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Ferguson Jenkins: A life of wins and loss


Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017 as part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada’s greatest sports heroes and moments as the country marked its 150th birthday. We’ve revisiting it today for our Sunday Read series.

Find all of CBC Sports’ Canada 150 stories here.

Ferguson Jenkins’ pitching delivery, unfurled in slow motion through the lens of David de Volpi, the famed National Film Board cameraman, was a statement of power, form, relaxation and repetitiveness.

Nothing ever changed on the mound for Jenkins, Canada’s first and only son in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He repeated that motion for 19 seasons, 4,500 2/3 innings, 284 wins and 226 losses for mostly terrible teams (Phillies, Cubs, Rangers, Red Sox, Rangers, Cubs).

It brought him a Cy Young Award as the National League’s best pitcher for 1971, and three other times either second or third place in voting.

It brought him a lot of money, fame on both sides of the border, and no protection from the pain and tragedy of life that so many without a lightning bolt for a right arm experience every day.

Mom knew best

Jenkins’ mother Delores (directly related to a former slave who traveled the Underground Railroad to Ontario) met an emigrant from the Caribbean, Ferguson Holmes Jenkins, and produced a son, Ferguson Arthur, born in the middle of another war, December of 1942, in Chatham, Ont.

Both his parents were athletic — dad was an excellent senior baseball player whose team won the provincial championship — and their son would grow to be a 6-foot-5, 205-pounder whose dream was to be Doug Harvey.

Not the umpire — the great defenceman and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Jenkins could do anything, but his mom pushed him to the mound.

“My mother knew before I did that the sport of baseball was what I should play,” Jenkins said at his Hall induction. “Although she was blind, and never saw me play, she always knew this was the game I wanted to do whole-heartedly.”

Cocaine charges dropped

Philly signed the hurler in 1962 and traded him in 1966, after just eight relief appearances, to the Cubs for a pair of no-name veteran pitchers. It’s considered by many Phillies fans the second-worst trade in team history, behind only Hall of Fame infielder Ryne Sandberg’s exile to the Cubs in 1982 after just 13 games. 

Consistency and accuracy were the trademark of a confident career that saw Jenkins become the first player to record 3,000 strikeouts with less than 1,000 walks. From 1967-1974, Jenkins won 20 games or more all but once. And there were 267 complete games.

Jenkins played his first full season as a starter with the Cubs in 1967, and would end his career on Chicago’s North Side in 1983. (Associated Press)

Jenkins had the chance to pitch in his own country as a member of the Texas Rangers twice — a 5-4 loss on June 15, 1980, and a complete-game 6-1 win on Aug. 26, 1981, both at Toronto’s old Exhibition Stadium.

It was also in Toronto that his bag was opened at customs and a small amount of cocaine was found. That led to a trial, and a judge so impressed with his character that all charges were dropped in exchange for a $10,000 donation to drug treatment programs. His suspension from baseball was also overturned by an arbitrator.

Back in the north side of Chicago for two final seasons, the righty left the mound for the last time on Sept. 26, 1983, at Wrigley Field, where he pitched the ninth in a game already lost.

Off to the Hall of Fame.

Tragic twists

In an interview with the CBC’s Allen Abel in 1991, Jenkins summed up his existence in eight words: “The game is fairly easy. Life is hard.”

Coming to Cooperstown is a great honour, but it comes on the heels of great personal loss. Baseball footage: Major League Baseball. 15:37

There was a strong faith there, evinced by a St. Christopher’s medal around the broad neck, and a tattoo, back when ink was unusual, on the left arm that read “Trust in God.” He would need it.

Delores Jenkins lost her eyesight after her only child’s birth, so she never had the chance to “see” him play, eventually dying of cancer in 1970. Her joy had been listening to the radio and picturing her son through her own imagination.

It was 20 years later, however, just as Ferguson was awaiting a call from the Hall of Fame on his third try, that a series of events rocked, but did not break, the foundation his parents had instilled through the Chatham childhood.

Maryanne, his second wife with whom he had a young daughter and who had brought a son into the marriage, was driving home to the farm in Oklahoma when her car was involved in a serious accident.

While she battled for her life in hospital, the Hall of Fame call came. Just 100 hours later, Maryanne died.

There was a new relationship, with a woman who had called out of the blue from the coast after reading about the tragedy. Cindy Takieddine struck up a friendship, came to visit and wound up engaged. 

Less than two years later, on Dec. 15, 1992, Ferguson’s fiancé​e killed herself and murdered Samantha Jenkins by piping carbon monoxide into their car on a lonely road.

In his Hall of Fame speech, 18 months before, Jenkins had said: “Life has taught us all the fabric of life is interwoven with wins and losses, successes, joys and tragedies.

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