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John Rucker: Pioneer from the PSAL

Although Sweetwater Clifton is celebrated as the first black player to play for the Knicks, John Rucker, a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, suited up for the Knickerbockers at their 1950 training camp shortly before Clifton's arrival.

On October 7, 1950, the New York Age reported that "Sweetwater Clifton, ex-Globetrotter, and John Rucker, former Erasmus Hall cage star are among the 14 man NY Knickerbocker squad conditioning in Bear Mountain." 

In 2012, a team photograph from the Knicks' 1950 training site emerged that included Rucker, but not Clifton, who was finishing the minor league baseball season as a first-baseman for the Wilkes-Barre Indians. Clifton did not report to the Knicks' training camp until October 16th.

Rucker did not make the final roster, but 1950 would become a watershed year for the NBA, with Clifton, Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd being the first black players to play in the league.

The Knicks honored Rucker as a forgotten pioneer in February 2013.

Unlike Clifton, Rucker never played in the NBA. However, like Clifton, Rucker was a two-sport athlete, going on to play professional baseball in the minor leagues for five seasons.

At Erasmus Hall, as a sophomore, Rucker played on the 1948 PSAL City Championship team, scoring two points in a 36-33 upset win over Abraham Lincoln.

In his junior year, Rucker scored 177 points in 14 regular season games, fifth in Division 2 of the Brooklyn PSAL. Erasmus Hall was eliminated by Thomas Jefferson in the PSAL playoffs that year, with Rucker scoring a team-high 11 points.

In the spring of 1949, Rucker's grand slam home run in the last inning gave Erasmus Hall a 7-4 win over New Utrecht, clinching the PSAL Division 2 title for the Flying Dutchmen.

Rucker was a First Team Brooklyn All-Scholastic selection in both basketball and baseball in 1949.

In his senior year, Rucker scored 13 points to lead Erasmus Hall to an early season 63-43 win over Lincoln. It was the first regular season PSAL league loss the Railsplitters had suffered in four years.

Later that season, Rucker scored 16 points for Erasmus Hall in its 89-37 PSAL playoff win over William Cullen Bryant. After winning its first 18 games, Erasmus Hall lost to Commerce High in the 1950 PSAL quarterfinals, with Rucker scoring 10 points, including a basket that tied the score at 56 before the 60-56 loss.

In August of 1950, just months out of high school and months before his invitation to the Knicks training camp, Rucker was signed to a professional baseball contract by Al Campanis to play with, fittingly, the Elmira Pioneers, the Class A affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1951, Rucker hit .327 for the Sheboygan Indians (a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team) with a .469 slugging percentage and 5 home runs, winning the rookie batting title in the Wisconsin State League.

On Thursday, June 7, 1951, Rucker stole 4 bases in a single game, tying the Wisconsin State League record. From the Sheboygan Press:

Four . . . pilfered sacks were by Johnny Rucker, the fleet Indian cleanup man and centerfielder. John was in rare form and had the sox bewildered in the third inning when, after singling and going to second on Ben Jordan's groundout, he stole third and home with a flashing exhibition of speed. His four stolen bases ties a record. . . 

In 1956, Rucker hit .332 for the Keokuk Kernals in the Cleveland Indians organization with a .482 slugging percentage and 12 home runs. 

According to the New York Knicks and the New York Times, Rucker returned to New York City after professional baseball, joining the NYPD for a 20 year stint, including 10 as a detective, before retiring to Florida.


*Photographs from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle      



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