The game has changed, since Fergie Jenkins played it. Baseball players are signing monster contracts worth tens of millions, at an age when he was just hungry to play the requisite five years to earn a major-league pension. He did that, of course, and so much more, playing 19 seasons in the show.
Along the way, Jenkins became one of the greatest pitchers ever to hurl the game, the most famous Canadian player, a hall of famer. "You know, 21 years goes by pretty quick," mused Jenkins, now 71, chatting with media before speaking at the sold-out American Association All-Star Luncheon at the Fairmont on Tuesday afternoon.
He’ll be at Tuesday night’s all-star game at Shaw Park too, watching the independent league’s best go through their paces. In their hunger, Jenkins sees something familiar. "I was at the ballpark yesterday, seeing some of these guys go through their skills competition," he said. "I did all that, as a youngster. And I understand what they’re trying to accomplish: the dream is still alive. It never dies. And if you put that uniform on, you still have the opportunity to show someone what your capabilities are."
Jenkins was just a kid when he first showed what he could do, signing with the Philadelphia Phillies right out of high school in Chatham, Ont. He was a favourite of Phillies scout Gene Dziadura, who helped mentor him up. He played a year in Philly, got traded to the Chicago Cubs, became a starter, and then became a legend: after moving from the bullpen to the rotation in 1967, he notched 20 wins with a 2.80 ERA. He would get even better than that, in the years to come, culminating in a 1971 Cy Young Award he highlights now as among his top achievements: he was the first Cubs pitcher and first Canadian to win it.
"I was the first Cub to do a lot of things," he laughed. "But I had good teammates behind me. You never do it alone. And the number one thing, I never got hurt. I never had a sore arm, I always was able to go to the post. I think I missed a start when my mother passed away, and then the following day I went to Montreal and pitched against the team there. I just think, you look back, you kind of reflect that 21 years in baseball, a lot of good things happen to you."
Still, if you ask him what he’s most proud of in his career, he has another honour in mind. "The Order of Canada," said Jenkins, who now lives in Arizona but regularly returns to southern Ontario to help run his non-profit endeavours. "Being a Canadian, and having your country give you that honour, which was really surprising when I did get it."