A century and a half ago, negro slaves were privy to a literal life-line that extended itself, like an index finger plowing a thin furrow through the dark soil of America, from South to North.
Canada was the goal.
Southern Ontario was the primary recipient.
Chatham-Kent, Ontario, is today one of the primary municipalities in the region where the descendants of runaway slaves still make their home.
In fact, Ontario has over 473,000 people of African descent within its boundaries, many of whom can trace their lineage back to ancestors who once toiled the fields of the southern U.S.A., from Texas to Florida.
One of these families produced a son whose birth resulted in his mother’s subsequent blindness, and whose own life would know personal tragedy as well.
This child would one day cross the border into the United States as an entertainer of sorts. An athlete by trade, he would enjoy time performing with the Harlem Globetrotters, but would make his primary mark on baseball diamonds throughout country.
Signed in June, 1962 by the Phillies, Ferguson Jenkins would make his debut with the parent team on September 10, 1965. He was traded to the Cubs in 1966.
From 1966 through 1973, Chicago Cubs ace Ferguson Jenkins was one of the most dominant pitchers in the Major Leagues. A Black Canadian whose ancestors had left America for a life of freedom had returned to America to find fortune.
A look at Fergie Jenkins career numbers leaves one astonished.
Jenkins won at least twenty games every season for six consecutive years, from 1967-72, inclusive. He tossed at least 20 complete games in every one of those seasons, topping out at an astonishing 30 complete games in 1971.
Five times in his career he topped 300 innings pitched.
During Jenkins’ 19-year career, he led his league in wins twice, starts three times, complete games four times, innings pitched once, strikeouts once, and WHIP once. He gave up a huge number of home runs in his career (484), but usually minimized the damage by allowing very few walks.
Fergie Jenkins won the 1971 Cy Young award, and finished in the top three in votes received four other times.
But Fergie Jenkins’ Best Forgotten Baseball Season was 1974 with the Texas Rangers.
At the age of 31, in his first season after having been traded away by the Cubs for Vic Harris and Bill Madlock ( Madlock having been the subject of a prior blog-post of mine,) Jenkins showed he could teach the American League a thing or two about pitching while pitching his home games in a state that was once a battleground for slavery.
Jenkins won a career high 25 games in 1974 against just 12 defeats. He made 41 starts and led the league with 29 complete games. In 328 innings pitched, he struck out 225 batters while walking just 45. His five strikeouts per walk topped the league.
Jenkins’ ERA was just 2.82, his WHIP reflected his few walks surrendered, 1.008, and his WAR was 7.6, better than any hitter in his league.
For his efforts, Jenkins finished second in the league in Cy Young voting, just behind Catfish Hunter. Remarkably, they both finished with identical 25-12 records, both made 41 starts, and both hurled six shutouts.
While Jenkins pitched ten more innings and racked up 80 more strikeouts with one fewer walk, Hunter’s ERA was .33 lower, his WHIP was lower (0.986), and, of course, the A’s won their division.
Jenkins pitched two seasons for the Rangers before being traded to the Red Sox for two unremarkable years, then went back to the Rangers for four more seasons. The Cubs brought Jenkins back for a last hurrah in 1982 and, at age 39, he made 34 starts, pitched 217 innings, and posted an ERA of 3.15.
The following season, at age 40, Jenkins pitched his last career shutout on June 10th, 1983 vs. the Cardinals.
Jenkins finished his career with 3,192 strikeouts, which ranks 12th all-time. His 49 career shutouts ranks 21st. His career WAR is 81.3, twentieth best in MLB history for pitchers. His career win-loss record was 284-226.
In 1991, in his third year on the ballot, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the first Canadian citizen to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame.
Tragically, just three days after his induction into The Hall, his wife died from injuries sustained in a car accident.
Just two years later, Jenkins’ girlfriend committed murder-suicide, asphyxiating herself and Jenkins’ three-year old daughter.
Since then, Jenkins has married again, does promotional work for charitable organizations, and now owns a ranch in Arizona. Now in his late sixties, Jenkins has experienced great success and terrible tragedy in a country his forebears once fled in terror.
America has done well to welcome Jenkins back. That he has chosen to stay here suggests that history can be kind to those who forgive, if not forget.