Fergie won't forget his road to the Majors

Cubs icon idolized Jackie Robinson during childhood

April 14th, 2021

A version of this story was originally published in April 2020.

CHICAGO -- Fergie Jenkins remembers the cooler that his teammate, Alex Johnson, would keep on the Little Rock Travelers' bus during road trips through southern towns. In it, Johnson would store juice and milk and ingredients to make sandwiches.

That cooler would save Johnson, Jenkins and the other black or Latin players on the Minor League club from having to hand their cash to white teammates to purchase food for them in restaurants.

"He was a smart guy," Jenkins recalled during phone conversation last year. "A lot of times, we didn't want to give other players the money, because they were embarrassed for us just as much as we were embarrassed."

Thursday marks the anniversary of when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, breaking baseball's color barrier. Robinson, Larry Doby and the black players who followed through the '40s and '50s paved the trail for Jenkins and the wave of stars that continued to join big league rosters into the turbulent '60s.

Jenkins was born and raised in Canada, where his youth was void of the kind of hatred he witnessed as a Minor Leaguer playing for Miami, Arkansas and Chattanooga in the Phillies' system across the 1963-65 seasons. Whenever Jenkins would hear a slur or see an act of hate, his father's words would ring in his ears.

"He would tell me, 'Son,'" Jenkins began, "'if you're going to be a professional athlete, you've got to carry yourself as a professional. A lot of times, you just can't strike back. You've just got to hang in there,' which a lot of times I did."

Ferguson Jenkins Sr. played for the Chatham Coloured All-Stars, which was the first black team to win an Ontario Baseball Association championship. The elder Jenkins was born in Canada, but his parents immigrated from Barbados. Fergie Jenkins' mother, Dolores, was a descendant of slaves who escaped the United States via the Underground Railroad.

It was not until Jenkins was older that he really grasped the gravity of his ancestry.

"Five generations of Canadians in my family. Back from the 1800s," said Jenkins, who is 77 years old now. "After I came back and now I'm in the big leagues, I was starting to see all these different celebrations they were having for all these different athletes and where they came from, and then that really struck home with me. Who I was. Where I came from.

"And my parents had to struggle. I don't think I had that much struggle. I didn't suffer a lot of abuse. I was very fortunate when I came up through baseball."

When Jenkins played for Miami in the Phillies' system, he and his darker-skinned teammates enjoyed heading to neighborhoods filled with Cuban people and Cuban food. On the road, they would seek out the "black areas," as Jenkins described them, in an effort to avoid conflict. Once in Macon, Ga., for example, he saw a group of black teenagers egged during a silent protest.

As a pitcher, and a relief arm in those Minor League days, Jenkins said he did not hear much from the fans in attendance. He said it was worse for a teammate like Dick Allen, who had to take the field every day. If Allen went hitless one day, he could expect to take some abuse from the crowd in Little Rock the next day.

"He suffered that first week, because they didn't want us there," Jenkins said. "There was all kinds of petitions and banners and things like that. And then he came on. He was like the MVP in 1963 in Little Rock."

In that summer of 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the 21-year-old Allen launched 33 homers and knocked in 97 RBIs for Little Rock. Only six years earlier, nine black students walked into the previously all-white Central High School with the Arkansas National Guard on hand for protection.

"He just turned peoples' ideas around, that the athletes were just there to play baseball," Jenkins said of Allen. "We weren't there to do anything else, but to play baseball and to get promoted possibly to the big leagues."

By the time Jenkins reached the Cubs in 1966, following a trade between Chicago and Philadelphia, the North Siders already had a group of black stars. Ernie Banks broke the color barrier for the Cubs, whose '60s teams also featured Billy Williams, among others.

Jenkins spent a decade with the Cubs, compiling 167 wins with a 3.20 ERA over 401 games, including 154 complete games. He won the National League Cy Young Award in 1971, made three All-Star teams, won at least 20 games six times and averaged 21 wins, 40 starts and more than 300 innings per year from '67-71 with the team.

And as Jenkins remembers it, he never once experienced hatred in the big leagues.

"Not one thing ever," he said. "Not one thing."

For that, Jenkins expressed gratitude for how his parents' raised him, and for how Robinson blazed the path with integrity. Jenkins was four years old when Robinson broke baseball's barrier. He was 13 years old when Robinson played his final game. Jenkins was in his mid-20s and starring for the Cubs when he finally met Robinson.

"He was an older man. Gray hair," Jenkins said. "He didn't look like the athlete he did when he was younger."

Even so, Robinson remained larger than life in Jenkins' eyes.