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Today in Cubs history: The time Fergie Jenkins was almost claimed by the White Sox

Yes, that’s right. Pull up a chair, this is a good story.

Fergie Jenkins in 1982
Getty Images

Forty years ago today, the Cubs and White Sox made a multi-player trade. The Cubs sent Scott Fletcher, Randy Martz, Pat Tabler and Dick Tidrow to the South Side in exchange for Steve Trout and Warren Brusstar.

This wouldn’t ordinarily be a topic for a “Today in Cubs history” article, except for this tweet sent out last fall by Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins:

Well, that piqued my interest, so I did a little research. Here’s what actually happened.

The strike by MLB players in 1981 that cost about two months of that season occurred largely because owners wanted some compensation for free agents they lost, and players didn’t want to give that. Eventually the two sides ended the strike by agreeing on a “compensation pool” that would work this way:

The compromise that was reached following the strike was to set up a free agent compensation draft, through which a team losing a top-notch free agent would get to pick a player from a pool of players made available by the other Major League teams. Free agents were divided into three classes, based on playing time and performance over the previous two seasons: in descending order, these were Type A, Type B and Type C. Only losing a Type A player would activate the compensation draft; Type B players would continue to be compensated with draft choices, and Type C’s would not trigger any compensation.

All teams could protect 26 players in their organization from the draft, except for teams who signed a Type A free agent that year, who would protect 24 players. Teams could opt out of the right to sign Type A free agents and therefore not have to place any names into the pool. As a result, the team losing a player could be sure to pick a player who would help immediately if that was their wish (although some lower-level prospects would also be available). The draft took place once a year, in January or February, between the end of the free agent signing season and the opening of spring training.

Jenkins, who had returned to the Cubs in 1982 after eight years elsewhere, had a very good year in ‘82: 3.15 ERA, 14 wins, 3.7 bWAR — the WAR figure the second-best on that 89-loss Cubs team. He was under contract for $500,000 for 1983, which was considered pretty good money in those days. Fergie turned 40 in December 1982 and Cubs GM Dallas Green figured no one would take him in the compensation draft for that money and at Jenkins’ age, so the Cubs left him unprotected.

Enter the White Sox and their savvy GM, Roland Hemond. The White Sox had been active in the compensation pool the first year it had been in effect, the 1981-82 offseason. They lost Ed Farmer to free agency and chose catcher Joel Skinner, then a top prospect, from the Phillies as compensation. Irony: Skinner played only 131 games for the Sox, while Farmer wound up as a radio announcer for them from 1991 until his death in early 2020.

Anyway, the Sox lost Steve Kemp to free agency after the 1982 season and so once again went to the compensation pool. They chose Rudy May, who the Yankees had left unprotected, but that choice was voided because May was under a multi-year contract and by the rules of the compensation pool, should have automatically been added to the Yankees’ protected list.

That’s apparently when Hemond told Green he was going to select Jenkins.

I say “apparently” because despite what Fergie said in his tweet, there’s no official transaction record of him actually being claimed by the White Sox, and both Hemond and Green denied there was any quid pro quo for the trade I noted above being made with a promise by Hemond that he wouldn’t take Jenkins in the compensation pool.

In the Tribune of January 27, 1983, Linda Kay wrote:

The six-player swap was announced by Green at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field offices at 8:45 a.m. and by Hemond in a press conference at the same time. Hemond revealed 15 minutes later that the Sox had selected right-hander Steve Mura from the compensation pool of some 2,000 [un]protected players.

“Do you feel better now that they didn’t take Jenkins?” Green was asked.

“I’m happier now than I was three minutes ago,” he said. “To say I’m relieved probably would be an understatement.”

Why would Green be “relieved” unless the claim of Jenkins actually happened and Hemond only agreed to not take Fergie unless this trade was made?

Both Green and Hemond are deceased now, so there’s no way to confirm or deny this happened. I tend to believe it did.

Here’s what eventually happened to all the players involved in this little intrigue.

  • Jenkins, at 40, didn’t have a good year in 1983 for the Cubs, was eventually removed from the rotation in September and was released early in spring training in 1984. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 and has become a beloved Cubs elder statesman, often making appearances at Wrigley Field.
  • Mura, who had a decent year for St. Louis in 1982, pitched in just six games for the White Sox before being demoted to Triple-A, where he posted a 4.81 ERA in 19 starts. The Sox released him just before the 1984 season began and he surfaced again, briefly, in the majors with the A’s in 1985.
  • Tabler never played for the White Sox. Just before the 1983 season began he was traded to Cleveland for Jerry Dybzinski, who was involved in a couple of critical plays for the Sox in their Game 4 ALCS loss to Baltimore that year.
  • Fletcher played three years for the Sox before being traded to the Rangers. He later returned to the Sox in the same deal that brought Sammy Sosa to the South Side.
  • Martz, who was the Cubs’ first-round pick in 1977, pitched in just one game for the Sox before, like Mura, being demoted to Triple-A Denver. The Sox released him just before the 1984 season and he pitched a couple more years in the minors (including four games for the Iowa Cubs in 1985!) before hanging it up.
  • Tidrow had a mediocre year for the Sox in 1983 (4.22 ERA, -0.1 bWAR in 50 games) and was released at the end of the season. He pitched one more year, for the Mets in 1984, and then became a longtime executive for the Giants. Here’s the obit I wrote about him here when he passed away in July 2021.
  • Trout had several good years for the Cubs and helped them to the NL East title in 1984. In July 1987, right after he threw back-to-back complete game shutouts, they traded him to the Yankees for Bob Tewksbury and two guys you’ve never heard of. That trade that would have worked out just fine for the Cubs if they had just kept Tewksbury, who pitched in only eight games for the North Siders before being let go after 1988. He went on to have several good years for the Cardinals in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, Trout pitched poorly for the Yankees and Mariners and was done after 1989.
  • Brusstar was a solid middle reliever for the Cubs in 1983 and 1984, but his performance declined in 1985 and he was released just before the 1986 season began.

So the trade that the Sox pushed onto the Cubs in exchange for not taking Jenkins in the compensation pool actually worked out pretty well for the Cubs, and the guy the Sox took did almost nothing for them.

The White Sox dived into that compensation pool one more time the following year, after they lost Dennis Lamp to free agency. The Mets had left Tom Seaver unprotected after 1983, thinking, as the Cubs did in 1982, that no one would take a fairly expensive 39-year-old pitcher, but the Sox did just that. Seaver had a couple of good years for the Sox, including registering his 300th win in a Sox uniform, before they traded him to Boston for Steve Lyons.

There were a couple more selections made in the compensation draft, chronicled here, and it was eliminated in the next round of MLB/MLBPA collective bargaining, as no one really liked it. Eventually that led to the qualifying offer/draft pick system of free agent compensation we have now.

Anyway, it was 40 years ago today, Wednesday, January 26, 1983, that this major trade went down between the Cubs and White Sox, after Fergie Jenkins nearly finished his career on the South Side.