Baseball 76: Ferguson Jenkins

Of the 17 pitchers in baseball history who have struck out 3,000 batters in their careers, only four have also walked fewer than 1,000. Three of them -- Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez -- are of recent vintage. They pitched in a new game when hitters struck out unapologetically and ferociously.

The fourth is Fergie Jenkins.

He has been largely forgotten by baseball fans, and this is in great part because he was barely remembered in the first place. Jenkins came of age in baseball's golden age for starting pitchers. Because of this, he was more easily classified by what he was not than what he was.

He threw hard but he was NOT Nolan Ryan.

He was graceful on the mound but he was NOT seen as the very picture of pitching beauty like Tom Seaver or Jim Palmer.

He did not throw Bert Blyleven's curveball, did not intimidate hitters with a death-defying slider like Bob Gibson or Steve Carlton, did not pitch in the World Series year after year after year like Catfish Hunter. In fact, his teams never won at all. He did not spit on the ball like Gaylord Perry, cut it like Don Sutton, flutter it like Phil Niekro. He did not gyrate on the mound like Luis Tiant or lift his leg high like Juan Marichal.

What Fergie Jenkins did was go after hitters with a focus that still boggles the mind. Down and away. Down and away. Down and away. That was Jenkins' strategy, his whole strategy, his singular purpose in pitching and in life. Strikeout? Down and away. Hit a home run? Down and away. He never wavered and never backed down. Ferguson Jenkins hit more corners than sunlight.

From 1967-1975 -- nine seasons for Chicago and Texas -- he averaged 300 innings, 20 wins and 22 complete games per year. He did this for mostly bad teams, though he also played on a couple of teams just good enough to break your heart. He never pitched in the postseason. He is pitching's Ernie Banks.

His statistical record tells a complete story. You see the numbers and you understand him. Five times he led the league in fewest walks. Five times he led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Seven times he led the league in home runs allowed. He wasn't out there to fool batters. He rarely threw a curveball. He never had a change-up (once or twice a game he might throw a forkball, which was a bit slower than the rest).

Jenkins threw fastballs -- four-seamers, two-seamers -- and with each pitch he sent a message: "This is the best I got. If you can beat me, beat me. But I like my chances."

Jenkins remains the only Canadian-born player in the Hall of Fame -- he is waiting for Larry Walker. Jenkins grew up in Chatham, Ontario, where he often says, he learned how to pitch by throwing rocks through the open doorways of passing railway cars. Someday, I need to connect all the stories of those people who learned how to pitch by throwing rocks.

The Phillies signed him when he was 19 ... and traded him to the Cubs less than four years later. It was a bizarre deal. The Phillies traded 22-year-old Jenkins, and 24-year-old Adolfo Phillips for soon-to-be-38-year-old Bob Buhl and 35-year-old Larry Jackson.

"Will Phils Youth for Age Deal Mean Champagne or Alka Seltzer?" asked the Philadlphia Daily News.

"The two guys we gave up might help a ball club," Phillies manager Gene Mauch told reporters. "The two guys got will!"

That quote didn't hold up too well.

But was it REALLY age for youth? Or were the Phillies, as they had a long, long history of doing, simply getting rid of black players? It's hard to say and nobody really wrote about the race part of the deal at the time. It turned out to be one of the worst trades in Phillies history and one of the best in Cubs history. Jackson did have three good years for the Phillies. But Jenkins became an instant star, finishing second in the Cy Young voting for the Cubs the very next year and putting up six Cy Young quality seasons over the next seven years.

You look back now and it's almost impossible to make sense of Jenkins' absurd endurance. He had 20 complete games in '67 as a 24-year-old ... and that was just the start. He completed 20, 23, 24, 30 and 23 games over the next five seasons. He threw very hard -- he always finished near the top of the league in strikeouts-per-nine despite the fact he didn't throw much breaking stuff -- so how did he stay healthy? How did he just keep going and going? How did his arm not fall off?

It's a question of the time: How did Seaver keep going? Carlton? Ryan? Perry and Sutton? What magic potion did those 1970s guys drink? I've spoken with all of them at one point or another (with the obvious exception of Carlton) and asked them all, and their answers are interesting but inevitably disappointing. They talk about how they would long toss every day. They talk about how they did a lot of running, and building up the legs was the key. They talk about holding back during games, not throwing all-out, top-speed except when absolutely necessary. They talk about pitching through pain.

And all of these are undoubtedly true but I'm not sure there's much you can do with any of it going forward. Pitchers today would not be able to suddenly throw 300 innings in a year if they long-tossed daily or simply ignored the twinges in their elbows and shoulders.

The real reason pitchers threw a whole bunch of innings because that's what was expected of them -- and if they couldn't do it, they were discarded. It was survival. Teams were willing to burn out as many pitchers as necessary to find one.

And plenty of pitchers burned out -- a short list might include Don Gullett, Dennis Leonard, Randy Jones, Ron Bryant, Steve Busby, Sam McDowell, Gary Nolan, Jon Matlack, Ken Holtzman, Tom Phoebus, Gary Gentry, Bill Parsons, Steve Kline, Mark Fidrych, obviously, you can go on and on. Some were stars. Some didn't last long enough even for that. They were all done at 30.

And that was the simple calculus of the time. The ones who lost velocity or felt sharp stabbing pain whenever they threw the fastball found a new way to get hitters out or they became scouts or insurance salesmen or something.

In other words, Fergie Jenkins threw 300 innings per year because that's what was demanded of him ... and what he demanded of himself. Yes, there were tricks and methods -- the long tosses, the building up of the legs, the modulation of pitches (and modulation was a more effective strategy against 1970s lineups, when you didn't face eight or night home run threats every night and you could let your defense do much of the work). But nobody should think Jenkins would throw 300 innings today.

This is the challenge of comparing players across generations: Jenkins would be a very different pitcher now. What would it look like? That's harder to say but one thing that I'm confident in saying is that with his impeccable control and command, his great stuff, his pitching mind, his terrific athleticism (Jenkins played for the Harlem Globetrotters for a couple of years), his hitting prowess (In his Cy Young year of 1971, Jenkins had 14 extra base hits, including six homers, in his 49 games), he would be a star in any time.

After Jenkins career ended, he endured numerous horrifying tragedies -- he buried a young mother, a young wife, a young fiancée, and a young daughter. "In my life," he said, "I've been a part of many funerals."

And he said that on the mound, he always knew who he was. This never changed. In 2003, at the age of 60, he threw out the first pitch for a new Canadian baseball league. He had prepared for the moment. He hit the outside corner, low and away, just like always.