Brooklyn Boro

Celebrating Albert Bluford Rube Walker of the Brooklyn Dodgers

May 28, 2024 William A. Gralnick
The Brooklyn Dodgers, National League champions, pose for a team photo, Sept. 26, 1952, at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn. Seated on ground: Charlie Di Giovanna. Seated in first row, from left: George Shuba, Andy Pafko, Pee Wee Reese, George Pfister, Cookie Lavagetto, Chuck Dressen, Jake Pitler, Billy Herman, Billy Cox, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Dr. Harold Wendler. Second row: John Griffin (in T-shirt), Lee Scott (in suit), Jim Hughes, Gil Hodges, Ben Wade, Johnny Rutherford, Jackie Robinson, Clem Labine, Clyde King, Chris van Cuyk, Preacher Roe, Joe Black, Ralph Branca, Rocky Nelson. Last row: Joe Landrum, Ed Amoros, Rube Walker, Carl Erskine, Bobby Morgan, Tommy Holmes, Rocky Bridges, Billy Loes, Duke Snider, Dick Williams, Ken Lehman, Ronnie Negray, Steve Lembo, Ray Moore.
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Today we start a new tradition. We will celebrate births instead of deaths. The honor of going first goes to Albert Bluford Rube Walker, born May 16, 1926.

Not everyone who is born in a small town and grew up playing country hardball becomes a star. Baseball, however, is a lot like chess. ‘lots of moving pieces and lots of people thinking about where those pieces should go. If you excelled in the thinking and moving areas, you could become an invaluable part of the team even though the fans didn’t see you much. Rube Walker was one of those guys. And even though he looked like a rube, with dumbo-like ears, and from a small southern town, that’s not why he was given that moniker. He was a bat boy who idolized the batting coach whose name was Rube. The players started calling him Rube and it stuck. (Dave Williams written for SABR) He followed this coach here, there, and everywhere, picking up the tidbits that eventually made him so valuable. Not everything makes sense, especially when it comes to sports nicknames.

But Albert Bluford Rube Walker from Lenoir, NC did play major league baseball and he had his moments. Let’s take a look at the numbers. Bear with me because his grandson, Thomas Cogliano, quoted below pointed out his other talents that, in his opinion, should have gotten him into the Hall of Fame. In a 2008 Bleacher’s Report article Cogliano gave insight to his grandfather. Walker played in 608 games standing at the plate for 1,585 at bats. He knocked in 114 runs with 329 hits 192 of them being RBI’s. He walked 150 times. He hit 35 home runs. As I said, he had his moments. One of those was a base-clearing grand slam. We can thank The Baseball Review for telling us Walker was a lefty at bat and righty behind the plate.

He was traded shortly before the 1951 season to the Brooklyn Dodgers from the Chicago Cubs where he was the starting catcher. In Brooklyn, he served as a backup catcher to future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. He threw out 46% of the guys who tried to run against him. (Harold Uhlman ThinkBlue LA.) He started all three games of the 1951 playoffs against the New York Giants and hit a home run in the second game of that series (the only game the Dodgers won in that series). He had the misfortune of being behind the plate, subbing for an ailing Campanella, when on October 3, 1951, Bobby Thompson hit the homerun called “the shot heard ‘round the world” in game three of that series. But for the record, he did not call the pitch Ralph Branca delivered to Thompson in that famous (or infamous) at-bat. Harold Uhlman, again writing for ThinkBlue LA said Walker had called for a brush-back pitch but Branca didn’t get it inside enough. The Giants were known for sign stealing but Whitey Lockman who was on second said Walker had switched up the signs and he couldn’t read them to flash to Thompson. Thus answered an oft asked question. Thompson did not know what pitch was coming.

Rube Walker was a member of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodger World Series championship team, although he did not have an at-bat in that famous 1955 World Series. The very next year in the 1956 World Series, Walker had two pinch-hit at-bats (unfortunately he went 0 for 2 in that series). He continued to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers through their move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. After playing one season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958, he retired.

If you judged Walker by his stats, you’d be right to think him average, but his real legacy came after his playing days was as a pitching coach. Walker became a pitching coach for the Washington Senators, New York Mets, and Atlanta Braves. With the Mets, he revolutionized baseball by inventing the five-man pitching rotation. He felt adding the fifth man would keep his staff stronger and healthy through a 162-game campaign. He had the encouragement of manager Gil Hodges.  The “Amazing Mets” of 1969 won the World Series by upsetting the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles four games to one.

Four years later, under manager Yogi Berra with Walker as pitching coach, the Mets won another National League pennant and were one game away from winning a second World Series title only to lose in seven games to the Oakland Athletics.  As pitching coach for the Mets, Rube Walker helped groom young pitching prospects into becoming future Hall of Famers such as Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Later, when he served as Atlanta’s pitching coach, he helped groom another famous pitcher into a future Hall of Famer, Phil Niekro.

When he became a pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves, he served manager Joe Torre in the early 1980s and helped Atlanta win the National League West division title in 1982 before losing to the eventual World Series champions St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS that year.  Following his stint with Joe Torre’s Braves, he went on to become a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals where he remained employed until his death on December 12, 1992.

Major League Baseball has in the past inducted managers, umpires, and sportswriters into the Hall of Fame.  Why not induct pitching coaches?  Why not induct the man who invented the five-man pitching rotation?  Why not induct the man who schooled three future Hall of Fame pitchers while a pitching coach?  Furthermore, why have the Mets not inducted this man into their own Hall of Fame given how he put the Mets on the map of baseball’s elite teams? These pointed and poignant questions were posed by the frustrated grandson in the above-noted article.

It all came to an end on December 12, 1992, in Morgantown, W.Va. He was only 66 years old prompting the thought that only the good die young. It prompts another thought—Rube Walker has been denied recognition for the legacy he left behind — maybe you could do something about that.

If you’d like to talk about it, you can reach me at [email protected].

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