When the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) most celebrated free agent Lebron James announced on TV last July that he was taking his talents to South Beach by joining the Miami Heat, horns honked outside the arena and on Miami Beach where, just five decades ago, Canadian Hall-of-Fame baseball pitcher Ferguson Jenkins and other Black ball players were prohibited when he embarked on his professional career.
In his first season in Class “D” in Miami as a 19-year-old in 1962, Jenkins and four other Black team members were forced to stay at a funeral home while the White players roomed in hotels.
“They did the embalming in the basement while the caskets were on the second floor,” recalled Jenkins in his keynote address at the 10th annual Peel United Cultural Partners (PUCP) Black History Month celebration last Saturday night in Brampton.
“Our bedrooms were at the top and one of the players – Alex Johnson – was so afraid that there was an armchair in the visiting area near to the entrance to the room where the caskets were in which he slept. He was a great athlete, but his nerves were a mess. He just couldn’t handle it.”
Jenkins, who was converted from a reliever to a starting pitcher, also could not stay with the rest of his teammates when he later played in Chattanooga and Arkansas.
“I had to live in a private home,” he said. “When you went to certain cities, you had to give your money to a White player for him to get your food and bring it back to you. It was a bitter shock to me, but you overcome those things.
“As one of the first Blacks to play in Little Rock, Arkansas, I and the other Black players were subjected to racism, but we got through it. What we wanted to do was to show the city and the organization that we were athletes. We led the league in home runs, runs scored and runs batted in and we won our division. We proved to the city that regardless of what they thought, we were part of that team. After the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, everything changed and good things started to happen.”
In addition to racism, Jenkins has also faced countless family tragedies. He buried his blind mother who succumbed to cancer in 1970 at age 52; his second wife died in a car accident and his fiancée committed suicide and killed his three-year old daughter in the process after Jenkins told her he was planning to accept a coaching position with the Cincinnati Reds farm team in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Jenkins, whose mother’s family came to Canada from the United States via the Underground Railroad, is the only Canadian in Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame, an Order of Canada recipient and a Canadian Walk of Fame inductee.
On his 68th birthday last December 13, Jenkins became just the second Canadian – Acadian singer-songwriter Edith Butler is the other – to watch the press run as his image was imprinted on a Canada Post stamp that is being released for Black History Month.
“I am a proud Canadian and to have your face on a stamp that’s going all over the country is something I am very proud of, especially when it’s done for Black History Month,” said Jenkins who led the National League with 24 wins and 30 complete games in 325 innings in 1971 when he became the first Chicago Cub to win a Cy Young award. “I have four beautiful children and grandchildren who are also proud of this honour that was bestowed on me.”
Jenkins, who also excelled in hockey and basketball and was a Harlem Globetrotters member from 1967-69, established the Ferguson Jenkins Foundation in 2000.
He said money raised through the sale of his stamps and other memorabilia sold during Black History Month will go towards the purchase of an organ for a church in St. Catharine and the construction of a church in Chatham.
“If you have got something that you think we can help with, let us know,” Jenkins, who posted seven 20-game wining seasons and is the only pitcher to amass 3000 plus strikeouts with less than 1,000 walks, told the audience. “We support so many different charities and we have raised over $2 million in the last 11 years. It makes me feel good to hand over a cheque to someone or an organization in need.”
The PUCP comprises the 30-year-old United Achievers Club of Brampton (UACB) and the Congress of Black Women Brampton chapter. In collaboration with corporate partners and private donors, the UACB has rewarded 269 Peel high school graduates with nearly $250,000 in tuition assistance in the past 26 years while the Congress, which is in its 22nd year – also presents bursaries to high school graduates and single mothers.
As part of the Black History Month celebration, the PUCP encourages students to write Black History Month essays. This year’s winner was Turner Fenton Secondary School Grade 10 student Na’Shantea Miller. Sikem Nkwawir, a Grade Seven student at Mount Royal Public School and Jericho Allick were second and third respectively.
The PUCP also presented a Black History Recognition award to Share reporter Ron Fanfair.
Held at the Lester B. Pearson theatre, this year’s celebration featured several talented performers, including the Sisserou Youth Steelband, saxophonist Dave Brown, pianist Elliot Laughton, spoken word artist Nadine Williams and vocalists Jay Davis, Madieson Alexander and Patricia Russell.