When Ferguson Jenkins became one of the best pitchers in the major leagues in the mid 1960s, he had the misfortune of playing in an era that included many other great pitchers, such as Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Jim Palmer. As a result, the fans and media often overlooked Jenkins.
He was also never lucky enough to pitch in a World Series. Only six players had played longer than Jenkins's 19 seasons in the majors without appearing in the Fall Classic.
Jenkins was born in the Canadian town of Chatham, Ontario. His mother's family had moved to Canada from the United States via the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, and his father's family had emigrated from Barbados.
The young Jenkins participated in a number of sports, but he excelled at hockey, basketball, and baseball. As a hockey defenseman, he played at the Junior B level, Canada's highest amateur level, and several of his teammates went on to play in the National Hockey League.
Jenkins's high school basketball team won the city championship, and in 1967, after Jenkins was established as a major league pitcher, he played for the Harlem Globetrotters. Despite having played only 15 to 20 high school baseball games each year due to the short Canadian summer, Jenkins signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $7,500 after graduating.
Jenkins threw hard, had a good curveball, and demonstrated exceptional control for a young pitcher. The Phillies turned him into a relief pitcher, and he received a late-season call-up in 1965. He started the next season in the bullpen. The Phillies, still smarting from losing the pennant in the last week of the 1964 season, figured they needed some veteran arms to win the pennant in 1966. So on April 21 they packaged Jenkins with outfielder Adolfo Phillips and outfielder-first baseman John Herrnstein and traded them to the Chicago Cubs for veteran pitchers Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson.
In his first appearance for the Cubs, Jenkins cracked a home run and picked up a win in relief. By late summer he had been pushed into the Cubs starting rotation and was on his way to winning 284 games during his career. The Phillies, meanwhile, finished in fourth place in the National League in 1966.
Jenkins flourished as a starter. In 1967 the Cubs improved 28 games over their last-place finish in 1966. Jenkins led the way with 20 wins, a league-high 20 complete games, an ERA of 2.80, and a club-record 236 strikeouts (since 1900). In the 1967 All-Star Game he worked three innings, striking out six and yielding only a single run-a home run to Brooks Robinson. He finished second to Mike McCormick in the Cy Young balloting.
For the next five seasons Jenkins was one of the best pitchers in baseball, winning 20 or more games each season, pitching about 300 innings, and finishing nearly 75 percent of his starts. In 1968 he lost five 1-0 games on his way to a 20-15 mark. In 1969 he led the National League in strikeouts, with 273. In 1971 his 24 wins finally earned him the Cy Young Award, the first Cub to win it. His pitching performance is all the more remarkable considering that he pitched half his games in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field.
He could also hit. In 1971 Jenkins helped his own cause with six home runs and 20 RBIs, both records for a Cubs pitcher. On Sept. 21 of that season, he hit two homers in one game. His 13 career home runs are among the most for a pitcher in major league history.
Each season the Cubs challenged for the pennant early and then faded. Finally, in 1973, Jenkins's streak of six consecutive 20-win seasons was broken. He went 14-16 and was traded to the Texas Rangers for Bill Madlock and Vic Harris.
Jenkins bounced back in 1974 with a career-best 25-12 record, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors from The Sporting News. Jenkins was traded from the Rangers to the Red Sox and back to the Rangers before returning to the Cubs in 1982. Although Chicago finished 73-89, Jenkins was 14-15 with a 3.15 ERA, leading the club in most pitching categories. He recorded strikeout No. 3,000 (San Diego's Garry Templeton) on May 25, 1982, in San Diego. Jenkins pitched for one more season, and then he retired just a few months shy of his 40th birthday with a career record of 284-226.
He finished his career as one of Major League Baseball's best control pitchers ever, averaging just 1.99 walks per game. He is the only pitcher in major-league history to have more than 3,000 strikeouts and issue fewer than 1,000 walks.
He is arguably the best pitcher ever to take the mound for the Cubs. Jenkins' six 20-win seasons ties for the Cubs record, and he led the team in strikeouts in every year he was a Cub, with the exception of 1983, finishing as Chicago's career strikeout leader (2,038). Jenkins also holds the Cubs' modern-day career record for games started (347) and home runs allowed (271); third in innings (2,673.2) and earned runs allowed (952); fourth in losses (132), shutouts (29) and hits allowed (2,402); fifth in games (401), complete games (154) and wins (167); 10th in walks allowed (600), and posted single-season club marks for starts (42 in 1969) and strikeouts (274 in 1970). He played in three All-Star Games as a Cub, tying a record with six strikeouts in 1967.