Jenkins keeps a sense of history
Hall of Famer grateful for path forged by black pioneers
Hall of Fame right-hander Ferguson Jenkins got an early start this year on the traditional February celebration of Black History Month. Back on Jan. 8, Jenkins had the opportunity to rub shoulders with Buck O'Neil and tour the Negro Leagues Museum in conjunction with the Legacy Awards in Kansas City.
For Jenkins, who brought joy to fans of the Cubs, Phillies, Rangers and Red Sox in a career that spanned nearly two decades, this brush with history was a profound experience on many levels. He had grown up in Canada, listening to his father talk about playing for the Chatham Black Panthers, an all-black team that would compete against Negro League clubs in Detroit, Cleveland and Flint, Mich. And these Negro Leagues teams, which his father so much enjoyed competing against, would ultimately help open a door for the younger Jenkins to walk through en route to a sparkling tenure in Major League Baseball.
To visit the museum and study the exploits of a Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Oscar Charleston brought everything full circle for the 62-year-old Jenkins.
"It was a dramatic experience for me," Jenkins said. "All of the young men who are playing Major League Baseball today have to thank those pioneers for opening a lot of doors. I would love to see as many of the black players as possible in today's Major League Baseball make every effort to go to the Negro Leagues Museum and get a first-hand view of how it all started. The American League teams could do it when they play in Kansas City and some of the National League teams could do it with Interleague play. And for those who don't play in Kansas City, it would be worth it to go there in the offseason because the Negro Leagues story is a big part of black history."
Because of the sacrifices of those who came before him, the timing was right for Jenkins to carve an indelible niche as one of the game's all-time greatest starting pitchers. That illustrious career from 1965 through 1983 has provided him with a springboard to give back to his fellow man.
Today, Jenkins is heavily involved with raising money for a plethora of charitable causes through the Fergie Jenkins Foundation.
As of Dec. 15, 2004, the Foundation had donated $477,630 since 1999 and $77,203 since Jan. 1, 2004.
"All of the charities we're involved with have touched me in one way or another on a personal level," Jenkins said. "There are about eight or nine charities that I support."
Jenkins farmed and raised horses for 30 years. Now, he and his wife live on a golf resort in Anthem, Ariz. Jenkins still does his share of traveling to various baseball-related functions, and the opportunity to raise money for noble causes and talk about a game he loves makes for some satisfying experiences.
In today's game of specialized pitching, it's a big deal when a starter throws more than 200 innings in a season. Jenkins routinely went over 300 innings in his heyday. In 1974, he worked just over 328 innings while going 25-12 for the Rangers. In 41 starts that year, Jenkins recorded 29 complete games.
"I played for Billy Martin that season and Billy would come out to the mound late in a 2-1 or 3-2 game, look me in the eye and say, 'It's your game to win.' That's the way it was with a No. 1 starting pitcher in those days," Jenkins said. "They expected you to stay out there and finish the job. These days, a ballclub is just looking for a starter to give them maybe seven innings.
"It's a totally different era in terms of expectations for how long a starter should go. I just thought that throwing day in and day out helped my arm. I never had a sore arm. Guys like Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry ... they were the same way."
Jenkins signed out of high school with the Phillies, but his career didn't really take off until after he was traded to the Cubs. The standard for pitching excellence stretched long enough for Jenkins to record 284 victories, even though he didn't always play for power-packed clubs that could offer ample offensive support.
Jenkins, a member of the Rangers' Hall of Fame, fondly recalls his days in Texas.
"I really enjoyed the old ballpark in Arlington," Jenkins said. "It had a lot of history to it. It was inexpensive to go to because they had more bleacher seats than field and box seats.
"The first time I was with Texas, it was my introduction to the American League and I wanted to put my best foot forward. Winning 25 games in '74 was very rewarding. And when I left and came back to Texas in '78, I was pleased that I won 18 games and showed I could still perform."
Even after all he accomplished in the game, Jenkins has never taken for granted the pure thrill of putting on a Major League uniform. That's why history matters so deeply to him.
His father never had an opportunity to take a shot at the Major Leagues during his years as an outfielder with the Chatham Black Panthers. But Ferguson Jenkins did and certainly made the most of it.
"When I signed in 1962, I said, 'Dad, I'm going to try to get to the big leagues and play for both of us,'" Jenkins said. "He really liked that I did that."
Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.