A Class By Himself
Call it rubbing it in, sticking it to ya, or he who laughs last laughs best.
On September 8, 1972, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Phillies 4-3 at Veterans Stadium. The winning pitcher was Ferguson Jenkins, who pitched a complete game for his 20th victory of the year. It was the sixth consecutive season he had won twenty or more games.
“What I’m going to say may shock the fans, and maybe they won’t take it the right way,” he said after the game, “but I’m going to say it anyway. I no longer want to be categorized with other active pitchers. I want people to say that Fergie Jenkins belongs in a class by himself. That’s a great class to be in, and these great Cub players – Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Randy Hundley – have put me in that class by scoring runs for the team. I’m not saying that I’m a better pitcher than anyone else, but I have done something that others haven’t – I’ve now won twenty games six seasons in a row. Among active pitchers that puts me in a class by myself.”
The last two pitchers to accomplish that feat were Robin Roberts and Warren Spahn. And no one has done it the last half century since Jenkins achieved it.
That his victory took place in Philadelphia only made the long-suffering baseball fans there suffer even more. The great-grandson of a slave who rode the Underground Railroad to Canada, Jenkins had been signed by the Phillies and worked his way through the team’s minor league system. He thought he was going to make the team out of spring training in 1965, but he was sent back to AAA. He did return to pitch in seven games that year. His first appearance was on September 6 at St. Louis. In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Cardinals tied the score at 3-3. Manager Gene Mauch replaced starter Jim Bunning with Jenkins with two outs to face Cardinal infielder Dick Groat.
“I do not remember being nervous when I got ready to throw my first big league pitch, but I must have been. The ball almost tore off Dick Groat’s head. I settled down, though, and struck him out to finish the inning,” he said.
He pitched three more innings. In the bottom of the 12th, he was pinch hit for, and the team scored a run, giving Jenkins his first major league victory.
Between 1965 and 1967, he kept in shape during the offseason by appearing with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Taking advantage of their two-sport star, the pitcher was involved in staged moments during games where baseball was incorporated into the basketball. In an interview with Bleacher Report, Jenkins said: “[The marketing chief for the Globetrotters] came to see me one afternoon at Wrigley Field, and he wanted to know if I was going to go [back to Canada] in the offseason. He said that they were going to start their tour in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and asked if I would like to join their team and be part of their skit as the pitcher.”
“I went over and worked out with them a couple of times. We got our routine together, and after a while, they found out I was a decent player. I used to play every third quarter. But my fundamental opportunity for playing was to give up a home run every night to Meadowlark Lemon,” he said.
Pitcher Fergie Jenkins#8 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch during a game on July 13, 1977 against the Cleveland Indians at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by: Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
In 1966, he made the Phillies roster after spring training, but on April 21, Jenkins, Adolfo Phillips and John Herrnstein were sent to the Chicago Cubs for starting pitchers Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl. The day before, Jenkins made his final appearance for the Phillies, pitching 2.1 innings of relief in an 8-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves at Connie Mack Stadium in front of 6,855 fans. He gave up three hits and one earned run while walking a batter and striking out two. Mauch and Phillies general manager John Quinn said they traded youth for pitching depth. Jackson was going to be the Phils fourth starter while Buhl would swing between starts and the bullpen. The two had won 27 games for Chicago the year before.
Mauch said the team traded the 23-year old Jenkins because he didn’t throw hard enough.
According to an article by the Canadian Press, Cubs manager Leo Durocher said team scouts Rube Wilson and Mel Wright were high on the right-hander.
“Our scouts say Jenkins can really fire that ball, and is a fine prospect,” said Durocher.
Press accounts of the trade said Philipps was the key for the Cubs, who were looking for a center fielder. Some reporters said Phils GM Quinn must have put a gun to the Cubs in getting Jackson and Buhl for three younger, mostly unproven players.
Quinn said he hoped to get two good years out of the hurlers, until pitching prospects in the minors were able to develop and take their place. Quinn got about half of what he hoped.
Buhl, who was 37 at the time of the trade, appeared in 32 games for the Phillies in 1966, going 6-8 with an ERA of 4.77. The following year he appeared in three games for Philadelphia and in May was released, and never pitched again in the majors.
Chicago Cubs Ferguson Jenkins (31) in action, pitching vs Houston Astros at Wrigley Field. Game 1 of doubleheader. Chicago, IL 8/20/1971 CREDIT: John Iacono (Photo by John Iacono /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Jackson, who was 35 when dealt to Philadelphia, had three pretty decent seasons for the Phils, starting 104 games and winning 41. He was selected by the Montreal Expos in the 1968 expansion draft but did not pitch for them and was out of baseball.
Years later, Jenkins discussed the trade.
“Not throw hard enough?!” Jenkins fumed. “I’ll show them.” And he did.
In 1966, Jenkins appeared in 60 games, made 12 starts and had five saves. He was 6-8 with an ERA of 3.31. The next year, Jenkins made 38 starts, led the league in complete games with 20, and had a record of 20-13 with an ERA of 2.80, He won at least 20 games for the next five seasons.
Phillips had two fine seasons in 1966 and 1967, before slipping, and he was traded to the Montreal Expos in 1969. After acquiring Hernstein, the Cubs traded him a month later to the Atlanta Braves, and in December the Braves shipped him to the Boston Red Sox, but 1966 was his last year in the majors.
Jenkins was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, the first Canadian to be so honored. He became the first pitcher in history to record more than 3,000 strikeouts and less than 1,000 walks (he never walked more than 100 batters in any season).
It was one of the worst trades in Phillies history. And to add insult to injury, the Phils made another of their worst trades with the Cubs again in 1982 sending Ryne Sandberg, who also went on to a Hall of Fame career with Chicago.
Jenkins played for a much better team than the Phillies. If they had kept him, it’s possible he might not have won as many games as he did with the Cubs. But Jenkins was durable.
Fergie Jenkins #31 of the Texas Rangers poses for a portrait. Jenkins played for the Rangers from 1974-1975 and returned to play 1978-1981. (Photo by MLB via Getty Images)
He was among the league leaders in starts, innings, and complete games. In 1971, he won 24 games and the Cy young Award. For Texas in 1974, he tied Jim “Catfish” Hunter with 25 wins and finished second to Hunter in the Cy Young voting that year.
In the early 1970s, the Phillies began a rebuilding effort, and players such as Larry Bowa, Steve Carlton, Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt, Bob Boone, Jim Lonborg and Dave Cash were the nucleus of a team that began to contend for the National League East title. In 1974, they finished third in the East.
The following year they finished second in the division to the Pittsburgh Pirates by six games. If the Phillies had not traded Jenkins, could he have helped the Phillies pass the Bucs and win the NL East?
By then Jenkins was not the pitcher he’d been with the Cubs, but he was still effective, From 1974-1978, Jenkins won 82 games, including 18 for the Texas Rangers in 1978 when he was 35 years old.
The Phils won 101 games and the NL East in 1976 but were swept in the NLDS by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. With Jenkins could the Phils have beaten the Reds? Probably not, but it would have been interesting. The Phillies again won the NL East in 1977 and 1978, only to lose the pennant to the Dodgers each year. Would Jenkins have been able to help push the club past LA into the World Series, where he and Carlton could have beaten the New York Yankees those years? Whatever, the Phillies would have been a better club if they had not thought Jenkins didn’t throw hard enough.
When the trade was announced to the press, Mauch said, “Well gentlemen, we just got a diamond and a ruby for two bags of garbage.”
A Phillies beat writer from the mid-1960s – who was undoubtedly at that press briefing – told me many years later Mauch knew how good Jenkins was. His statement that he didn’t throw hard enough and described him as a bag of garbage – was the manager told to say that?