|Ferguson Jenkins (standing) among all of the Montclair players honoring the Negro Leagues / N. Diunte|
"Each time these kids go to bat or make a play in the field, they will be representing one of the greats of the Negro Leagues," Berg said.
Berg should know a thing or two about the history of the Negro Leagues, as he was the former president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association. During the opening day festivities Berg presented Jenkins with a proclamation from Montclair's Mayor Jerry Friend, who deemed April 10th Ferguson Jenkins Day for his support of Montclair baseball and his philanthropic efforts nationwide. Jenkins took the time to explain the current efforts of his foundation.
"I work with the Fergie Jenkins Foundation in St. Catharines, Ontario," Jenkins said. "We were just in spring training in Mesa. We worked with the Cubs, Texas, Oakland and the Giants. We brought players in, they gave their time, signing autographs and letting people know that the foundation was raising money for all different types of charities.
"Bob Feller, Vida Blue, Gaylord Perry, and Rollie Fingers have all signed on with us. We raise money for the Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers / Big Sisters, Make a Wish Foundation, American Red Cross, Institute for the Blind, and cancer research. We try to let people know that we're raising money on a daily basis to help these organizations. It gives people the opportunity to come and get an autograph, and when you bring in other Hall of Famers, I think that brings the public in and raises the awareness for the causes we support."
Jenkins who was also in town for a pitching clinic later that day, participated in the opening day photo shoot with the league's players and coaches. Even though Jenkins did not play in the Negro Leagues, he recognized the importance of promoting the league's history.
"The Fergie Jenkins Foundation has been in touch with the Kansas City Museum with Buck O'Neil before he passed away," he said. "The museum in Kansas City is struggling right now. Unfortunately, without donations, it might go under. I'm not sure if its going to go under. Right now, they're looking for pledges and donations across the country. Everyone is hoping that they can get enough money to keep it open. It used to be open all day, now it is open only on the weekends."
Knowing that the museum is experiencing difficulties, Jenkins has hit the pavement to spread the word directly to a growing diversity of fans. He aimed to increase awareness about how the game has grown due to integration and globalization.
"We try to enhance the knowledge of youngsters and adults that the Negro Leagues were in existence like the Major Leagues, and that a lot of players didn't get the opportunity to play because of their skin color," he said. "Jackie [Robinson] was the first, [Larry] Doby was second, and then it was a kind of a snowball effect that brought players in. It enhanced the game even more; it made teams better. Now what you see in baseball is an international game. Kids from all different places like Canada, Australia, Germany, Phillippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba are playing."
Jenkins first learned about the history of Negro League baseball from his father Ferguson Holmes Jenkins, who played in the Negro Leagues in Canada. It is a legacy that he continues to pass on wherever he travels.
"My father played in the Negro Leagues in Ontario," he said. "His nickname was Hershey; he played on two championship teams in 1938 and 1939. The Chatham team was called the Chatham Black All-Stars, the next year they were the Black Panthers. They toured through Detroit, also in Buffalo, all across Ontario. They barnstormed a lot. My dad didn't tell me they had a lot of problems. People went out to the park to see baseball. That was fundamentally what they were trying to do, play the game of baseball."
He viewed Saturday's clinic as an avenue to share his advanced knowledge about the game to children who are at a younger age then when he was able to receive it. He hopes that they will take that information and use it on the field.
"I hope that the kids grasp a little bit from what I'm trying to get across to them," he said. "When I was younger, I didn't learn how to pitch until I was 16 years old. These youngsters are 12 and 13. I played a lot of hockey growing up and on the advice from one of my coaches, I stopped playing hockey at 17. I was able to get my interests more in the game of baseball and pitching, and I was able to sign after my senior year in high school. I just hope that the kids understand that what I am trying to get across is something that was taught to me at an older age. They're getting taught at an younger age, and if they can grasp it they can use it when they play in their leagues."
While not every player at the clinic is going to play baseball in high school and beyond, Jenkins wanted to deliver the message that baseball is to be enjoyed. It is a message that he feels is often lost in today's current hyper-competitive climate of youth sports.
"I tell kids to have fun," he said. "Learn to play as a team with your teammates and understand that all of your coaches try to give the best advice they can, because none of them are ex-MLB players, so they're just trying to pass on the same knowledge that I am getting across to them. The game is fun, have fun! What you try to learn now at a young age, you try to build on so that by the time you get into high school, the coaching aspect will be a lot more and you will be much better ballplayers."