Jenkins' 1974 season stands in history books

Jenkins' 1974 season stands in history books

Jenkins' 1974 season stands in history books
ARLINGTON -- The Oakland Athletics won their third straight World Series in 1974, but there was one pitcher they couldn't beat. Ferguson Jenkins, pitching for the Rangers, was 5-0 with a 0.60 ERA, five complete games and two shutouts in five starts against them.

"In that fifth start he had them swinging at curve balls in the dirt in front of home plate," former Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg said. "It was a joke."

The Athletics weren't the only ones who had trouble with Jenkins that year. Almost four decades later, Jenkins' 1974 season still stands as the single greatest by a pitcher in Rangers history.

Jenkins, after being acquired from the Cubs in the offseason, made 41 starts for the Rangers and went 25-12 with a 2.82 ERA. The 25 wins are a club record. So too are the 328 innings and 29 complete games, and nobody has come close to that since then. His control was also phenomenal with 225 strikeouts and 45 walks while averaging eight innings a start.

The Rangers had lost 105 games the year before, but with Billy Martin as manager, outfielder Jeff Burroughs as the league MVP and Jenkins leading the pitching staff, they almost stole the AL West away from the Athletics. They faded in the end but still finished in second place with a record of 84-76, five games behind Oakland.

"It was a lot of fun," Jenkins said in a recent phone interview. "Steve Foucault was our main reliever, but if we had one more guy out of our bullpen who could do the job, we might have won it.

"We just kept thinking we've got a shot. We got to September, we had Jackie Brown, Steve Hargan and Jim Bibby in our rotation. We had some guys who could pitch and we had some guys who could play. Jim Sundberg was just a rookie catcher, but he and I used to talk about how to pitch to guys, when there was nobody on base, when there were guys on base, and he did a great job.

"Billy Martin was Manager of the Year, Jeff Burroughs was MVP, I was Comeback Player of the Year, Mike Hargrove was Rookie of the Year. We had guys who could play ... Toby Harrah, Dave Nelson. If we'd had a better bullpen we might have won it, but we let some games slip away. You win as a team and you lose as a team. You can't place it on one segment of the team."

Jenkins was in his 10th season in the Major Leagues. He won at least 20 games in six straight seasons between 1967-72 with the Cubs, but slipped to 14-16 with a 3.89 ERA for them in 1973. At the time he was still just 30 years old, but the Cubs traded him right after the season to the Rangers for infielders Bill Madlock and Vic Harris.

"There had been some articles in the paper that they thought since I hadn't won 20 games for the seventh straight year that I was washed up and had a bad arm," Jenkins said. "So they traded me out of the division, out of the National League and to a last-place team, the Texas Rangers. I was [30] years old but I didn't think I was washed up."

Jenkins, who would actually end his Hall of Fame career back with the Cubs in 1983, said he wasn't even bothered by being traded to a team that had lost 105 games the previous season.

"I looked at the roster and knew some of the players they had, like Toby Harrah," Jenkins said. "He had been signed originally by the same scout that signed me. They had Billy Martin as their manager. I had seen him in Detroit and I wanted to play for him. He was similar to Leo Durocher. I just wanted to prove to the skeptics that I still could pitch."

He did that in the second game of the season. He faced the Athletics and pitched a one-hit shutout. He walked one and struck out 10 in the Rangers' 2-0 victory, and was on his way to a remarkable season.

Jenkins won six of his first seven starts, then actually hit a bad stretch. In 10 starts from May 8 to June 15, he went 1-7 with a 5.94 ERA. One of those losses came against the Royals and future Rangers broadcaster Steve Busby. That stretch kept Jenkins from being selected to the All-Star team.

But in his final 24 games, Jenkins went 18-4 with a 2.17 ERA, 17 complete games and three shutouts. He lost just once in his last 11 starts as the Rangers tried to keep pace with the Athletics.

"It was his first year in the league and he was exceptional," Sundberg said. "He had great stuff and great command and he was on a mission fresh from the Cubs. His command and his control were outstanding."

Jenkins finished the season with just 45 walks in 328 1/3 innings. His ratio of 1.23 walks per nine innings is the seventh best in a season by a pitcher with at least 300 innings since 1920. His ratio of 5.00 strikeouts per walk is fifth best since 1920 for pitchers with at least 300 innings. In that category, Jenkins has five of the top 16 seasons since 1920, including the best of 7.11 strikeouts per walk in 1971 while with the Cubs.

"If he walked somebody, it was because he didn't want to face that guy," Sundberg said. "He would just send them down to first base and face the next guy."

The Rangers were six games out on Friday, Sept. 13, when the Athletics arrived at Arlington Stadium for a three-game series. Jenkins pitched against Jim "Catfish" Hunter in the opener and won, 3-1. The Rangers also won on Saturday, but the Athletics salvaged Game 3 on Sunday and went on to win the division. Apparently nobody else could handle them quite like Jenkins.

"When I was with the Cubs, we played them all the time in Spring Training," Jenkins said. "There were only something like six teams in Arizona at the time so I knew their players inside and out. I had pitched against them in Spring Training for many years. Once you face guys a lot, there are no secrets on how to get them out."

Jenkins won his 25th game on the last day of the season. As a reward for his fabulous season, Martin let him bat in that game rather than use the designated hitter. Jenkins went 1-for-2 with a single and a run scored in a 2-1 victory.

The Rangers didn't win the division and Jenkins did not win the Cy Young Award. He finished second behind Hunter, who received 12 of 24 first place votes. Jenkins received 10 while Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry each received one.

Jenkins, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 1971 while with the Cubs, still believes he should have won over Hunter, who was 25-12 with a 2.49 ERA for the Athletics.

"Of course," Jenkins said. "Without a doubt. But it didn't happen."

The season was still memorable. The Rangers are getting ready to celebrate 40 years in Arlington and they still have never had a pitcher win a Cy Young Award. They have also never had a pitcher come close to the kind of season Jenkins had in 1974.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.