Third-string catchers are rarely anybody’s hero, but Rube Walker was and remains one of mine. I met him when he was headed down and out of the major leagues. He’d been a player with the Cubs and Dodgers—only a .227 lifetime hitter, but the classic “rocking chair” catcher whom pitchers love. With his ever-present chaw of tobacco and a drawl as Southern as frost on cotton leaves, he was a throwback to the rural poverty of America in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1959, he’d just become a player-manager with the Triple-A Houston Buffaloes. I was a full-time general reporter moonlighting as the radio play-by-play man for the Buffs.
Rube took me and my wife, Jean, newlyweds all young, fresh, eager and ambitious, under his wing—treated us like a father. He had a heart as big as a locomotive, full of compassion, generosity and understanding. He helped the community’s poor; he taught young players and counseled old ones; he was a jovial encourager to everyone. In so doing, he taught us what it was to be a “big leaguer,” in the best, most noble sense of the term.
The Buffs fired him in midseason, on Father’s Day. When he told us, tears welled in Jean’s eyes. Rube touched her on the shoulder and said, “Don’t fret, hon’. Life’s full of curveballs.”