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Ferguson Jenkins turns 80, Canada’s greatest baseball player

UNDATED: Fergie Jenkins of the Chicago Cubs poses for an action portrait. Fergie Jenkins played for the Cubs from 1966-1973, 1982-1983. (Photo by Photo File/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

As Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins celebrates his 80th birthday today, A look back at his career shows how much baseball has changed in recent decades, especially in the area of pitching. In an era when a manager considers it fortunate for the starting pitcher to complete 6 innings, Jenkins chalked up 267 complete games over 18 seasons—an average of almost 15 complete games a year!  In 1971 with the Cubs, Jenkins notched 30 complete games out of 39 starts. Then, of course there is the six-year span where he won 20 or more games. He ended his Career with the Cubs, after stops in Texas and Boston, with 284 wins.

The Jenkins era coincided with the career of another legendary Hall-of-Famer, Bob Gibson of the St Louis Cardinals. Gibson was a feared fireballer who intimidated batters with inside fastballs that seemed to be aimed at batters’ heads. . The two pitchers faced each other nine times between 1967 and 1972 with Jenkins winning five, Gibson three and one no decision. Their first face-off as starters was on June 3, 1967, where the Cubs beat the Cardinals 7-5 before 46,670 at Busch Stadium with Gibson getting knocked out in the fifth and Jenkins getting the win, throwing 8 2/3 innings.

In 1968 they met three times including an April 20 matchup that saw both pitchers record complete games and Fergie winning 5-1. Incidentally the game was played in two hours and three minutes as both pitchers did not dawdle on the mound. In the second game Gibson pitched a 1-0 shutout and neither pitcher factored in the third game.

There were two Jenkins-Gibson face-offs in 1969, with Jenkins winning both times. Gibson won 2-1 in their only match-up in 1970,. In the 1971 opener, Jenkins outdueled Gibson 2-1. They met once more in ’72, with Gibson throwing a shutout in a 1-0 win.

Jenkins was born in Chatham, Ontario where Tiger stadium was just an hour away by car. This writer attended Queen Mary School with Jenkins for a couple of years.  Even as a 12-year-old Jenkins, was easily the best athlete, not only in baseball but in almost any sport. In softball, the left fielder (because  the fence was short)  would go out of the schoolyard into the backyard of a neighbouring home to retrieve the balls which Jenkins would invariably launch out of the yard. Jenkins competed in track and field, ice hockey, and basketball in his school years, lettering five times. When he began playing bantam baseball in his teens, he started out as a first baseman. He honed his pitching skills by throwing pieces of coal from a local coal yard, aiming at either an open ice chute or the gaps of passing boxcars. He was also encouraged to continue working on his pitching by Gene Dziadura, a former shortstop in the Chicago Cubs minor league system, and a Philadelphia Phillies scout who became a history teacher in Chatham. In the winter, Dziadura and Jenkins would hold frequent pitching practices in the gymnasium of Chatham Collegiate Institute. The explosion of Fergie’s fastball hitting the mitt would reverberate all through the school. Many training sessions involving the two followed, until Jenkins graduated from high school.

His father, a chef and chauffeur, was the son of immigrants from Barbados, while his mother was a descendant of American slaves who escaped through the Underground Railroad before settling in Southwestern Ontario. Both of his parents were good athletes; his father was an amateur boxer and semi-professional baseball player for the Chatham Coloured (Sic) All-Stars. Fergie’s mother had lost her sight and became an inspirational speaker, wowing audiences at high school assemblies and other public gatherings.

Fergie, (center rear) with the Chatham Kent Asphalt Seniors ca 1961

In his first couple of years in the Big leagues Jenkins also spent the off-season travelling with the Harlen Globetrotters.

In 2020, Jenkins posted a tweet immediately after the George Floyd murder in which he suggested that he didn’t experience, or at least didn’t notice overt racism until he was signed by the Phillies and sent to their minor league team in Little Rock Arkansas. It was his first experience in the American South.

I made the minor leagues and got to witness it first hand: not being able to get off bus to get food, so the white players had to bring us food, not being able to stay in the same hotel as the white players, being booed when you came out on the field, and being called the N word.

“Did it bother me? YES, but dad always said, ‘just worry about yourself.’ That was over 50 years ago! Have things changed?

“For some … who fought and struggled to make a better life for themselves, yes. But even to this day, minorities are pulled over for no other reason than the color of their skin. When will it stop? It’s been going on for years. When do we think that Americans and people of the world will understand?

“I HOPE it is starting, that enough people have seen the outrageous and unjust treatment that minorities still receive to this day. IT MUST stop … but will it? I for one hope so – because the lives of these young black people matter! Please give them a chance to be better and the world will better from that. MAKE THE WORLD EQUAL FOR ONCE! Because it has never been equal for our minorities.”

Among the many honours that Fergie Jenkins has received was the erection of his statue at Wrigley Field in Chicago in May this year. Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp honouring Fergie in 2011.

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