From the beginning – when man first pitched a ball at a batter in professional play – the game’s pitchers have not been judged by their talents but by the talents of their team. Cooperstown has enshrined many poor pitchers simply because they toiled on great teams that supplied them with an ample amount of runs, thus gaining victories despite their rather shoddy performances. Nap Rucker never had the luxury of pitching for a contender during the height of his career, languishing year after year with the hapless bums of Brooklyn.
A Georgia native, Rucker is now best remembered for being Ty Cobb’s minor league roommate; the man who, after a game, beat Ty back to their domicile and thus drew himself an early bath. As the story goes (one must question anything written during the age of exaggeration in the sports pages) Ty found Nap in the bath and pulled his roomy out of the tub, accosting the southpaw by saying, “Don’t you know I have to be first in EVERYTHING!”
When Nap reached the Major leagues he was able to perform his entire career in the National league – away from Cobb – never once throwing a pitch to the Georgia Peach in regular season action. Despite their differing locales, they remained competitive friends. Nap challenged Cobb to a car race – Ty was notorious for sprinting not only on the ball field but in the Chalmers cars he won for his batting exploits – but the Detroit legend refused Rucker’s request.
As a rookie with Brooklyn in 1907, Nap won fifteen games on a stingy 2.06 ERA. The young southpaw paced Dodger pitchers in games, games started, complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts and ERA, finally giving Brooklyn fans a player they could idolize. In his sophomore season, Nap began of string of four straight seasons in which he eclipsed the 300 innings worked plateau. He picked up 17 wins for the ’08 Dodgers, who, as a team, lost 101 contests. His 199 strikeouts finished second in the league to the great Christy Mathewson.
Widely regarded as the top left-handed pitcher of his time, Nap led all southpaws with 201 strikeouts in 1909: good for the second highest total among NL pitchers. In 1910, Nap led the NL in games started, complete games, innings pitched and shutouts, he finished fifth in strikeouts and won 17 games for a terrible Dodgers team that finished 40 games out of first place.
Nap followed up his stellar 1910 season by enjoying his only 20-win season in 1911. His Dodgers won just 64 games all year, as Nap was a remarkable pitcher saddled to a poor team. The southern southpaw was third in strikeouts, averaging 0.601 strikeouts per inning (a great total during The Deadball Era). Hall of Fame peers Mordecai Brown (0.478), Mathewson (0.459), Eddie Plank (0.580) and Chief Bender (0.528) didn’t have as much miss-the-lumber as ol’ Nap.
As Nap rolled on into 1912, his Dodgers continued to drag feet behind him. He won 18 games for a Brooklyn squad that had an abysmal .379 winning percentage. His six shutouts (a league leading stat) seemed to be the only way he could get wins with such an awful club behind him. Although he led the NL in shutouts and had an ERA of 2.21, Nap lost 21 games with his legs secured firmly to the anvil that was the Dodgers. His ERA was better than his Hall of Fame peers: Grover Alexander (2.82), Rube Marquard (2.57), Mordecai Brown (2.63) and Chief Bender (2.74).
Rucker led the Dodgers in strikeouts and shutouts as usual in 1913 before he began to slow down in 1914 – thanks to the overuse that pitchers suffered during the early days of baseball (in Nap’s first seven years, he never pitched fewer than 260 innings).
For the first time in his career, the Dodgers had a winning team in 1915. The Federal League had raided rosters of both the NL and AL teams thus allowing the lowly Dodgers to finally gain some footing in the National League. With the league a little more balanced, the Dodgers made the World Series in 1916 – Nap’s final season – and the great lefty tossed two scoreless innings against the Red Sox.
W 134/L 134/PCT .500/G 336/CG 186/IP 2,375/H 2,089/BB 701/SO 1,217/SHO 38/ERA 2.42