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Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins "Back then they just called me Plywood"
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Ferguson (Fergie) Jenkins is a great storyteller and has so many great stories to tell. Jenkins is a baseball legend and he is the only Canadian to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. as well as the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary's Ontario.

Jenkins was born in Chatham Ontario in 1942. His professional baseball career began when he was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1962, at the age of just 20. He made his major-league debut as a 22-year-old in 1965, as a relief pitcher. The following year Jenkins was part of a 3-player trade to the Chicago Cubs. That year he would quickly become known as one of the best pitchers in the majors. In his first full year as a starter for the Cubs, Jenkins recorded twenty wins while posting a 2.80 ERA and 236 strikeouts.

His Major League career spanned 18 years, and during that time, Jenkins was named to the All-Star team in 1967, 1971, and 1972 and won the National League Cy Young Award in 1971. The Chicago Cubs honoured Jenkins in 2009 by retiring his number - 31. He won 284 games during his career striking out 3,192 batters.

Those are the easy to find stats about Ferguson Jenkins but in my interview with Jenkins, I learned about the man, the Christian - dedicated to helping others by serving through great acts of charity and kindness.

Life was not easy for Jenkins and while he was sheltered from the cruelty of bigotry and prejudice in rural Ontario, his father had prepared him for what he could expect, as it was clear that young Fergie was destined to leave Chatham for a "life in the bigs." Jenkins Senior told Fergie that life was about to change and he would experience a whole different world, the world of racism, intolerance and ignorance. His father stressed to him that God is not to blame for their actions and he needed his own responses to their actions to be that of forgiveness.

Even with the insight from his wise father, Jenkins Jr. was unprepared for the viciousness of the treatment he was subjected to in the Southern US in the 1960's. In his first road trip in 1962, Fergie arrived in Miami Beach and was shepherded away from his team mates as they crossed the road to a busy restaurant. He and the few other black players were led down a back street to the restaurants for the "Blacks". "Back then I was so skinny but it had nothing to do with being barred from the white restaurants," tells Jenkins, "I was just skinny. Early on, I took a lot of jokes about being so thin and then someone tagged me with the nickname 'Plywood'. I seldom heard anyone call me anything but plywood from then on."

One teammate back in those early years was Dick Allen and Jenkins tells how Dick struggled with the prejudice so much that he would get violent, even with his own white teammates. "I took him aside and told him that he could not win, and striking out at the other members of the team was like striking at his brothers, his family. With time Dick grew more tolerant but I always felt he was on the edge."

Jenkins tells another (now) funny story about another African American player, Alex Johnson. "When we travelled to Tampa, Alex and I were to stay in the hotel for the Blacks but it was a dump and we hated it. One of the locals put us in touch with the owner of the mortuary as he rented out the rooms upstairs. So, that's where we would stay when we were in Tampa but Alex was so afraid of what was downstairs, he faced his fears head on. He would actually sleep in an open coffin just so he could keep an eye on everything around him. True story!"

"My faith was constantly being tested and when I was sent to play in the Arkansas Development League, and learned that I would be the first Black player to ever play in Arkansas, I knew my faith was to continue to be tested. I was right."

In 1964 the Bill of Rights was passed, and slowly, very slowly there were changes. In 1965 Jenkins made the big move up to the Phillies and the following year he started his career with the Chicago Cubs. "I told you about my faith being tested playing ball down south." Jenkins says. "But moving to the Chicago Cubs in 1965 was a great test of my faith too. I think I prayed more in Chicago than I did in Arkansas. First of all, the coach was Leo Durocher - that guy was tougher than a night in jail! The Cubs were the doormats of the majors. We were bad and the fans let us know it. That year we lost 103 games winning only 58 games."

Not many know that during the off seasons, Jenkins would hook up with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing with them as they made their winter tours. It was with the Globetrotters that he formed a friendship that is still very strong today. Meadow George "Meadowlark" Lemon III, known as the "Clown Prince" of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and Jenkins visit with each other every year either at Lemon’s home in Scottsdale or in Canada at Jenkins' charity golf tournament.

A born-again Christian, Lemon became an ordained minister in 1986 and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Vision International University in Ramona, California, in 1988. The headquarters of his Meadowlark Lemon Ministries, Inc. and Meadowlark Lemon's Harlem All Stars is based in Scottsdale as well.

Lemon was instrumental in the further development of Jenkins' faith and Christianity. "He taught me many lessons but if I had to pick one it would simply be 'Make Him part of your daily life' and I have. He explained to me how and why God loves me and I know that to be true. God gave me talent and all I had to do was improve it."

"I have never had any real health issues and I thank God for that. I am 70 years old and never had a serious illness but that is not to say I have not endured serious illness." Tells Jenkins.

His mother was blind and died of diabetes when she was just 52. His wife was involved in a car crash and was in a coma for 20 days before passing away. Just when it looked like she would recover, she contracted pneumonia and died. One year later another tragedy - Jenkins' daughter is killed in car cash.

"Yes, I then asked the Lord 'Why are you punishing me?' But I realized that the Lord will not burden you with more than you can handle." says Jenkins and adds: "I say to him 'Please no more family tragedies at least for a while' and so far so good."

Jenkins now spends most of his time giving back to the community through his involvement in many charities. Through the Fergus Jenkins Foundation, he supports and actively participates in the activities of Big Brothers, Big Sisters in Canada and the US, West Niagara Second Stage Housing & Counselling (http://www.wnss.org/) , Banyan (http://www.banyancommunityservices.org/), YMCA — YWCA in Canada and the US, the Canadian Diabetes Association (http://www.diabetes.ca/), Special Olympics (Canada) (http://www.specialolympics.ca/), CNIB (http://www.cnib.ca), Red Cross in Canada and the US, Illinoi based Children's Therapy Center of the Quad Cities (www.ctcqc.or), Houston's Urban League (http://www.haul.org/), JDRF (http://www.jdrf.org/), Catholic Charities CYO (http://camp.cccyo.org) , Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (http://www.nlbm.com), and more.

Meeting and speaking with Ferguson Jenkins was an honor and, because I do love baseball, I could listen to his stories for hours. If you would like to meet this man, this baseball legend and this wonderful Christian come to the induction ceremony at the Canadian Hall of Fame in St Mary's in June. He is usually there. Also be sure to check out the Ferguson Jenkins Foundation website at http://www.fergiejenkinsfoundation.org/