"The defenseman does certain things to assure control for his team. I loved the position." -- Ferguson Jenkins
CHICAGO -- As a Junior B defenseman for his hometown Chantam, Ont., hockey team, Ferguson Jenkins played at the highest level of the sport possible without going pro. Jenkins considered himself "a darn good hockey player" -- others did, too, both in the community and local newspaper game accounts -- and knew plenty about the nuances of the game.
"As a defenseman at that level, you really had to skate back to get an icing call," recalled Jenkins. "You had to outrace the forward every time."
More than a few times, forward and defenseman would collide at the end boards, which led to a chronically bruised hip for Jenkins. You practically can see Jenkins rubbing his hip over the phone line at the memory.
"During my last (Junior B) season, I was getting ready to sign with the Phillies," said Jenkins. "They expected me to show up healthy, so I figured I better quit aggravating the hip. There just wasn't enough padding in the pelvis pad back then. So I stopped playing before the hockey season ended."
It turned out to be a solid decision for Jenkins. He performed well for the Phillies, but even more so caught the eyes of the Cubs, who traded for him and enjoyed the results of six seasons of 20-plus wins, one Cy Young and even some home runs. Jenkins finished his major-league career with 13 homers and, more to the point of why was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 (the first Canadian honored) he was the first major leaguer in history to strike out more than 3,000 batters and walk less than 1,000. Control was his forte on the mound and the blue line.
"The defenseman does certain things to assure control for his team," said Jenkins. "I loved the position."
Jenkins clearly still loves hockey. He will be one of the Chicago Sports Legends on hand for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio) at his former office, Wrigley Field, and said, "I wouldn't have missed it." He regularly skates with a grandson, helping the youngster learn to balance on skates.
"You never forget how to skate once you put the blades on," said Jenkins.
In his halcyon days on Chicago's north side, Jenkins said it was common to see Bobby Hull or Stan Mikita taking in a game from the Wrigley box seats as a respite from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He didn't meet Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe until the NHL legend was playing with sons Mark and Marty as part of the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros.
"It was still a huge thrill for a kid like me growing up in Ontario," said Jenkins.
As a self-described tall and skinny kid, playing on the blue line was as natural as being the player selected to man first base on the diamond.
"We had no high school baseball team, so I only played in the summer months and didn't start pitching until late; I was already 16," said Jenkins. "I started playing youth baseball at 9, while youth hockey I started about 6 or 7. I went through bantam, midgets, juniors and was just as good as the next player."
Jenkins and his Chantam team competed against an impressive cast of future NHL players, including some Blackhawks: Chico Maki, Wayne Maki and Pat Stapleton, plus Dickie Moore and Derek Sanderson.
"Sanderson was a big rival of mine in both hockey and baseball," recalled Jenkins.
Jenkins stood out as a pitcher. He rapidly moved through the minors and up to the Phillies, and then on to stardom at Wrigley. All the while, he played several winter seasons of industrial-league hockey on Sundays, even sponsoring his own teams once he began making major-league money.
"One year we were all in North Stars colors (green and gold), and another winter we were outfitted as the Circle J Hawks named after my Ontario cattle ranch and the Blackhawks," said Jenkins. "Industrial-league is just part of being in a small-town community in Ontario."
While he never told his major-league bosses about his partaking of Canadian tradition, the Cubs were well aware of Jenkins' other off-season pursuit. He played two seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters, running alongside Meadowlark Lemon and participating in the shredded paper and water-drenching gags involving referees. The off-season job took him to Hawaii and "every Big 10 town."
One stat about Jenkins that True Blue Cubs fans know and is fairly common among baseball's greatest strikeout pitchers: He gave up a lot of solo home runs because he challenged the likes of Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente with his fastball. Sometimes it worked out quite well -- in the 1967 All-Star Game he stuck these six American League greats in just three innings of work: Harmon Killebrew, Tony Conigliaro, Mickey Mantle, Jim Fregosi, Rod Carew and Tony Oliva.
And sometimes those same fastballs became homers that landed on Waveland Avenue beyond the left field bleachers.
“It's funny -- I pitched in small ballparks most of my career, Wrigley Field, Connie Mack (Stadium, in Philadelphia), Fenway Park," said Jenkins. "A pitcher has to seize the home field advantage. You have to like what you do. We played 10 years of day baseball in my Cubs days. I came to embrace it and use it to my advantage."
Jenkins is thinking Blackhawks can follow a similar tack for this year's Winter Classic.
"It's like playing in the backyard all over again with the toques or earmuffs," said Jenkins. "Of course you want to be thinking about winning, but also enjoy feeling like a kid again. Make it your game. Make it road hockey at your home ice."
Author: Bob Condor | NHL.com Editor-in-Chief