Chatham, Ontario native Ferguson Jenkins came from a family of athletes, as his father was an amateur boxer and semi-professional baseball player.
A multi-sport athlete, Jenkins’ first love was ice hockey, but he also competed in track and field, basketball and eventually baseball during his formative years.
Jenkins was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1962 and made his Major League debut as a relief pitcher in 1965. The following season, he was traded from the Phillies to the Chicago Cubs and quickly became one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball.
The power pitcher's career spanned two decades and his accomplishments on the diamond measure up alongside the greatest pitchers in the history of the game. The three-time All-Star and 1971 NL Cy Young Award winner had a nearly unbelievable streak of six consecutive 20-win seasons from 1967-1972. His 284 wins rank as the most for any African-American player in history. He is a member of the 3,000 Strikeout Club, a Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer, a Texas Rangers Hall of Famer, and in 1991 he received the ultimate honor, becoming the first Canadian-born player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jenkins will be one of the many Hall of Famers signing autographs at the National Sports Collectors Convention on July 30. In this exclusive interview with SCD contributor Tony Reid, the pitching great talks about his unique relationship with fans, the pride he takes in his signature and seeing his classic 1966 Topps rookie card for the first time.
Sports Collectors Digest: Do you remember the very first time you were asked for your autograph?
Fergie Jenkins: On a regular basis, it happened my first year with the Cubs in 1966. I did autographs outside the ballpark. We used to walk in from a parking lot across the street to go to the park. I would sign for youngsters. I started pitching really well in the bullpen in 1966. I got a contract with McDonalds to sign for something like two hours and 200 to 300 autographs.
SCD: What is the most memorable fan interaction you had during your career or even post-career as you make the rounds and do appearances at autograph shows?
Jenkins: There was a young man in Pittsburgh who just passed away from pancreatic cancer. His name was Billy Coyle. He was a big Phil Regan fan of the Dodgers. I pitched against the Dodgers and I think I beat Don Drysdale that night in LA. He got ahold of me somehow at the hotel. We ended up becoming pretty good friends. He was about 9 years old at the time. He passed away in his forties.
SCD: That had to be a dream come true for a young kid to be able to strike up a friendship with one of the greatest pitchers of all time. How did you manage to stay in touch with the family over the years?
Jenkins: We became good friends of the Coyle Family. They still live 15-20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. He had a younger brother that ended up going into the armed forces. Billy never got married. He just became a collector of memorabilia of the Pirates, Steelers and the Chicago Cubs.
SCD: You played for teams with some of the most loyal fan bases in the sport in Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. What fan base did you prefer to perform in front of most?
Jenkins: Pitching at Wrigley Field, my whole career was day baseball. We had to be at the park at 9 in the morning each day. We were on the field by 9:30 shagging fly balls and having batting practice. The game was over around 3 p.m. The games sometimes started at 1 p.m. and if I pitched, the game was over in an hour and a half. I pitched a lot of quick games. There were no three- or four-hour games when I pitched. So, I had a chance to exchange a lot of conversations with fans outside the ball park or even in the stands between starts.
SCD: In the offseason you played for the Harlem Globetrotters, quite possibly the most fan interactive sports franchise in history. What fond memories do you have from that time in your life?
Jenkins: Right. What a popular team. Whenever you put that Globetrotter uniform on people just catered to you. When the bus traveled and got to a city you were like the pied piper. People were following the bus to the hotels where we stayed.
SCD: Your rookie card was the classic 1966 Topps card which you shared with Bill Sorrell. Do you remember the first time you saw yourself on a card?
Jenkins: Wow. Jeez. That is the first card I saw. They printed that of me on the Phillies. They took the picture in 1965 at Shea Stadium and they didn’t print it until 1966. Billy Sorrell and I were teammates three times — once in Chattanooga and twice in Little Rock. He died a few years ago. He is no longer with us and that is really unfortunate.
SCD: Did you receive a lot of fan mail during your playing days?
Jenkins: As a Chicago Cub, we would get fan mail quite a bit. I got it in Texas and Boston, too. It was a popular thing to have youngsters write to a player and send it to the ball park. In my retirement, I have it sent to a P.O. Box. It’s interesting what kids want to have signed. Sometimes it’s a rookie card, sometimes it’s my Cy Young or Comeback Player of the Year card. Every so often I will have a jersey or bat waiting in the mail. It’s interesting to have a following of kids and collectors; you can see by the hand writing that it’s a child. They probably never saw me play but their mother or father had them write a letter to me. It’s really nice.
SCD: As you mentioned, you have mail sent to a P.O. Box and, in turn for your autograph, you ask for a donation to fulfill the request, correct?
Jenkins: The way it started, I was sitting on the deck outside of a hotel. Well, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford were there. All of a sudden, I hear Yogi say he thinks he is shortchanging himself; he was only charging a hundred dollars to sign a card. Whitey Ford said, ‘Well, don’t you think that is too expensive?’ Yogi said, ‘Oh, no. If people want to send me a card and pay me a hundred bucks for it, I’ll take it.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Jenkins, what do you charge?’ I said, ‘Oh, Jeez. I only charge $10 to $15 for a card.’ He said, ‘Man, you are a Hall of Famer. You need to start charging more than that!’ That is how the conversation started. So, when I sign a card now, I charge $40. I put the Hall of Fame inscription and signature, and for an extra inscription, I charge an extra $15. I basically get trading cards, or I’ll even sign an index card from time to time.
SCD: To flip over a card of yours later in your career and see 20-win season after 20-win season, six in a row, and with the rate of speed you were doing it at was amazing. You weren’t getting paid by the hour.
Jenkins: My rookie season I made $6,000. That was it. You win 20 games now and it’s a million-dollar contract. I didn’t even have an agent until my fourth 20-win season. Mr. Wrigley didn’t want to talk to agents. I had a few lawyers I hired that did a lot of hockey contracts. It took two or three meetings before we ended up coming to a settlement. I think it was 1970. I won the Cy Young in 1971 and had great seasons in 1972 and 1973. It was really remarkable. To this day, I don’t think Ernie Banks ever had an agent. I was one of the first to have an agent. Mr. Wrigley frowned at that.
SCD: You are a Hall of Famer, a multiple-time All Star, 1971 Cy Young Award winner, the first Canadian Cy Young Award winner and Hall of Famer, your 284 wins are the most by an African American pitcher in MLB history. Do you have an office or area where you have memorabilia and awards displayed?
Jenkins: I had quite a few items in my house in Arizona. I have a couple of things here. I have my Cy Young Award. I have my Hall of Fame plaque from Cooperstown. I have my plaque that the Texas Rangers awarded me.
SCD: We are coming up on the 30th Anniversary of your Hall of Fame induction. What are your fondest memories of that day?
Jenkins: I got inducted with Gaylord Perry and Rod Carew. We are all standing at the Otesaga Hotel with our families. At 12:10 we have to all meet in a small room at the end of the hallway in the hotel before we catch the bus to the parade area where the induction ceremony is going to be held. Willie Mays is there. Stan Musial is there. Yogi is there. You name it, they were there. Who walks in but Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. They were going to be honored because of their accomplishments. I was like a little kid. I was in my 40s. I had to get a baseball. I had both of them sign the baseball. I have that ball in my museum in Canada. I was like a little kid. I never personally asked for an autograph. I didn’t want to inconvenience them. I was like a little kid in Cooperstown, though. I wanted to get both of their autographs on that ball.
SCD: You were involved in a number of sports as a young man. Did you collect cards as a kid?
Jenkins: I collected hockey cards. I was a hockey player as a youngster. I had lot of O-Pee-Chee cards. Doug Harvey was a guy I watched. I had Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and anybody that was really good at the time. They only had six teams back then. The Big Six. I collected hockey cards more than anything else.