As a former major league pitcher, James Phillip Rooker always did hate walks.
Jim Rooker was a left-handed pitcher born in Lakeview, Oregon, in 1942. After seven seasons in the Detroit Tigers farm system, he was called up to the big league club in 1968 but was not included on the postseason roster and did not participate in the Tigers run to the World Series title. The following year, he was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the expansion draft, where he made the starting rotation. In 1973, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Between 1973 and 1977, Rooker averaged 207 innings, 14 wins and a 3.00 ERA for the Pirates. He was a key figure in the 1979 World Series; after being named emergency starter in Game Five, he gave up one run in five innings and the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles, 7-1. Pittsburgh went on to win the Series in seven games. Rooker won 103 major league games—82 of them with Pittsburgh—and no Pirate hurler has matched the 263 innings he pitched in 1974. But it took a long hike to cement his legacy.
After retiring as a player following the 1980 season, Jim Rooker joined the Pittsburgh Pirates broadcast team. “Rook” was funny, smart and slightly off-kilter. As a player, he was an outspoken team leader who once roller skated from the team hotel in St. Louis to the ballpark. On another occasion, Rooker burned his [non-pitching] hand grilling hot dogs in the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field. On this date in 1989, the Pirates played a night game against the Phillies at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium. Pittsburgh came into the Vet cranky over a seven game losing streak and having dropped their first three to the Phillies. The Bucs scored ten runs in the top of the first—three of them coming off of Barry Bonds’ tenth homer of the season—and sent 16 batters to the plate. Leading 10-0 after a half-inning of play, Rooker said to his broadcast partner John Sanders on air, “If we don’t win this one, I don’t think I’d want to be on that plane ride home. Matter of fact, if we don’t win, I’ll walk back to Pittsburgh.” After Pirates starter Bob Walk gave up six runs in four innings, the Phillies stormed back to win, 15-11. Rooker “didn’t think about it much at the time,” but the next day the Pirates and their station, KDKA-AM, were flooded with calls from fans asking if Rooker intended to make good on the claim. Rooker relented, but under one condition: he would walk for charity, saying, “I’m not gonna walk from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh for nothing.” Plans were made, sponsors were lined up and logistics were set. Pirates officials arranged nighttime housing along the route along with a support vehicle of volunteers. Rooker invited long-time friend Carl Dozzi to join him for the 310-mile trek across Pennsylvania. Dozzi trained diligently for the ten weeks leading up to the event. Rooker did not, claiming, “I’m a former professional athlete.”
Jim Rooker’s unintentional walk started at the Vet on October 5, 1989. Radio, television and newspapers touted the walk and provided updates. ABC’s Good Morning America covered the send-off, which included a jazz band. The two men followed Route 30 for most of the way, trudging on foot through the scenic hills of the Pennsylvania countryside in autumn. On Day Two, it rained, causing “blisters on top of blisters.” Rooker and Dozzi spent two unpleasant days in Lancaster County during fertilizer season, visited a polka festival at Seven Springs and climbed over some mountains. At the time of the walk, Rooker was 47. After averaging 24 miles a day and sometimes exceeding 30, aches, pains and exhaustion set in. Halfway through their journey, Rooker and Dozzi were nearly killed by an 18-wheeler. The most frightening part of the walk was going through West Philly without a gun, while climbing Sideling Hill was the worst. After 13 exhausting days, the men reached Pittsburgh, where, “the street was lined with people—black, white and Hispanic. Everyone was pulling for us.” On October 17—the day of the World Series earthquake in San Francisco–Rooker was welcomed to Three Rivers Stadium by a sign inked with footprints of his young grandsons.
The walk raised over $ 85,000 for Bob Prince Charities and the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital. Rooker also helped a former minor league teammate who had MS, giving him $ 10,000 to purchase a van equipped with a lift. Rooker went into his unintentional walk full of optimism. “We’ll raise money for charities. I’ll probably get in the best shape of my life. I’ll learn never to pop off again.” Jim Rooker left the Pirates broadcast team in 1993. From 1994 to 1997, he worked for ESPN before beginning a new career writing children’s books. “A lot of people I’ve run into since I’ve been out of baseball say, ‘Oh, wait, you’re the guy who did that walk.’ I have to remind them I won quite a few games in the big leagues, too. But it is a fun thing to talk about.” Ten days after the June 8 Phillies game, the Pirates were up 10-0 in St. Louis. Larry Fratire, the Pirates other announcer, laughingly asked Rooker, “And if we lose this game?” Rooker replied, “yes, if we lose this game…our road record will be 11-23.”
“It could have been worse. I could have said it in Los Angeles.”