Constable: 'Pitchers and catchers report' makes hearts flutter, and so do Fergie Jenkins' stats
This week of February is known for those four little words that make some hearts flutter -- pitchers and catchers report. The Chicago Cubs' pitchers and catchers gather Tuesday at the spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona, to begin preparing for the 2019 season.
Cubs' legend Ferguson "Fergie" Jenkins, whose Hall of Fame pitching career started in 1965 and ended in 1983, never waited until spring.
"I started the first week in January, running and throwing," remembers Jenkins, 76, who did his winter training in his Canadian hometown of Chatham, Ontario. Jenkins would head to the local college with fellow Canadian ballplayers including Gene Dziadura, the Philadelphia Phillies scout who signed Jenkins; Montreal Expo reliever Bill Atkinson; and Doug Melvin, who never made it as a pitcher but was general manager of the Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers.
Acquired from the Phillies on April 21, 1966, by a last-place Cubs team that would lose 103 games, Jenkins pitched in relief and showed enough promise in the 12 games he started to be named Opening Day starter in 1967.
That year the 24-year-old ace made the All-Star team, went 20-13 with an earned run average of 2.80, led the league with 20 complete games and guided the Cubs to their first winning season in 20 years. He also led the league by giving up 30 homers. In the off season, the home runs were even more frequent.
"I was giving up a home run to Meadowlark Lemon night after night," Jenkins says, explaining how he played with basketball's Harlem Globetrotters from October until January after the baseball seasons in 1967, '68 and '69, taking part in their humorous trick plays. But Jenkins wasn't just a celebrity foil. He was a star basketball player in high school.
After Lemon slid across the plate to complete his home run on the basketball court, he'd attempt a long hook shot. If he missed, Jenkins would rebound the ball and give Lemon a second shot. If Lemon missed again, the 6-foot-4 Jenkins would rebound the ball and dunk it.
"I could handle myself on the court. One night (in high school) I scored 45 points and I had a bunch of colleges come to watch me play," Jenkins says.
He also was a standout hockey player. "That was my first sport," says Jenkins, a powerful defenseman who played at the highest level before professional and even played some industrial-league hockey after he became a professional baseball player. "I still get out and skate with my grandson."
Jenkins has three grown daughters, a son in Wheaton, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
While most MLB rosters are littered with pitchers who have had multiple surgeries and can't throw 100 pitches in a game or 200 innings in a season, Jenkins was a workhorse during his career. With the Texas Rangers, he won a team record 25 games in 1974 and pitched 328.1 innings. He won 24 games (and a Cy Young Award) with the Cubs in 1971, when he pitched 325 innings, struck out 263 batters and led the league with 30 complete games. For comparison, the entire Cubs team had one complete game in 2018, compliments of Cole Hamels. Jenkins had 267 complete games in his career.
In 1971, Jenkins also did some damage with his bat, slugging six homers and driving in 20 runs. Jenkins' father, also named Ferguson, was a left-handed outfielder with the groundbreaking Chatham All-Stars, a semipro team with all black players, but he made his living as a chef. Jenkins' mother, Delores Jackson, had ancestors who included Dutch immigrants and a slave who used the underground railroad to escape into Canada.
Jenkins, an only child, played baseball during the short summers. A first-baseman, he didn't start pitching until he was 16. Before that, he honed his skills by throwing lumps of coal and stones through open doors on moving trains.
"There were boxcars that were partly open, and that was a competition with kids," Jenkins says. "I think that helped my control. That was a big part of my game."
So were complete games. "It was part of the game in the era I played," Jenkins says. "If you were in control, you stayed in the game. Now that's not possible at all."
He remembers pitching a couple of 12-inning complete games against rival Gaylord Perry. In 1968, Jenkins lost five 1-0 games because his Cubs didn't hit. In his career, Jenkins was 5-2 lifetime against Bob Gibson, including winning a 10-inning Opening Day start 1-0 on a Billy Williams' homer.
Jenkins talks about Williams, second-baseman Glenn Beckert (best man for Jenkins' wedding), Ernie Banks and other teammates in his new book, "The 1969 Cubs: Long Remembered, Never Forgotten," written by Jenkins and longtime sports writer George Castle. The book, published by Signature Strength Publishing, is available online at 1969Cubs.com or by calling (844) 337-4431.
Jenkins lives in the small town of Anthem, Arizona. His longest MLB contract was for two years, and the most he made was $435,000 ($120,000 less than the minimum MLB salary in 2019), but he invested well, Jenkins says.
Jenkins says he's looking forward to spring training and the chance to talk to Cubs pitchers, especially starters Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and reliever Carl Edwards Jr.
"I love to talk to some of the young pitchers," Jenkins says. "To pitch in Wrigley Field, you can't be charmed, you can't be lucky. It's all about work. Put the work in and you'll be successful."