May 15, 2016

Legendary Mets Pitching Coach: Rube Walker (1968-1981)

Albert Bluford Walker was born on May 16, 1926, in Lenoir, North Carolina. The six foot left hand hitting catcher, became known as Rube. In 1944 he signed as an amateur free agent with the Chicago Cubs.

Walker spent four years in the minor leagues batting .354 at AA Nashville in 1947, which was good enough for him to make the 1948 Cubs squad. He appeared mostly as pinch hitter in the first two months of the season,  getting his first start behind the plate on May 31st. Later that year he had his best game, with a five RBI day, hitting his 5th HR of the year, in a 10-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Two days later he hit another HR & drove in four more runs in an 11-3 win over the Pirates, in the second game of a doubleheader.

He hit a career best .275 that rookie year, with 5 HRs 26 RBIs & a .371 on base %. Behind the plate he caught 44 games throwing out 44% of would be base stealers. Walker would spend three and one half seasons in Chicago, backing up Cubs catcher; Mickey Owen. Midway through the 1951 season, he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers, along with Andy Pafko, & Wayne Terwilliger.

Walker would spend the next seven years in Brooklyn, as a back up to Hall of Fame catcher; Roy Campanella. Walker would put up some impressive defensive numbers; throwing out 60% of would be base stealers twice. Walker would throw out 50% or more of runners trying to steal, seven times in eight seasons with the Dodgers. He had 19 or more assists six times in his career and never made more than three errors in a season while with Brooklyn.

Walker was never known for his bat, batting a best .259 as a Dodger, which came in his first season playing at Ebbetts Field. He drove in twenty plus runs three times, although he never got more than 166 at bats in a season (1957).

While with the Dodgers, Walker would get to four World Series,but he would only get to play in one of them. In 1951 he was behind the plate, in two of the three games of the playoff series against the New York Giants, as he filled in for an injured Roy Campanella.

In the second game of that series, he hit a two run 8th inning, HR off Al Corwin in the Dodgers 10-0 win. The next day he was on the losing end of one of the most famous games in MLB history. Walker was behind the plate, but claimed he did not call the pitch that Bobby Thomson hit off Ralph Branca, for the famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World". The HR, considered the most famous in baseball history, won the game, winning the pennant for the Giants in the Polo Grounds. At the plate that day he was 1-4 that day, with two strike outs.

The next year he saw the most action from July 12th through July 24th. In those two weeks he drove in six runs for that years NL Champion Dodgers. On the season he batted .259 with one HR & 19 RBIs. He won another pennant there in 1953 as he hit .242 on the season.  In 1954 he had his Dodger season high, five HRs in 155 at bats. 

 He averaged 50 games a year in Brooklyn Walker was a member of the 1955 Championship team, known as "the Boys of Summer". He hit .252 with two HRs, with five doubles & 13 RBIs  in 146 at bats. He threw out 31% of would be base stealers. Again, he did not play in the World Series.

In 1956 he played in 54 games, batting .212 with three HRs & 20 RBIs behind that years MVP; Roy Campanella. In the 1956 Fall Classic he saw action in two games going 0-2.

Rube stayed on with Dodgers with the move to Los Angeles in 1958 and retired after that first west coast season. In his eleven year playing career he threw out 46% of would be base stealers, 95 of 242. He posted a .982 fielding % with 204 career assists. He batted .227 with 35 HRs 69 doubles & 192 RBIs.

Retirement: After retiring as a player, he would manage in the minor leagues from 1959 through 1954. He was then hired as a pitching coach under his former Dodger team mate, now manager Gil Hodges with the Washington Senators. Walker would be one of the first successful pitching coaches who was not an actual former pitcher. Walker was a great instructor for his young pitchers, as he was patient, soft spoken and low key.

In 1968 he went with Hodges to the New York Mets and would remain there for 14 years, the longest tenure of any Mets coach, tied with Joe Pignatano who also served 14 seasons.

Walker would revolutionize the modern day pitching rotation along with Hodges, as they were one of the first to develop the five man rotation. He would serve as pitching coach for five different Mets managers (Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra, Roy McMillan, Joe Frazier & Joe Torre) through the 1981 season.

Along the way he developed a lot of young Mets pitching talent, including Hall of Famers Tom Seaver & Nolan Ryan. In 1969 it was Rube Walkers young pitching staff that became the best in baseball shocking the world by winning the World Series. His staff was first in the league in wins (100) & shutouts (16), second in ERA (2.99) third in saves (35) & fourth in strike outs (1012). In the World Series they held the mighty Orioles down to just nine runs 44 innings & a .146 batting average.

Over the next two seasons, his staff had the N.L.’s best overall ERA both years (3.45 in 1970 & 2.99 in 1971). Over the next three seasons, the Mets pitching staff would be first in strike outs each year. In the 1972 season, young pitcher Jon Matlack won the Rookie of the Year Award.

In 1973 under manager Yogi Berra, Walker coached another great Mets staff, as Tom Seaver won his second Cy Young Award, Tug McGraw became one of baseballs best relievers & George Stone won 12 games going 12-3. The Mets would win the NL pennant holding the Big Red Machine, Cincinnati Reds to a .186 batting average & just eight runs over five games. In the World Series the Mets came within one game of a Worlds Championship.

Walkers pitching staffs would remain at the top of the league the next few seasons. The Mets topped the NL in strike outs in both 1975 & 1976, as Tom Seaver won his third Cy Young in '75. In 1976 the Mets staff topped the league in ERA.

Walker stayed with the Mets through the bad years of the late seventies, highlights included, seeing Craig Swan lead the league in ERA in 1978 & see Jerry Koosman finally win 20 games in 1976. In 1981 after manager Joe Torre was fired, Walker left too, following Torre to Atlanta as pitching coach for the Braves. There he helped guide a young staff to a 1982 NL Western title.

Walker remained with the Braves through the 1984 season, and then served as a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals, until his passing in 1992. He passed away from lung cancer at the age of 66 in North Carolina. Walker was involved with baseball for just under 50 years.

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