By: Brian Frank
The height of Fergie Jenkins’ professional baseball career took place at big league stadiums like Wrigley Field, Arlington Stadium, and Fenway Park – but it all began on the ball fields of Southern Ontario and in places like War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, Ray Winder Field in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Miami Stadium in South Florida. His baseball journey would eventually take him all the way to Cooperstown, New York, with his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I look back on a lot of the circumstances that happened to me in the game of baseball and they’re always good, they’re always good,” Jenkins said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “I look back and I have some great memories.”
Jenkins grew up in Chatham, Ontario, about an hour east of Detroit. He played baseball at an early age, but also enjoyed playing other sports. During baseball’s offseason, Jenkins took his athletic talent to both the ice and hardwood.
“We had a pretty good hockey team, a junior team in Chatham,” Jenkins said. “I was a defenseman. I played left defense. I’d play on the penalty kill. I skated pretty well and could clear the puck. I was a decent hockey player. I thought that was going to be my fix to get to the big leagues, to the NHL, but it didn’t work out that way.”
The now 6’5” Jenkins also starred on Chatham’s basketball team. His basketball prowess eventually allowed him to go on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters in the late 1960s.
“I played a lot of basketball,” Jenkins said. “I played intermediate basketball with a bunch of different guys, plus high school basketball. I was a forward and a center, from time to time. I really enjoyed basketball. It was the kind of sport that came to me kind of naturally. I had a pretty good shot, played pretty good defense, and was able to run extremely well.”
“We were one of the first Southern Ontario high school teams to score 100 points,” he continued. “We did it a couple of times. We’d just run teams off the court. We had a bunch of really good basketball players. I was 16 or 17 years old at the time.”
Jenkins during the Baseball Hall of Fame's Parade of Legends in 2023. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Although he grew up playing baseball, he didn’t head to the pitcher’s mound, where he’d eventually create so many memorable moments, until he was in high school.
“I didn’t pitch until I was 16, in the winter of probably ’58 or ’59,” he remembered. “I was a first baseman. My dad got me into playing the infield. He used to hit me popups and groundballs. I just adapted to playing first base. Not until Gene Dziadura showed up did I become a pitcher.”
Dziadura was a Phillies area scout. He was friends with Jerry McCaffrey, an English teacher in Chatham, who’d seen Jenkins play baseball and realized he might be something special.
“Jerry McCaffrey said (to Dziadura), ‘There’s a young kid going to Chatham Vocational High School. He’s 15 years old and a pretty good athlete. You’ve got to take a look at him,’” Jenkins recalled. “And that’s how it started.”
Dziadura began meeting with Jenkins throughout the winter at a local gymnasium and became very instrumental in the young ballplayer’s life. Quickly realizing Jenkins had a great arm, Dziadura encouraged him to start pitching, teaching him how to throw from a windup and how to have better control of his pitches.
“We started messing around and just throwing,” Jenkins said. “Then come the summer months – he wanted to know why I didn’t pitch because I had such a good arm. I said, ‘Well, I’m a first baseman. I’d rather play the infield and go to bat quite a few times.’ But he changed my mind about first base and got me into pitching.”
Dziadura contacted another Phillies scout, Tony Lucadello, who also became an important figure in Jenkins’ life. Lucedello is considered by many to be one of the greatest scouts in baseball history. He signed 52 players who made it to the big leagues, including two Hall of a Famers in Jenkins and Mike Schmidt.
“Tony was the scout for the Phillies that would send out brochures to Gene and got me learning methods of how to pitch,” Jenkins said. “Both Gene and Tony were influential in me signing that contract with the Phillies. They came to my hometown, came to my house. My mom and dad were there at the time. They explained to me all the different things that I had to go through as a professional athlete at 18 years old and the city I was going to go to.”
After signing, Jenkins reported to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to be with the Phillies Class-A affiliate, the Williamsport Grays. However, he never appeared in a game for the Grays.
“I went first to Williamsport for like a short spring training, because I hadn’t done anything with a professional team before,” he explained. “So I went to Williamsport, which was Class-A ball. Frank Lucchesi was the manager. I was there for like two and a half or three weeks, running, throwing batting practice, just getting acclimated as a professional athlete. Then they sent me out to Miami which was Class-D ball at the time. That’s how my career started.”
Going to the American South to play baseball in 1962 was an eye-opening experience for the Southern Ontario native. Jim Crow laws helped enforce segregation in South Florida and throughout the other cities in the Florida State League.
“We had a young fella that was a little older than me, Freddie Mason was his name,” he said. “He was raised in Georgia and he was a first baseman, who was 22 or 23 years old. He kind of told some of the young players of color where we could go and where we couldn’t go. We couldn’t go to Miami Beach.”
“A lot of times we used to eat at the Trailways’ bus stations late after games,” he remembered. “On the road we used to give some of our meal money to some of the white players and they would buy food for us and bring it back to the bus. It was a learning experience coming out of Canada.”
“I stayed at the Sir John Hotel which is a hotel that ended up burning down during the ’68 riots. My roommates were Alex Johnson and Reinold Garcia. Later that year, Richie Quiroz from Panama showed up and so Alex and Reinold roomed together and I roomed with Richie. Richard was Latin and so was Reinold, so we didn’t have any problem eating out at some of the Latin cafes in the Miami area on Biscayne Boulevard and down where the hotel was. As a young kid knowing nothing about Spanish speaking people and living in that area, those two guys were really a big influence to help out Alex and myself to get around at the time.”
The discrimination he experienced and witnessed only seemed to get worse when Jenkins played Triple-A baseball in Little Rock, Arkansas, in parts of the 1963 to 1965 seasons.
“The shocking part was when I went to Triple-A in Little Rock – those were shocking experiences,” he said. “To see parades of kids getting egged in a café. In Little Rock, we got off a plane and there were posters – they didn’t want players of color there. Frank Lucchesi was our manager at the time and he told us, ‘Hey, just don’t let things bother you.’ I got along pretty well. If you’re going to be a trouble maker and cause a disturbance, bad things are going to happen to you. I was the kind of guy who just didn’t let things bother me.”
“Dick Allen was on that team,” he continued. “He was a regular player. At the time we had Marcelino López, Richie Quiroz, Dick Allen, and myself – those were all the players of color. Dick was a regular player and the other three of us were pitchers. Dick had to play every day, so he suffered through some abuse from time to time – until he really turned it around and people started loving him because of the fact that he was such a good ballplayer. I think he led the league in home runs (33) and RBIs (97). He really played well that year (1963) and the Phillies brought him up the next year and he was the Rookie of the Year.”
However, before Jenkins went to Little Rock, his first Triple-A experience came during his first professional season while pitching for the Buffalo Bisons. After Jenkins went 7-2 with a 0.97 ERA in 11 games, including eight starts, for Miami, he was promoted to Buffalo in September 1962. The move to the International League from the Class-D Florida State League was a huge jump in levels for any player, let alone a 19-year-old in his first professional season who’d only been pitching for a little over three years.
“The International League had older players, like Luke Easter was with Rochester – and there were some older players throughout the league,” he said of his time in Buffalo. “I thought at one point I was over classed because I was playing against men now.”
“Lee Elia was on that team and Bobby Malkmus,” he continued. “Dick Ricketts was older and he kind of took (19-year-old) Richie (Quiroz) and I under his wing. I think Ricketts was a guy who really helped me and Richie by letting us know what pitches these guys looked for, how to set them up, things like that – because we were just both kids and Ricketts was like 28. We had an older team. John Boozer was on that team. Jim Frey, who’d go on to manage for the Cubs, was an outfielder on that ballclub.”
“I think because of the fact that you’re a kid, you’re wide eyed, you’re listening to what’s going on. I was just understanding that – Hey, I just made a big jump from Class-D ball where we were wearing tennis shoes and shorts, and then these guys (in Buffalo) are wearing sport coats and they’re actually men. So it was a learning experience. It got me so that I was acting more mature because of the fact that we weren’t kids anymore.”
He won his first International League start – an 8-5 Buffalo victory over the Syracuse Chiefs at Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium. Jenkins went 7 2/3 innings, allowing just two runs through the first seven innings, before surrendering three runs in the eighth. He also showed the damage he could do with a bat, going 2-for-4, driving in the Bisons' first run of the game with an RBI single, and later hitting a triple and coming home to score on a single by Frey.
Even though he’d only made his professional debut less than two months earlier, pitching deep into games was not out of the ordinary for him.
“I’d had some complete games in Miami at the D-level,” he said. “So I had a pretty strong arm. I tell people all the time, I pitched almost 21 seasons as a professional and never had a sore arm. I’m not sure if it was genetics or just the luck of the draw.”
The teenage hurler had only been pitching for about three years when he was with the Bisons and his pitching repertoire had yet to develop into what it would become by the time he reached the major leagues.
“I had two basic pitches – fastball and curveball,” he explained. “I had a little bit of a changeup. I didn’t learn the slider until spring training of ’64 when (Phillies pitching coach) Cal McLish taught me the grip. We went to winter ball in Puerto Rico and he taught us the slider grip. It came to me pretty quick. I was throwing it and spinning the ball pretty good. It became a pretty good pitch for me. Control was a big plus for me, throwing strikes.”
Jenkins' 1966 Topps Rookie Card.
Jenkins spent the next three seasons working on his craft in Miami, Chattanooga, and Arkansas. In 1965, he was a September call-up to the Phillies. He made his major-league debut in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium when he came in to relieve another future Baseball Hall of Famer – former Bison Jim Bunning.
“Bunning had gotten in trouble in the second inning against the Cardinals, so they got me up,” Jenkins said. “I got up and started to throw. He got out of the inning and then he got in trouble again in the top of the fourth. (Manager) Gene Mauch motioned to have me come into the game. Bunning was on the mound and he handed me the ball and said, ‘Hey kid, go show them what you can do.’”
Jenkins took Bunning’s advice.
“The first hitter I faced was Dick Groat, an individual who didn’t strike out a lot – and I struck him out on four pitches to end the inning,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins ended up earning his first big-league win that evening in the Phillies 5-4 win. He pitched 4 1/3 shutout innings, allowing only two hits and no walks. Notably, the pitcher who took the loss was another future Hall of Famer – the great Bob Gibson.
“I told my dad I beat Bob Gibson in relief,” Jenkins laughed. “That was my first win against Gibson. But the Cardinals had a good team. They had Bill White, Lou Brock, and (Curt) Flood. They had a good team. So I was very successful in my first win.”
Jenkins kept observing and learning. He learned from some of the Phillies veteran pitchers – including Bunning, who was a 32-year-old veteran when Jenkins made his debut.
“The biggest thing was in spring training, he’d always talk to a lot of the younger players,” Jenkins said of Bunning. “I think that was a plus for me because a lot of veterans, you know, they’ll say certain things but you’ve got to learn sometimes on your own from experience. But Bunning would say – ‘Hey you’ve got to learn to get ahead of these hitters.’ He would tell me that this guy is tougher on right-handed pitchers than other guys, or he’s a good breaking ball hitter or good fast ball hitter. So it was kind of a word knowledge that a lot of the veterans would give you. When I think about it, all of it was a big plus for me. I’d take it all in and try to use it and have some success.”
After making the big-league squad out of Spring Training in 1966, Jenkins made one relief appearance for the Phillies, before receiving news that he was part of a five-player trade with the Chicago Cubs.
“I thought I pitched well enough in ’65 to let the organization know that I could handle myself as a major league player,” he said. “I made the team in ’66 and went north. I was shagging balls in the outfield and one of the clubhouse kids ran out and said Gene Mauch wants to talk to you. I said right away to myself – maybe they’re sending me back down to Triple-A. When I got to the locker room and went into Mauch’s office, John Herrnstein was there and Mauch said, ‘We’re waiting for Adolfo Phillips, we’ve made a trade – a five player deal with the Cubs. Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl for Herrnstein, Jenkins, and Phillips.’”
“We only had 24 hours to report. Now you get 72 hours to report. I phoned my wife. We had just gotten to the hotel and gotten settled at the Sheraton Hotel on Market Street in Philadelphia. I told her, ‘Don’t unpack! I was just involved in a trade. I’m going to be at the hotel in about a half hour, forty minutes. I got traded to Chicago.’ Because of the fact that we’d had a couple road trips in ’65, we stayed at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, a big pink hotel in Chicago. So I knew the hotel where to stay. I drove all night and reported to the ballclub the next morning around 8:30 or 9:00 – and now I’m a Chicago Cub.”
He remembers having a conversation with his new manager, Leo Durocher, about how the Cubs planned to use him that season.
“He asked me how I felt comfortable in pitching,” Jenkins remembered. “I said, ‘Well the Phillies got me to the point where I was coming out of the bullpen in long relief.’ He said, ‘Are you comfortable in long relief?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So that’s what I did for the first fifty some games, I pitched out of the bullpen.”
Jenkins' 1967 Topps card.
He made quite an impression in his Cubs’ debut. He entered in relief of starter Bob Hendley with two outs in the third inning in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field.
“I remember hitting a home run off Don Sutton,” Jenkins said. “I drove in both runs. I beat the Dodgers 2-0, pitched five or six innings of relief and won the ballgame.”
Jenkins finished his Cubs’ debut firing 5 1/3 shutout innings, allowing just four hits with no walks while recording three strikeouts. His home run off future Hall of Famer Don Sutton was a solo blast in the fifth inning. He added an insurance run by lining a single to center field in the seventh inning.
He went on to have a successful rookie season, working primarily as a long reliever before moving into the starting rotation in late August. He had a 3.31 ERA in 182 innings pitched, appearing in 60 games and making 12 starts.
“I had some success and won some games and then I got a chance to be a starter at the end of the season,” he recalled. “Before the season was over, he (Durocher) brought in five of us – Rich Nye, Joe Niekro, Bill Hands, Kenny Holtzman, and myself. He said, ‘Out of you five guys, four of you are going to be starters come ’67.’ That’s how I got the opportunity to be the Opening Day pitcher in ’67. I really worked my butt off in the spring getting people out and letting them know that I wanted to be a starter – and from then on, I was a starter.”
On Opening Day of 1967, Jenkins' second full big-league season, he hurled a complete game in the Cubs’ 4-2 win over Jim Bunning and the Phillies. He went on to a remarkable 19-season major-league career. He won 284 career games while pitching for the Phillies, Cubs, Rangers, and Red Sox. He had six consecutive 20-win seasons from 1967 to 1972, a feat that has not been duplicated by any pitcher since. He won the National League Cy Young Award in 1971 with the Cubs, a season when he went 24-13 with a 2.77 ERA and led the major leagues with 30 complete games (in 39 starts), while racking up 325 IP. In his career, he had a 3.34 ERA, threw 267 complete games, struck out 3,192 batters, and tossed 49 shutouts.
“I had a great career, have written a few books, met some great players, and played against some great athletes,” Jenkins said. “I tell people all the time, some of the best (he played against) were Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Aaron, Mays, Clemente, Reggie Jackson… I mean there were just so many good athletes that I had the chance to pitch against. I consider myself pretty lucky.”
The honors for his remarkable career keep pouring in. His number 31 is retired by the Chicago Cubs, and he’s in the Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame, Texas Rangers Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1991, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the first Canadian to enter the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
“At the time I’d been on the ballot two other years,” he said of being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “That first year they took (Carl) Yastrzemski and (Johnny) Bench. Then in 1990, they took Joe Morgan and Jim Palmer. Gaylord (Perry) and I had been on the ballot, along with other guys. I’d talked quite a few times with Gaylord. Gaylord had about 40 more wins than Jim Palmer and I had about 20 more wins – and he went in ahead of us.” Jenkins continued with a laugh, “Gaylord was kind of ticked at the time. ‘How could they put him in ahead of us? We got more wins than he did!’”
“Then in ’91, (Executive Secretary of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America) Jack Lang phoned me on a Saturday afternoon and said if I get the required amount of votes, he’s going to phone me on Sunday at about 5:00 and let me know. Then I’d have a press conference on Monday in New York. So, I’m in my house fixing dinner for the kids and it’s 5:00 – no phone call. Now it’s seven minutes after, then 10 minutes after – and boom, the phone rings and I pick it up. Jack Lang said, ‘Congratulations Ferguson, you’re in the Hall of Fame. I’ve got to do a couple more calls and I’ll get back with you in about 45 minutes with flight arrangements for you to fly into New York.’ I hung up and called my dad. My mom had passed in 1970. My dad at the time was still alive and he was really, really happy with the fact I'd gotten into the Hall of Fame. I could tell by the sound of his voice. He started to cry on the other end.”
On the dais in Cooperstown in 2017 with Gaylord Perry, Carlton Fisk, Bob Gibson, and Tony Perez. Photo Credit: Brian Frank
Jenkins entered the Hall of Fame in a class with Gaylord Perry and Rod Carew, as well as Tony Lazzeri and Bill Veek, who were both inducted posthumously.
“In July, the actual induction, I was there with Rod Carew and Gaylord Perry,” Jenkins said. “The guys on the dais behind us were guys like Duke Snyder, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron. The hour before that we were all in a room at the Otesaga Hotel – and who walks in but Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. I was like a little kid. I’ve got to get a ball. I’ve got to get an autograph. I ended up getting both of those individuals on a baseball. Knowing that now you’re part of an elite group – Whitey Ford was there, Yogi Berra – and now I’m in the Hall of Fame. All that hard work I did for those 19 years in the big leagues, all was worth it. I was a pretty happy man.”
Jenkins is still involved in baseball. He currently serves as an ambassador for the Cubs, along with the team’s four other living Hall of Famers.
“I’ve been employed now for almost nine years as one of the Hall of Famers with the ballclub,” he said. “Billy (Williams) was one of the first. I was second – and then came Ryne Sandberg, Lee Smith, and Andre Dawson. So there are five of us still alive. There’s always something to do with the ballclub.”
Recently, the Cubs honored Jenkins by placing a statue of him outside Wrigley Field. He remembers being informed of the team's plans.
“(Cubs owner Tom Ricketts) phoned me one winter, in 2020 maybe, and said ‘Ferguson, we’d like to do a statue of you.’”
Jenkins added with a laugh, “And I said, ‘That’s fine with me!’”
He was able to give his likeness his stamp of approval prior to the unveiling.
“I had an opportunity to go to the studio where the artist had it,” he remembered. “It was done in clay. He had pictures of me. He said he had 300 pictures of me – pitching motions, facial expressions, things like that. He wanted to see if I thought that was a true image. So they took the image from the Sports Illustrated cover from the year I won the Cy Young in ’71.”
The statue in Chatham, Ontario. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
The statue is located alongside three other statues of Cubs legends – all of whom Jenkins played with – Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo. A statue of Ryne Sandberg will be added to Wrigley’s Statue Row this summer.
“Ernie and I were roommates for three seasons, Billy and I used to hunt and fish together and Ronny was just a super guy,” Jenkins beamed.
“The nicest thing about it is having that statue outside of the ballpark with Ernie, Billy, and Ronnie, which is outstanding – the four of us. Next year they’re going to add a statue for Ryno. So there will be five of us there. Ryno had an incredible career as a Chicago Cub – and we were teammates in ’82 and ’83 when I came back to the ballclub. I played with Ryno a couple years, almost eight with Ernie, Billy and Ronny. Let me tell ya’, they were some kind of athletes.”
The statue in Chicago isn’t the only likeness that helps immortalize Jenkins’ storied baseball career. There’s now a replica of the Wrigley Field statue located in Chatham, Ontario – back where it all began. Chatham, Ontario and Wrigley Field – the perfect settings to honor a legendary career and pay tribute to a phenomenal baseball life.