The Year Of The Card–Jim Rooker, 1970

Perhaps it is due to the fact that I grew up watching American League baseball, but I much prefer the DH to watching pitchers hit. Sure, it’s fun when someone like Bartolo Colon hits a home run, but plate appearances that consist of strikeouts and mostly-predictable bunts are not my idea of entertainment. However, if pitchers could hit like Jim Rooker, that might be different.

James Phillip Rooker was born on September 23, 1942, in Lakeview, Oregon. But by the time he was in high school, his family had moved to the Denver area. Rooker was signed out of Cherry Creek High School by the Detroit Tigers in 1960. He was an outfielder, not a pitcher, although he would occasionally pitch in blowouts during his first few minor league seasons. Once he hit Class AA and only managed a .177/.214/.329 line for Knoxville (Tenn.), the Tigers asked Rooker what he thought about trying to pitch. Still, the organization had Rooker splitting time between the mound and the outfield. It wasn’t until 1966 that they finally settled on making him a pitcher. So Rooker was a bit old for a prospect, but still went 12-5 for Class A Rocky Mount (N.C.) as a 23-year-old. 

But he quickly became a promising hurler, posting a 10-7 mark in Class A and Class AA combined in 1967, and a 14-8 record with a 2.61 ERA for Class AAA Toledo in 1968. He even got a callup to the majors midway through the season, appearing in two games, although he did not have a decision in either.

The Tigers, on their way to a World Series title, were stacked with pitching. But it was still a bit of a surprise when they sent Rooker to the Yankees as a player to be named later, completing a trade made in June. The Yankees then left Rooker unprotected in the expansion draft, and the Royals snapped him up with the sixth pick. Kansas City obviously had a strategy of finding pitchers who were blocked from reaching the majors by older, more established stars–besides Rooker, the Royals came up with Bill Butler and Dick Drago (who had also been in Detroit’s system) and Wally Bunker and Roger Nelson, both from Baltimore’s organization.

New York management rather hilariously tried to claim that Rooker had not been that important to their plans, then approached the Royals about a trade to reacquire the southpaw. But the two teams could not reach an agreement, and Rooker remained a Royal.

His 1969 season got off to an underwhelming start. Shoulder tendinitis in spring training kept him off the Opening Day roster. When he joined the team in late April and took a rotation spot, he was hit hard. Rooker lost his first six decisions, and had a 6.94 ERA to go with that 0-6 record after he lost on July 7. But things turned around, starting with a three-hit shutout of Chicago on July 12, for Rooker’s first big-league win. By the end of the season, his ERA had fallen to 3.75. The results weren’t there, as his record was just 4-16, but six of those last 10 defeats were by one run. Rooker did more to help his own cause than some of his teammates. Not that far removed from his hitting days, Rooker belted four home runs in 1969. That is still a Royals’ record for pitchers in one season, one that will presumably last forever. For the season, he hit .281/.305/.544 in 59 plate appearances. Of the 18 position players on the team with at least that many plate appearances, Rooker out-homered nine of them, and tied two more.

Anyway, the Royals smartly looked past the record and determined that Rooker was definitely in their plans for 1970. But there was one big change–manager Joe Gordon had resigned in favor of a front-office job, and was replaced by Charlie Metro, an old-school disciplinarian. The new skipper organized workouts for Rooker and the other players who were staying in KC for the winter, then put the whole team through a grueling spring training, but not before making sure players had their hair cut properly short and limited sideburns. 

Metro also determined Rooker would start the season in the bullpen, which is where he spent the first month. In seven April appearances, Rooker picked up a win and a save, posting a 5.00 ERA in 18 innings. In his last game of the month, he pitched six innings in relief, setting him up for a return to the rotation.

Rooker’s second start of the year ended up being memorable…for the wrong reasons. Facing the Tigers in Detroit on May 9, Rooker entered the sixth with a 4-1 lead, having allowed just four hits and a walk. But after the sixth began with a double, fly out, and RBI single, Metro removed Rooker from the game. Relievers Ken Wright and Mike Hedlund were roughed up, and Detroit picked up a 7-4 win. Rooker’s next appearance, on May 14, came in relief, and after the game he vented to the press, saying “I just don’t feel comfortable here. I wish he would get rid of me.”

But Metro handed Rooker the ball again to start on May 17, and the lefty pitched 11 innings to help the Royals to an 8-4 win (he also broke the 4-4 tie with a two-run double in the 11th). Afterward, he revealed that he had pitched that game in relief on May 14 with a blister, which had reappeared during the last couple of innings in this game. Both Rooker and Metro said pleasant things about each other after the game, and the issue was mostly forgotten. Rooker was back in the rotation to stay, but Metro, having rubbed many players the wrong way, would be fired after just 52 games, with the team sitting at 19-33. Pitching coach Bob Lemon, who had been working closely with Rooker, took over.

One of Metro’s final games as manager almost became memorable for good reasons, though. On June 4 in Yankee Stadium, Rooker took a no-hitter into the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Royals clinging to a 1-0 lead. But Horace Clarke led off with a single, then scored on Bobby Murcer’s double. Rooker finished the inning, then worked through two more scoreless innings before the Yankees finally scored the game-winner in the 12th, after Rooker was removed from the game with one on and one out.

“I told some of the guys in the bullpen that I had real good stuff. I said if I could get the ball over, there’s no way they were going to beat me. I felt a little uncomfortable the first two innings, but after that things started falling into place. From the third inning on, I seemed to be pitching pretty easy. I guess that shows you what concentration can do for you.”–Rooker, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, June 20, 1970

Perhaps worn out from that effort, Rooker didn’t make it out of the second inning of his next start. But four solid performances meant he ended June with a 3.59 ERA, although once again his wins and losses (a 4-6 record) didn’t necessarily show how well he pitched. Meanwhile, the team’s 26-46 record at the end of June showed it wasn’t all Metro’s fault.

The Royals fared little better in July, going 12-19, but Rooker had an excellent month. With two shutouts, he posted a 2.05 ERA for the month, while picking up three wins (and four losses). He also smacked a home run on July 24, his only one of the season but one that put his record for career homers by a Royals pitcher even further out of reach.

In August, though, Rooker struggled. He failed to record an out in his first start of the month, being tagged for four hits and five runs by Baltimore. He would pitch more than two innings just once in his first five starts of the month, and his ERA jumped back up to 3.82 before the calendar turned. Only his last start of August, a 3-1 win over Washington, kept the month from being a total loss. 

Rooker used that win over the Senators as a springboard for a strong finish. He picked up two wins in September, ending the year with a 10-15 mark, and lowered his ERA to 3.54. For a team that finished 65-97, those were decent numbers. Rooker pitched 203 ⅔ innings, third on the team, and his 10 wins led the staff. Baseball Reference credits him with 1.5 WAR (same as in 1969), good for third on the staff. 

Unfortunately, those two years were the highlight of Rooker’s time in Kansas City. After he was ineffective in the rotation to begin 1971, Rooker was sent to the bullpen and ultimately demoted to Omaha. His 1972 season was similar. Over the two seasons, he totaled a 7-13 record and 4.79 ERA in just 126 innings. So it was not a big surprise that he became expendable. Kansas City dealt Rooker to Pittsburgh on October 25, 1972, in exchange for relief pitcher Gene Garber.

It was not a great trade for the Royals. Garber pitched well enough for Kansas City, picking up 11 saves and working 152 ⅔ innings, mostly in relief, in 1973. But the Royals sold him to Philadelphia midway through the 1974 season. Garber would have a solid career as a relief pitcher, mostly in Atlanta; he wound up with 96 wins, a 3.34 ERA, and 218 saves in 931 games (the Royals reacquired him in 1987 and he spent the first half of the 1988 season with KC; those were the last 39 appearances of his career). But Rooker would find his groove in Pittsburgh, with an 82-65 mark over eight seasons. He was a key part of the rotation for the Pirates’ 1974 and 1975 division champions. By the time the Pirates finally reached the World Series in 1979, Rooker was holding down the fifth spot in the rotation. After not appearing in the NLCS, Rooker got the start in Game Five, with Baltimore ahead three games to one. The veteran lefty held the Orioles to one run over five innings. After he left the game, Pittsburgh scored seven runs to stave off elimination, then won the next two games to clinch the title.

Shoulder problems limited Rooker to just four games in 1980, and the Pirates released him at the end of the season. His playing career was over, with final numbers of 103-109 and a 3.46 ERA, 976 strikeouts, and 703 walks in 1810 ⅓ innings. As a hitter, his final line was .201/.230/.277 with seven home runs. Not great, but not an automatic out, either.

Rooker wasted no time entering his second career as a broadcaster, joining the Pirates’ radio team for the 1981 season. He would serve as a color analyst on both TV and radio over the next 13 seasons in Pittsburgh. His most infamous moment there came on June 9, 1989. With the Pirates in Philadelphia and holding a 10-0 lead after the top of the first, Rooker told the listening audience, “If we don’t win this one, I’ll walk back to Pittsburgh.” Sure enough, the Phillies whittled away at the lead, then scored five runs in the eighth to win 15-11. It didn’t happen until after the season, but Rooker did a charity walk from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, proving he was a good sport, if not a good predictor.

After a few more years working for ESPN, Rooker devoted himself to a series of interesting occupations. He ran for political office twice (but lost both times), became a dog trainer, opened a restaurant, and wrote three baseball-themed children’s books. Not surprisingly, the well-rounded player has had a well-rounded life after baseball.

Jim Rooker’s best games of 1970:
6/4 @ NYY: Pitched 11 ⅓ innings, allowing six hits and striking out eight in 2-1 loss.
5/17 @ CHW: Scattered nine hits over 11 innings, striking out nine batters in 8-4 win.
9/8 vs. CAL: Held Angels to three hits, walking none and picking up seven Ks in 12-0 shutout.
9/3 @ CAL: Surrendered four hits and a walk, striking out five in complete game 1-0 loss.
7/20 vs. DET: Limited Tigers to six hits in 3-0 shutout win.

About the card:
A really good-looking card, in my opinion. Looks like a beautiful day in Fort Myers, Florida. Just a clean, simple look with the blue skycomplementing the blue in Rooker’s uniform. The cartoon on the back intrigued me, so I checked. Rooker hit 11 triples for Class A Duluth-Superior in 1963, and also belted 19 home runs. But he also struck out 127 times in 474 plate appearances. He did hit four triples in his major-league career.

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