of Tom Dettore (1975-76), Joe Coleman (1976), Jim Todd (1977) and Davey Johnson(1978).

The first three were, like Jenkins, pitchers, but their time with Chicago didn’t quite add up to Fergie’s. Mostly used in relief, the three pitchers were a combined 15-21 with a 4.92 ERA over three seasons.

Between the time Jenkins came back to the Cubs to finish up his Hall of Fame career and Maddux started his, another reliever, Ray Fontenot donned Number 31.

Fontenot continued the legacy of the afore mentioned three-headed monster by going 9-15 in 80 games.


So, Maddux inherits the number and holds on to it while he secures his spot as one of the greatest righties of the live-ball era. Surely, the Cubs learned their lesson and packed up Number 31 for good, right?


Half a dozen players came and went through the clubhouse on the corner of Clark and Addison.

And again, much like Dettore, Coleman, Todd, Johnson and Fontenot…Kevin Foster (1994, 1997-98), Bobby Ayala (1999), Brad Woodall (1999), Mike Fyhrie (2001), Donovan Osborne (2002) and Mark Guthrie (2003) failed to re-capture the glory of Jenkins and Maddux.

And since I know you’re curious (and I did the math)…Foster, Ayala, Woodall, Fyhrie, Osborne and Guthrie were a less than stellar 36-41 with a 4.51 ERA.

With the Braves, Maddux was 194 and 88 with a 2.63 ERA. Add to that those three Cy Young awards and four other seasons where he finished in the top five and, well, there is no need to continue with the comparisons.

Suffice it to say, it is nice to see the Cubs FINALLY wise up and put Number 31 to bed. I know I’ll be watching on May 3 as they retire the number for good.

Will they send two flags up the foul pole or just one?

I guess we’ll find out.
***On May7, Jenkins will be making what is surely one of his first public appearances following the retirement ceremony when he visits Rockford, IL. For information on the benefit, please check out MELD's website.***

BallHype: hype it up!


joelkirstein said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
joelkirstein said...

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s watching Fergie work his magic over hitters in both leagues and dominating for so long. He won 20+ games 6 seasons in a row and he was a very good hitter, for a pitcher, who often came off the bench as a pinch hitter. In retrospect his numbers seem almost surreal and given the fact that he competed at the time when pitchers like Seaver, Palmer, Perry, Gibson, Carlton, Marichal were so successful and Fergie matched them, any recognition he receives is long overdue. Some team's entire pitching staff don't have as many complete games as Fergie did on his own. Check out his 1971 Cy Young award winning season stats to see how superlative he was as a pitcher.