Former Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins had a slider that could freeze hitters where they stood. The Hall of Famer paired that with impressive command to record 3,192 strikeouts in his career, No. 12 on the all-time list.
He knew that slider was his best shot at striking out Hank Aaron.
“I threw hard down, hard in,” Jenkins told NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer on Friday. “Sure, Hank was going to get his hits, but I was very fortunate to only give up a couple home runs to him.”
Though they were competitors, Jenkins also considered Aaron, who died Friday at the age of 86, one of his heroes. Their careers overlapped for a little over a decade, during which Aaron logged 77 plate appearances against Jenkins.
He only struck out 15 times.
Aaron, a civil rights icon, will be remembered for far more than his on-field contributions. But those baseball accomplishments were a sight to behold.
The Hall of Famer was a 25-time All-Star. He won the National League batting title twice and was named MVP once. He still is the all-time leader in RBI (2,297) and total bases (6,856). And of course, in 1974, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, a high-water mark that had lasted for almost 40 years.
So, what was it like to take the mound against Aaron?
“Hank was diligent, very patient at the plate, didn't swing at bad pitches,” Jenkins said in a Zoom conference Friday. “And that's a tribute to his ability. … He was swinging at his own pitch, not the one you were trying to get him out with.”
An old interview of Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax made the rounds on social media Friday. They expressed similar admiration for Aaron.
“I threw the ball pretty hard,” Gibson said in the video, “and if I threw the ball inside to him, I couldn’t get it by him.”
Koufax added: “For me, he was the toughest out. For everybody else, I had a plan.”
Aaron’s career stats against Gibson (8 home runs, .215 batting average), Koufax (7, .362) and Ferguson (2, .271) paints a picture of a hitter so dominant that he could frustrate even the best pitchers in the game.
“He was an outstanding ball player,” Jenkins said, “and a great gentleman.”