By Kelly Anne Griffin
The 700-kilometre journey from Chatham, Ontario, to Cooperstown, New York, under favourable conditions, can be a simple eight-hour drive. But for one young Canadian, his trip became a battle, facing Major League Baseball (MLB)’s best hitters and society’s racial barriers. Fergie Jenkins eventually arrived at baseball’s unique Hall-of-Fame destination after a long and grinding road and a lifetime of accomplishments.
Ferguson Jenkins was born in Chatham, Ontario, in 1942, the only child of Ferguson Jenkins Sr. and Delores Jackson. Fergie Sr. had immigrated to Canada from Barbados. Delores descended from enslaved people in the United States and had come to Southwestern Ontario via the famed Underground Railroad.
Jenkins’s love of sports came naturally, as both his parents grew up competing in athletics. His father became his sporting role model. Fergie Sr. played for the Chatham Coloured All-Stars, a top-tier amateur baseball team, during the 1930s, and was also an amateur boxer. The young Fergie Jr. excelled in track and field, hockey and basketball. The scope of his athletic skills is clear: between 1967 and 1969, in the baseball off-season, Jenkins was part of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
It was not until his teens that Fergie started playing baseball, the sport for which he would be known. He began his career playing first base, but others saw promise in his strong right arm. Fergie worked on his pitching skills by throwing pieces of coal from a local coal yard. To practice his aim, he chose targets such as an open ice chute or between the gaps of passing freight-train cars. At the age of 15, Jenkins was discovered by Philadelphia Phillies scout Gene Dziadura. Together, they continued to focus on fine-tuning Jenkins’s arm while he completed high school.
Aerial view of Chatham, a multicultural community in Southwestern Ontario, 1919 (a030462)
From Chatham, Ontario, to the Big Leagues
Like many young Canadians, Jenkins originally dreamed of becoming a professional hockey player. Canadians were rare in MLB in the ’60s. However, by the time Jenkins finished high school and his work with Dziadura, it was clear he was destined for pro baseball and maybe even the major leagues. Fergie was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1962 and made his big-league debut in 1965 as a relief pitcher. He became a starter shortly before being traded to the Chicago Cubs in April 1966.
On April 15, 1947, when Fergie was only 4 years old, Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s unwritten colour barrier and paved the way for future greats such as Jenkins. By the 1960s, baseball had come a long way for Black players, but there was still a long way to go. Fergie was sent to train in the minor leagues, playing in the Deep South of the United States, where washrooms and even stadium seating were segregated. It was definitely culture shock for Jenkins coming from Canada, a country that Jackie Robinson’s wife, Rachel, had called “heaven” after her year in Montreal in 1946.
For most of his 19-year baseball career, Jenkins pitched for the Chicago Cubs. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jenkins emerged as one of baseball’s premier starters. He won 20 games per season—the gold standard for pitchers of that era—six years straight (1967–72) and seven times in total. The right-hander had remarkable control of all his pitches and, most important for a starter, he was consistent. Opponents feared his pinpoint fastball, and his arm, like many from that era, seemed more resilient than those of modern-day pitchers. He recorded more than 300 innings per season on five different occasions.
Baseball. Ferguson Jenkins pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, in action against the Montreal Expos
Date : 19 Sept. 1970. Credit : Montreal Star / Library and Archives of Canada (Mikan 3195251)
In 1982, Jenkins returned to Chicago as a free agent after excelling for the Texas Rangers. That same year he also recorded his 3,000th strikeout. At the time, he was the only pitcher in baseball history to strike out more than 3,000 batters while issuing less than 1,000 walks. In the 40 years since, this feat has only been matched by Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Fergie remains the Cubs’ all-time strikeout king (2,038) and starts leader (347).
Awards and Honours
Jenkins’s remarkable career is marked by many outstanding MLB records. In 1971, Jenkins was the first Canadian pitcher to win the coveted Cy Young award, named after a Hall-of-Fame legend of the early 1900s. It is awarded annually to the best pitcher in each of the American and National Leagues, based on voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association. Jenkins led the league in wins twice (1971, 1974), and also led five times for the fewest walks per nine innings and nine times for the most complete games. He led the league in strikeouts in 1969 with an impressive 273. For six straight seasons between 1967 and 1972, he posted 20 or more wins. He is considered the anchor of the Black Aces, a group of African-American pitchers with at least 20 wins in a season. Jenkins’s total of 284 wins is still the most by a Black pitcher in major league history.
A Legacy to Remember
In 2009, the Chicago Cubs announced that Fergie’s number would be retired at Wrigley Field. In a ceremony on May 3, his number 31 was raised in left field, forever enshrining him as one of the greatest Chicago Cubs players in its storied 138-year history. In May 2022, the organization unveiled a statue of Jenkins outside his beloved Wrigley Field. At the ceremony, long-time radio voice Pat Hughes introduced him as “the greatest pitcher in the long and legendary history of the Chicago Cubs.”
On December 17, 1979, Jenkins was awarded the Order of Canada. In 1987, Jenkins was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ontario. Finally, in 1991, he earned the sport’s ultimate honour and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Jenkins was the first Canadian to grace the halls of Cooperstown, only joined by Larry Walker in 2020.
In December 2010, Canada Post announced Jenkins would be featured on his own postage stamp to commemorate Black History Month the following February. In 2011, Fergie travelled to 46 cities across Canada promoting the stamp and speaking to Canadians about Black History initiatives.
Commemorative stamp of Fergie Jenkins issued by Canada Post to honour Black History Month. (e011047401-v8)
Jenkins retired from the MLB in 1983, but he continues to be an active and visible presence in Canadian baseball. In 1999, he established the Fergie Jenkins Foundation in St. Catharines, Ontario. In 2011, the Foundation unveiled the Fergie Jenkins Baseball and Black History Museum. The Foundation continues to operate, raising millions of dollars for charities across North America. Fergie is a constant presence during the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s induction weekend. He warmly interacts with fans and young Canadian players that he helped inspire with his career accomplishments. Jenkins remains a stalwart figure in the promotion of baseball in Canada.
Kelly Anne Griffin is an Archival Assistant with Specialized Media and Description in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.