George Rooks

This article was written by Chris Rainey

George Rooks led the 1888 Tri-State League in home runs playing for Lima, Ohio. His hitting was no surprise because he came to the team with the nickname “Home Run.” Lanigan’s Baseball Cyclopedia credits him with three home runs on June 16, 1886, for Oshkosh. However the June 16 game was a 7-2 Oshkosh win over Eau Claire with no home runs.1 The following day Eau Claire won 15-9, “people who visited the ball grounds...were saved…by the opportunity they had of seeing Rooks…bat three times in succession and each time make a home run.” 2 Going for the Fences does not credit Rooks with a three-homer game.3 The earliest minor league three homer event listed is in 1887 by Joe Knight.

Rooks was born George Brinton McClellan Ruckser on October 21, 1863, in Chicago, Illinois. His parents, John and Margaret, had come from Germany and settled in Chicago where John worked as a painter. The family included an older brother and younger sister. Exactly when the surname was simplified to “Rooks” is unknown, but it was legally changed by the children in 1898.4 Whether Rooks completed high school is unknown, but he was well schooled in the game of baseball. He worked his way up through the ranks of Chicago’s sandlot and semipro teams. In 1883 he was with a squad called the Actives. The next year he joined the Chicago Blues, a touring team that featured the best semipro talent in the city.

In April and May 1885 Rooks toured Illinois with the Blues. On the team was major league no-hit pitcher Al Atkisson (Atkinson) and catcher Tony Suck, who had already been in the majors. During the summer, Rooks left the Blues and joined a team in Leavenworth, Kansas. On August 14 he was playing for the Leavenworth Reds in Denver. Denver was one of three franchises in the Colorado State League. When that series ended he stayed in Denver and joined that team. “Rooks has many friends in Denver who will aim to make it pleasant during his stay.” 5 On August 17 he was in the Denver lineup against the Leadville Blues. The League schedule dragged on into October and Rooks left before the end of the season. In the short time he was with Denver he played mostly outfield, but did see some action at third base.

The Oshkosh franchise in the Northwestern League recruited Rooks for the 1886 season. Oshkosh was managed by William Harrington, who had been Rooks’ manager with the Blues. Oshkosh also added Dummy Hoy to their roster. Primarily an outfielder, Rooks occasionally saw time at first base. As noted, Rooks hit three homers on June 17, giving him seven at that point of the season, the excited fans forgot about the defeat and put together a collection of “between $11 and $12” for Rooks.6 The Oshkosh ball grounds had an irregular shape with a shallow left field and deep center and right. Part way through the season a new park was created and the distance to “right field is only 319 feet.” When the right-handed hitting Rooks made a long drive over the right fielder, the ball would roll for quite some time. In left field the fence was originally much closer than in right and was moved back in the new configuration.7 Rooks never gave the new grounds much of a test. He bolted the team in mid-July on a trip to St. Paul. Rooks was placed on the Northwestern League blacklist, but found a spot on the Lincoln, Nebraska, roster in the Western League. Newspapers made it a point to mention that the Tree Planters had “Home Run” Rooks. Over the winter, Rooks applied for reinstatement and his appeal was granted.

Manager Harrington left Oshkosh for the job at La Crosse, Wisconsin. The Freezers were a new franchise in the Northwestern League. The League paid salaries similar to the American Association and the National League.8 Harrington brought in talent from all over including pitcher Al Maul, catcher Charlie Ingraham, infielder Frank Meinke, outfielder/pitcher Gene Moriarity, and Rooks. At 5’11” and weighing 178 pounds, he was the biggest man on the team. Rooks is listed in the various encyclopedias at 170 pounds. The Detroit Free Press lists him at 181 in 1889.9 The lower, commonly accepted weight is probably a result of the information on his Hall of Fame questionnaire. Despite the array of major league experience the LaCrosse squad could not compete. In 118 games, Rooks hit .333 with a .458 slugging percentage. The league imploded in late season over charges of collusion, drunkenness, and bribery. LaCrosse lost $12,000 as a result of overpaying for talent--they paid $200 and $300 a month rather than the budgeted $150 per man--but was not part of the shenanigans that led to the league’s downfall.10

Rooks’ next stop was with the Lima, Ohio, Lushers of the Tri-State League. There were 10 franchises in the league, eight in Ohio plus Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Wheeling, West Virginia. Lima was the strongest squad in the league and was in first place when franchises began to disband in late September. Rooks was the hitting star and after the season was awarded a gold medal for leading the league with 14 home runs, two more than Jake Virtue.11

The International League returned in 1889 after a two year hiatus. Manager Bob Leadley of Detroit assembled a roster of players from all over the country. Rooks was recruited to play center field, Virtue was brought in to play first base, Count Campau joined Rooks in the outfield, and Frank Knauss headlined the pitching staff. Rooks arrived in good shape and drew raves as a “fine looking fellow, solidly built…shows the effect of gymnasium work.” His batting style was likened to Tip O’Neill’s as an “easy but very effective” line-drive stroke.12 The Wolverines had a spirited season-long battle with the Syracuse Stars and in the end emerged as champions. Rooks led the team in extra-base hits while Virtue led in slugging percentage. Manager Leadley may have had sluggers, but he was a proponent of “small ball.” Even a power hitter like Rooks was called upon to move a runner along with a sacrifice. Rooks had 29 to his credit, fourth highest total on the team.

Leadley brought nearly the entire roster back for 1890 and the team once again battled for first place, this time with a squad representing Saginaw and Bay City, Michigan. Rooks began the season in a slump and never found his stroke. In the second week of July the league disbanded and after 42 games Rooks sported a meager .219 average. Rooks’ former manager William Harrington was in charge of the Evansville Hoosiers in the Central Interstate League. Rooks joined Evansville on July 27 and became a fixture in left field. He showed power with a triple and a double in his first three game series. While the Hoosiers were winning on the field, there was trouble behind the scenes. The league was reduced to four teams in early August and there was also some displeasure with Harrington’s management style. Rooks and two teammates deserted the team. In 10 games Rooks hit .237. He returned to Chicago and joined a semi-pro team called Whitings.

Coming off his worst season, it would not have been surprising if Rooks melted into the background. Other players have given up the game under those circumstances. Rooks seemed content to play semipro ball until injuries struck the National League’s Boston Beaneaters. Second baseman Joe Quinn was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken finger. Traveling to Chicago, the Beaneaters added Rooks to their roster. He went into left field and Bobby Lowe went to second base. Rooks played three games in Chicago and two in Cincinnati before the Beaneaters released him. In those five games he went 2-for-16 at bat and made both an error and an assist in 13 chances. Soon after, Rooks returned to the Northwestern League with the Grand Rapids Shamrocks. He patrolled the outfield for them until the league disbanded on July 30. Rooks returned to local teams in Chicago. He was a pressman by trade and certainly found work in the Windy City. After his playing days he became a park policeman and later a factory watchman.

Rooks’ best baseball was behind him. He married Margaret Gillen and the couple would have four sons--John, Edward, George, and William--and two daughters, Lillian and Myrtle. He was lured back to the diamond in both 1892 and 1893. First was with the Ishpeming Unions in the Wisconsin-Michigan League. The franchise moved to Negaunee before disbanding. Rooks finished the season with Marquette in the same league. All three of the towns are located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In 1893 he spent a short time with Saginaw in the Ohio-Michigan League. After that he confined his playing to the Chicago city leagues. Daughter Myrtle was married in 1924 to Louis Possehl, who would become a commander in the Chicago police department. In 1926 Myrtle gave birth to Louis T. Possehl. He would become a pitcher and appear in 15 games with the Phillies from 1946 to 1952.

Rooks was preceded in death by his wife and was living with daughter Lillian Gaul when he suffered a paralytic stroke. He passed away on March 11, 1935. Burial was in the Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.13

 

Sources

Ancestry.com

Canton Repository (Canton, Ohio)

Chicago Tribune

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois)

Evansville Courier and Press

Saginaw News

 

Notes

1 Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 17, 1886:3

2 Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 18, 1886: 3

3 Bob McConnell, Going for the Fences: The Minor League Home Run Record Book (Cleveland, Ohio: SABR, 2009):78

4 Hall of Fame Questionnaire completed by his daughter-in-law, Frieda Rooks. Oddly his obituary in the Chicago Tribune on March 12, 1935 called him George Ruckser. He also appears in 1910 and 1920 census as Ruckser. In 1930 he is Rooks.

5 Denver Rocky Mountain News, August 17, 1885:4

6 Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 18, 1886:3

7 Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 29, 1886: 4

8 Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, October 19, 1887:3

9 Detroit Free Press, April 8, 1889:2

10 St. Paul Globe, October 1, 1887:5

11 Cleveland Leader, December 7, 1888: 3 and The Lima News, December 5, 1888:7. Rooks’ letter to the editor of the Lima paper is the source for the 14 home runs. Other sources list him at 13.

12 Detroit Free Press, March 26, 1889:3

13 Hall of Fame questionnaire