- P, LF, OF
- September 23, 1942
- 195 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 6-30-1968 with DET
On hearing he had been traded from the Kansas City Royals to the Eastern Division Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1972, Jim Rooker exclaimed “It’s like walking down the street and finding money.” In fact it was Rooker’s strong lefthanded pitching that helped put money into the wallets of his teammates, helping them to two division titles in addition to one very memorable World Championship.
During his years with the Pirates (1973-1980), Rooker was the team’s winningest pitcher with 82 victories. He averaged over 14 wins per season from 1974-1977. A good hitting pitcher, Rooker, who had started his career as an outfielder in the Detroit organization, collected 29 hits while batting .305 in 1974. But it was not the consistency he showed in the mid-70’s for which he will be most remembered as a player. Rather his biggest moment as a Pirate came as a 37-year-old who had struggled most of the season with injuries as he pitched a clutch five innings to keep the Pirates alive in the must-win fifth game of the 1979 World Series.
While first enthused about coming to the Pirates, Rooker would at times be brutally frank in his criticism of the team and its poor defense. This honesty later helped him become a successful broadcaster for the team when his career ended in 1980.
Rooker first appeared in the majors pitching two games for the 1968 Tigers, a team which won the World Series that year and was drafted by Kansas City in the expansion draft that fall. While he was only 4-16 and 10-15 with the Royals his first two seasons, he showed promise by pitching four shut outs. He also hit four homeruns (two in one game against Jim Kaat) in ’69 and one in ’70 as his ten wins that year led the Royals.
After experiencing arm problems in 1971 and 1972 and spending time in the minors, Rooker was traded to the Pirates on October 25 for relief prospect Gene Garber. He went to camp not sure of a spot, but pitched well and made the team as the No. 2 lefty out of the bullpen behind Ramon Hernandez. With Pirate pitching struggling in 1973, Rooker moved into the rotation and was the Bucs’ most effective starter down the stretch finishing 10-6 with a 2.86 ERA and tying for the team lead in strikeouts.
Poor support early the following season led to Rooker fashioning an unimpressive record during the first two months of 1974. But, with his teammates coming alive in mid-June and Rooker pitching well all year, finished with a career high 15 wins. During the season, Rooker had had several games where he was in trouble early, but had shut the door allowing the Pirates to come back to win. Such was the case the last night of the season with the Eastern Division Title on the line. Rooker had trouble early and an error by Richie Hebner contributed to the Bucs falling behind, 3-0 in the first inning. However, after his rocky start, Rooker held the Cubs scoreless until he was hit for late in the game. The Pirates crept back to tie the game when Steve Swisher’s throw hit Bob Robertson after the Bucco had struck out in the ninth inning and clinched the title in the tenth on Al Oliver’s triple and Manny Sanguillen’s infield hit.
Rooker received a no-decision in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Dodgers despite pitching well. ThePirates lost the series to LA three games to one.
Rooker was tagged with another playoff loss the following season, lasting only four innings against Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Rooker had won 13 games during the regular season, but this figure could have been higher as for the third strait year he posted an ERA under 3.00.
“The Rook” continued to pitch well in 1976 and 1977. He matched his career high with 15 wins as the nation celebrated its 200th birthday and won 14 in ’77. Showing signs of age, Rooker struggled somewhat in ’78, finishing 9-11 and his ERA rose to 4.25, but he had pitched better the second half after a 3-6 start and Chuck Tanner looked forward to having Rooker come back strong in ’79.
Injuries, however, kept Rooker on the shelf most of the season. He began the year on the DL, not coming off until May 12. He pitched well intitially, but continued to have physical problems and was disabled again in mid-August. Coming off the disabled list in September, he impressed with some fine performances, but despite hurling 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in Game 1 of the World Series, Tanner’s naming him to start Game 5 with the Pirates down three games to one was a surprise to everyone, including the veteran.
Rooker responded beautifully. Realizing Baltimore was looking for him to pitch on the outer part of the plate, Rooker busted the Oriole hitters inside, going through their batting order without allowing a hit. Rich Dauer connected for a homerun off him in the fifth, the only run he allowed in his five innings of work and the Pirates rallied for seven runs against Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan and the Oriole bullpen. The win went to Bert Blyleven, but Rooker had given the Pirates the chance to comeback with his clutch pitching.
Unfortunately for Rooker, his arm gave out while pitching in Three Rivers Stadium early in 1980. He spent the rest of the year on the disabled list and announced his retirement at the end of the season. His first Pirate career over, Rooker quickly embarked on his second. He became a Pirate broadcaster for the next 12 years and made national headlines in 1989 when he walked from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh following a comment he would do so if the Pirates blew a 10 run lead. The Bucs did and after the season, Rooker agreed to keep his word and collected pledges to raise money for charity. The broadcaster’s publicized “Unintentional Walk” raised $38,000. Rooker currently ownsRook’s East Side Saloon in nearby Ambridge, PA and has run for local political office. He also occasionally serves as a color commentator for ESPN.
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