Sixty-four years ago, in 1959, Jim Rodriguez Jr. won his first of four world team roping titles at 18. To this day, he’s the youngest cowboy ever to win a gold buckle in any event. That was also the year the inaugural National Finals Rodeo debuted in Dallas, though the team roping, steer roping and barrel racing were held in Clayton, New Mexico. Rodriguez also won his first of four NFR average crowns at that very first Finals, heading for legendary all-around hand Gene Rambo. Now 82, Rodriguez will be inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City on November 11.
This will be Rodriguez’s fourth Hall of Fame induction. He was a member of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame’s inaugural Class of 1979, and also was enshrined in the California Rodeo Salinas Hall of Fame in 2010, and the Salinas Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
“The best thing that ever happened to me in my career was being part of the first group of cowboys ever inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs,” said Rodriguez, who with his wife, Nancy, makes his home in Riverdale, California. “To go in there with guys like Leo (Camarillo), (John) Miller and Dale Smith was the greatest honor.
“There was no induction ceremony back then, and they sent me the induction bronze 10 years later. But to be in that Hall the day they opened the doors meant a lot, even though the first time I went through the Hall to see myself in there I had to pay. I did get a small discount for showing them my RCA (Rodeo Cowboys Association) card. But they charged me to get in.”
It feels fitting for Rodriguez to also find a permanent home in Oklahoma City, where he made more rodeo magic than most in any era ever will anywhere.
“Being recognized in Oklahoma City is a great honor for me,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had. It’s just cool to be a part of the biggest cowboy hall of fame there is.”
Rodriguez went on to win three more world championships in 1960, ’62 and ’65. He went back-to-back on the NFR average crowns, too, striking again as the consistency king in 1960, ’66 and ’73. Rodriguez roped at 20 straight NFRs from 1959-78, then returned to Rodeo’s Super Bowl a 21st time in 1981 spinning for fellow legend Leo “The Lion” Camarillo.
In the Beginning
Jim Rodriguez Sr. was a great cowboy character. For decades, he stood behind the chutes at the California Rodeo in Salinas in front of a wooden board with all the contestant names written on it in black Sharpie, microphone in hand, and called each cowboy’s name to keep things rolling. There was nothing much more entertaining than listening to Old Jim during slack at Salinas, as nothing got past him. If you were riding in with a hangover headache, it was duly noted publicly.
Jim Sr. and his wife, Loraine, had five kids, including Jim Jr.; his brother, John Bill, who won the 1974 NFR heeling for Jim Wheatley and is 80 now; and Jimmy and John Bill’s sisters, Margaret, Mary and Kim.
Young Jimmy was an All California Team third baseman in high school. Scouts from the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees and Chicago White Socks showed up in 1957 and ’58 to try and lure the Cali kid into a professional baseball career.
“But my dad wanted me to rodeo, so he pushed me away from baseball,” remembers Jimmy, who grew up in his dad’s commercial roping arena in Castroville, which is 15 minutes North of Salinas. “My dad had ropings at our arena every Sunday year-round.”
The two biggest Rodriguez Arena ropings of the year were held each July. San Juan Bautista was the biggest one-day rodeo in California back then, and was the week before Salinas. Old Jim had a roping on the Saturday before San Juan on Sunday, and another that next week on the Wednesday before Salinas started on Thursday. All the big dogs were there. Heck, I was there as a little kid to see it for myself.
“My dad had a long score and hard-running cattle, so that was a good tune-up for Salinas,” Jimmy said. “I took ropes off at the catchpen before I was big enough to enter. Then they let me rope a few after the roping was over.”
Sink or Swim
Rodriguez Jr. grew up back before there was anything but open ropings. If you entered as a kid, you roped against the men.
“All we had were open ropings back then,” he said. “There was no number system. You got tougher, because you had to compete against the best there was. There were a lot fewer true toughs back in those days compared to now, but the best are the best in any era. The best were hard to beat, but there were about 20 teams you really worried about. It wasn’t like today, where about every team out there can beat your butt.”
Little Jimmy actually heeled at first.
“I started heeling without any stirrups (because his feet couldn’t reach them) when I was 7,” Rodriguez remembers. “I didn’t start heading steers until I was 14 years old. Buckshot Sorrels (the 1950 World Champion Team Roper from Arizona) is who got me going as a header. He stayed with us between San Juan and Salinas. We had a dummy, and he showed me how to swing a flatter loop and come right horn to left horn with it.”
Teen World Titlist
Did Rodriguez realize how good he was when he won that first gold buckle at 18?
“No, not really,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know I’d won the world until after Gene Rambo and I roped our last steer there at that first Finals in Clayton that year (1959). Talk about miserable. The first day it snowed on us, and was about 15 degrees. The next day it was clear as a bell, but the wind was blowing so hard you couldn’t believe it. Before the last round, Art Arnold came up to me and said, ‘I think you can win the world.’ I had no idea.”
There were only six rounds at that first Finals, and it was half team tying and half dally roping. Rodriguez and Rambo won second in two rounds, and first in another en route to their average victory. They won $967 a man at that maiden NFR, and Rodriguez’s $6,184 on the season left him the lone world champ. That was, of course, way before world champion headers and heelers started being crowned separately, so the only way to have two champs was to have identical earnings.
“Gene and I won the average at the first two NFRs—in Clayton, New Mexico in 1959, and Scottsdale, Arizona in 1960,” said Rodriguez, noting that the 1960 NFR was again held in Dallas; and the steer roping stayed in Clayton, but the team roping and barrel racing moved to Scottsdale. “The Finals was eight rounds in 1960, and again half team tying and half dally roping.
“Gene and I got a little tin buckle for winning the NFR average in Clayton in 1959, and didn’t even get a buckle when we won it that second year in Scottsdale. “I was so cold and frozen when we left Clayton, I just wanted out of there. When we left for home (Gene and his wife, Barbara; their kids, Cheryl Gay and Greg; and Jimmy rode there together), Gene said, ‘I think you won the world.’ We stopped and got a room in Albuquerque on the way home, and my dad was the one who told me Gene was right and I won it.”
The youngest world champion cowboy of all time to this day won that first world title by $64 over reserve champ Joe Glenn, and only edged his partner and future father-in-law Rambo by $97. Sports Illustrated recognized young Rodriguez’s rodeo feat with a congratulatory mention on the inside front cover.
Team ropers today might not realize just how much times have changed in this most-entered event. While team ropers still don’t get universal equal money, so many rodeos didn’t even include the event in Rodriguez’s day.
“Trying to feed a family team roping was a tough deal,” he said. “Rodeo was nothing like it is now. We had to pay entry fees and for our own hotel rooms at the NFR. We didn’t have sponsors. Ken Luman and I were the first guys to put on roping schools, and King Ropes out of Sheridan, Wyoming started furnishing us ropes. That was the first and only sponsorship of my career.
“Ken and I had 16 roping schools per year, from California to Canada. The schools were always Monday through Thursday, then we rodeoed Friday through Sunday. We did that for six years before I got burned out. But that was the start of roping schools.”
It all started in California and Arizona for team roping.
“We dallied in California, and team tied in Arizona,” Rodriguez explained. “It was half dally roping and half team tying at the first three NFRs, in Clayton, Scottsdale and Santa Maria, California, where the third NFR was held in 1961.
“When the NFR moved from Dallas to Los Angeles in 1962 was the first year the team roping was held with the other events. There were eight rounds at the 1962, 1963 and 1964 NFRs in LA, and they were all dally roping in the team roping. Then when we got to Oklahoma City in 1965, it went back to half and half.”
The score was longer and the steers were beefy in OKC.
“We never, ever had a score like they have at the NFR now when I was roping,” Rodriguez noted. “When we roped at the fairgrounds in Oklahoma City, it was ass to the pin before you could go. You had to let steers out there.
“Times have really changed in the team roping, but there are reasons for it. The last year I won the average (50 years ago in 1973), when Ken and I rode in to rope we had 6.4 to win it. We were 5.8, and that was the fastest steer ever roped at the National Finals. That was a heck of a run under those conditions. I remember Jimmy Caan (the actor who played Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and loved to team rope) doing our TV interview.”
The best team ropers today can make a living at it.
“One year, Luman and I placed in eight of 10 rounds at the Finals and won the average,” Rodriguez remembers. “We won $2,400 apiece. Think about that. It proves my point that those were way different times for team ropers.”
Jimmy Rodriguez was a loyal teammate through thick and thin, and was never one to play the field.
“Gene Rambo was my first partner,” he said. “Ken Luman was my second partner, and we roped together 13 years, which doesn’t happen in team roping today. Gene and I were awfully tough as a team. Then Ken and I hit it off.
“My third partner was John Paboojian, and he was the first Armenian cowboy ever to rope at the NFR. John was runner-up to Jerold (Camarillo) the year Jerold won the world (1969). I had three main partners in my career. At the rodeos where it was go-twice, I roped with my brother and Ace (Berry). I roped with JB Getzweiler at one NFR (in 1978), then Leo at that last one in 1981.”
The year Rodriguez won his fourth championship, in 1965, and he and Luman went 1-2 in the world—Ken won $1,021 less than Jimmy or they’d have been co-champs—they won money at all but three rodeos they entered.
“Leo and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but we always respected each other, and when we roped together, we won,” Jimmy said. “The one rodeo we entered together was the NFR, and we only entered two ropings—a two-header, where we team tied one and dallied on the other in Phoenix, and a five-steer jackpot in Merced (California)—and we won them both.”
On the personal side, Rodriguez married Rambo’s daughter, Cheryl Gay, and they had two sons, Jason and Mark. Jimmy and stock contractor Mike Cervi’s sister, Carla, had two sons and a daughter, Brian, Scott and Jamie.
Jimmy and Nancy are very proud of their kids and grandkids. The family will celebrate stuntman Jason’s Silver Spur Award on November 10 in Van Nuys, California, the night before the patriarch’s induction at the National Cowboy in Oklahoma City on November 11.
Jim Rodriguez Jr. changed the game in and out of the arena.
“The other headers back when I started were roping from the right side or straight behind the steer,” he said. “My dad’s arena was set up to make steers run down the right fence, so I started running my horse to the left hip. That way, I was already in position to turn them and didn’t have to cross over. Everybody runs up on the left side of steers now, but it wasn’t always that way.”
He’s perhaps even more proud of the legacy left after his time spent as the team roping director.
“After Gene went out as director, they voted me in,” Rodriguez said. “What I might be most proud of was getting team roping to be a major (standard) event in the seven Western states. I stood up and said, ‘This is BS. The team ropers are by far the biggest part of the PRCA membership. We pay the most dues, and we never have an insurance claim.
“(RCA President) Dale Smith was all for it. But (calf roping director) Dean Oliver fought it, because he thought it took money out of his pocket. I got one of the riding-event guys to go for it, under the condition that we could only enter one time in the team roping. And I got it passed by one vote.
“I got it passed for team roping to be included at every rodeo in the seven Western states at the meeting in Albuquerque. Then they tried me again on it at the meeting in Cheyenne. They tried me a third time at the meeting at the Cow Palace (in San Francisco). We passed it by one vote all three times. I finally said, ‘That’s it. No more votes.’”
Rodriguez was proud of that first victory in Albuquerque. But when he flew from there back to California to rope at the Oakdale 10 Steer that fall, he was met with friendly fire.
“The team ropers went off on me when I got to Oakdale, and my brother was leading the pack,” Jimmy remembers. “They were all mad, because of that condition that we could only go once. They were hot, but I said, ‘Listen, you guys, this is the only way team roping is going to grow. If team roping becomes a standard event with even (equal) money all over the United States, it’s going to be the best thing that ever happened to our event.’
“I got it started, then Dick Yates kept it going when he took over as team roping director after me. I told him to fight tooth and nail, and not let them go backwards. But the only way I could get it started was for us to only go once, and to rope for half the other events. In other words, if there was $1,000 added in each event at a rodeo, committees only had to add $500 in the team roping. And no, not $500 per side, $500 total. So at a $1,000-added rodeo in all the other events, we were roping for $250 a side. It should be noted that some rodeos—like Salinas—put up equal money for the team ropers from the start.”
Team Roping Today
Who is the greatest header of all time?
“That’s impossible, because the different eras of roping have all been so different,” Rodriguez said. “In my lifetime, there’s been Buckshot Sorrels, Les Hirdes, me and John Miller, then after us Reg (Camarillo) and Jake (Barnes), Speedy (Williams), Clay Tryan and Kaleb Driggers.
“Clay Tryan is the best I’ve ever seen at places with a long score, like Salinas and Cheyenne. He can rope running to them, and is so good at getting steers on a tight rope. Kaleb Driggers is unbelievable. And that Tomlinson kid (Tanner) is getting to be that way. But don’t forget about our generation. To this day, Leo could be heeling with those guys who are the best right now.”
Rodriguez roped his last steer in 2020. He was proud to call it a career after roping with son Jason in the PRCA Gold Card Team Roping at Salinas the summer before, in 2019, a month after they won the incentive (for teams with combined ages of 120 years or more) at the Livermore Rodeo in June.
“Paboojian and I won the same money clips for winning Livermore 20 years before,” Rodriguez said. “To win that with my son was pretty special for our family.”
How does Rodriguez want to be remembered 100 years from now?
“I hope they’ll remember that I roped pretty good, and that I treated everybody fairly when I was the director,” he said. “I’d like to think I made a difference.”