If you're under the age of 40, chances are you think Canada's ties to Major League Baseball began when Toronto landed its American League franchise in 1977. But if you were born before 1960, you know better. You remember Fergie Jenkins. At a time when pro ball was teeming with great pitchers - Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson - 6-foot-5 Jenkins stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the best and towered above the rest.
The greatest ball player Canada has ever produced and, indeed, one of this country's finest all-round athletes, Ferguson Arthur Jenkins was born in Chatham, Ontario, on December 13, 1943. His mother's family had come to Canada from the United States by way of the fabled Underground Railway. His father's family emigrated from Barbados.
Jenkins' athletic ambitions and love for sports were fuelled by his father, who worked as a chef and chauffeur for wealthy Chatham families but also earned an excellent reputation as an amateur boxer and semi-pro ball player.
In school, Jenkins excelled at all sports. His high-school basketball team was city champion and, as a defenceman, he played hockey at the highest Canadian amateur level, junior B. He could easily have pursued, as did several of his teammates, a career in the National Hockey League. Instead, he opted for baseball.
Word of the young pitcher's remarkable speed and control, not to mention his already impressive curve ball, filtred south to scouts for the major US outfits and, immediately after his high-school graduation, Jenkins was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies for $7,500.
Used by the Phillies as a relief pitcher, Jenkins got a late-season call-up in 1965, and joined the regular lineup the following season. But his life as a pro in the City of Brotherly Love proved short-lived.
Determined to capture the pennant they had so narrowly lost in 1964, Phillies management decided in April 1966 to toughen their ranks with veteran Chicago Cubs pitchers Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson. In exchange, the Cubs got first baseman John Herrnstein and the new kid, Fergie Jenkins.
The Cubs' legendary manager, Leo Durocher, transformed Jenkins from reliever to starting pitcher early in 1967. A few months later, on July 11, Jenkins was chosen to represent the Cubs at the all-star game in Anaheim, California, and proceeded to strike out six first-class sluggers, including Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Mickey Mantle.
That same year, the rising 23-year-old star opted to fill his off-season hours by brushing up his basketball skills with the fabled Harlem Globetrotters, and remained an integral part of the troupe through 1969.
After seven more superb seasons with the Cubs - including a remarkable 1971 season that earned him his first and only Cy Young Award as outstanding National League pitcher - Jenkins was traded to the Texas Rangers and switched allegiance to the American League. (He remains one of only six major-league pitchers to win more than 100 games in both leagues.) After two seasons with the Rangers, Jenkins joined the Boston Red Sox for the next two, then headed back to Texas for an additional four.
Returning to the Chicago Cubs for his final two seasons, Jenkins decided to retire from professional play in the autumn of 1983, just a few months short of his 40th birthday.
Moving to a 160-acre ranch he owned in Guthrie, Oklahoma, Jenkins filled his days raising quarter horses and enjoying the comfortable life that 19 seasons of playing outstanding ball afforded. That is, until back-to-back tragedies struck in the early 90s. In 1991, his wife died of injuries suffered in a car accident. Two years later, his babysitter and three-year-old daughter died in what Oklahoma State Police classed as a murder-suicide.
Still, the lanky right-hander, long admired for his gentle demeanour and generous spirit, persevered. In 1988, he returned to baseball as pitching coach for the Rangers' triple A farm team, the Oklahoma 89ers, then returned to his old stomping ground, Chicago's Wrigley Field, to serve as the Cubs' pitching coach for the 1995 and 96 seasons.
Since then, Jenkins has devoted countless hours to charitable pursuits on both sides of the border. In the US, he has worked for years with the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, making speeches and personal appearances to raise money for worthy causes. In Canada, he launched the Ferguson Jenkins Charity Classic Golf Tournament in 1999 and followed it up a year later with the Fergie Jenkins Charitable Foundation.
Last year alone, the foundation raised nearly $100,000, which was divided among such meritorious recipients as the Red Cross, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Hamilton's Cancer Assistance Program, and summer camps for underprivileged children.
Though he never got to pitch in a World Series, Jenkins' career remains one of the most illustrious in baseball history. He is the only pitcher in the last 40 years to win 20 games a year for six consecutive seasons, and remains the only pitcher in major-league history to throw more than 3,000 strikeouts with less than 1,000 walks.
His career statistics include 49 shutouts, 284 wins, and - demonstrating that he was nearly as gifted at the plate as he was on the mound - 13 home runs. In 1987, Jenkins was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and, four years later, became the first Canadian so honoured by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
He has co-written two best-selling books - the 1974 instructional volume Inside Pitching (with David Fisher) and his 1974 memoir, Like Nobody Else: The Fergie Jenkins Story (as told to George Vass) - and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984.
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