Hall of Fame pitcher Roberts dies at 83
Beloved member of 1950 ‘Whiz Kids’ team was Phillies legend
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
05/06/10 5:20 PM ET
For the second time in three days, baseball lost one of its foremost gentlemen. Robin Roberts, as pleasant and gracious as any man in the game, died Thursday. As readily associated with the Phillies as any player has been with any franchise, Roberts was 83 years old when he passed away in Florida due to natural causes.
The most accomplished right-handed pitcher in the history of the Phillies, Roberts was a Hall of Famer, card-carrying member of the 1950 “Whiz Kids” and an active force in the creation of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Most of all he was an agreeable, genial man whose company was enjoyed by those who met him.
Roberts’ death followed, by two days, the passing of beloved Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, and it leaves another conspicuous void in the game. Few men who reached the levels Roberts and Harwell attained have been so widely hailed for their pleasant natures and general goodness.
The Phillies observed a moment of silence in Roberts’ memory prior to their Thursday afternoon home game against the Cardinals. They also announced that Phillies jersey No. 36 will be hung in the team’s dugout during games for the remainder of the season, that players will wear No. 36 patches on the right sleeves of their uniforms beginning Friday, and that the 1950 pennant will be hung at half-mast at Citizens Bank Park. It was a championship the Whiz Kids wouldn’t have won without Roberts’ contribution.
“Robin Roberts was a Phillies treasure, a Hall of Fame pitcher and a Hall of Fame person,” Phillies president David Montgomery said in a statement. “He will be sorely missed. Having known Robin since the late 1960s, this is a personal loss as well as one felt by the entire Phillies organization and our fans.”
Roberts’ funeral will be at 6 p.m. ET Monday at Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Temple Terrace, Fla., where he lived. In lieu of flowers, mourners are asked to donate to the church, the Baseball Assistance Team or the Gold Shield Foundation.
Former Phillies owner Bill Giles said, “When I think of Robin, there is definitely one word that comes quickly to mind — class. He was a class act both on and off the field. He was definitely one of the most consistent quality pitchers of all time, and the way he lived his life was exemplary. Every young baseball player should model their life after Robin.”
And former Phillies president Ruly Carpenter issued this statement: “Baseball and the Phillies not only lost one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever known but the Carpenter family also lost a true friend. He was my idol as I grew up with the 1950 Phillies.”
Robin Evan Roberts was a remarkable pitcher because of his effectiveness and a level of stamina uncommon even at a time when pitchers routinely worked overtime. Beginning in 1950, the only year his Phillies reached the World Series, Roberts won 20 or more games and pitched at least 304 innings in six consecutive seasons.
He was the winning pitcher in the Phillies’ 4-1 pennant-clinching victory against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 1, 1950. That distinction, of itself, paled to a degree in comparison to the circumstances surrounding it. Roberts pitched a 10-inning complete game in smallish Ebbets Field and if not for a home run by Pee Wee Reese, would have shut out Dem Bums.
Moreover, that start occurred three days after he had pitched nine innings in a loss to the New York Giants in the unforgiving Polo Grounds, and four days after he had thrown four in another unsuccessful start in New York. And beyond that, Roberts was the starter in Game 2 of the World Series against the Yankees on Oct. 5 — he pitched 10 innings — and threw an inning in relief in the final game of the Yankees’ sweep two days later.
“He was like a diesel engine,” Roberts’ teammate and fellow Phillies starter Curt Simmons said from his home in Arizona. “The more you used him, the better he ran. I don’t think you could wear him out. The end of the 1950 season, I was in the Army and I think Bob Miller had a bad back. I know Robin had to throw almost every day.”
Dallas Green, the former Phillies manager and pitcher, became one of Roberts’ friends despite an eight-year difference in age. Green who broke into the Majors in 1956, attended Roberts’ professional debut in 1948 in Wilmington, Del., where Green lived. Roberts’ first game was as a member of the Blue Hens. “Robbie was a real special person to me,” Green said Thursday. “I love him. He was as old-school as you could get. He’d just run and throw to get in shape. I tell all the kids that now.”
Roberts contended that pitching came easily to him. “Too many people try to make it more complicated than it really is,” he would say as part of his continuing effort to deflect praise. His efforts in that regard weren’t as successful as his pitching. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.
He won 286 games overall and still was pitching in the Minor Leagues when he retired because he wanted 14 more wins. “Three hundred was big to him. He wanted it,” Green said. “We were roomies at Reading in the old Eastern League and we were both at the end. Robbie just ran out of gas. The will was there. It was always there.”
The second-leading all-time winner among the Phillies — Steve Carlton won 241 games to Roberts’ 234 — Roberts was recognized primarily as a power pitcher until late in his career when he pitched for the Orioles, Astros and Cubs. His career strikeouts total of 2,357 was unremarkable. It ranks 40th all-time. But he walked merely 902 batters and never more than 77 in a season.
The numbers that distinguished him most during and after his 19-year career were his victories, shutouts (45), complete games (305) and home runs allowed (505), the most ever. But like fellow Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, Roberts was renowned for limiting the damage. Sixty-five percent of the home runs he surrendered were hit with the bases empty.
His complete-games total ranks 38th all-time and nearly all of those who pitched more played well before Roberts broke in on June 18, 1948. He pitched 28 consecutive complete games from August 1952 to July 1953. What would closer Brad Lidge have done during Roberts’ time with the Phillies?
That will remain an unknown, but Lidge certainly developed an appreciation for the pitcher now memorialized by a statute outside Citizens Bank Park.
“Every time he came around the clubhouse he would start talking about pitching,” Lidge said Thursday. “He talked with me about my slider, and anything he had to say, I was all ears. Another thing about Robbie was that he never talked about the way things were when he played the game. He realized that the game changed with time. I was really fortunate to be able to talk with a living legend about pitching.”
Lidge’s teammate Jamie Moyer provided this perspective: “Almost every day I look at the Phillies Hall of Fame jerseys that hang in the hallway by the clubhouse. I try to appreciate what Robin did as a pitcher. Looking back at the impact he had on the game, it was special. He would always kid around when he came by and would be concerned about how I was and how my family was doing. I feel like I lost a friend. He bled Phillies Red. He was a true Phillie top to bottom.”
Roberts’ contemporaries saw him in a different light. “Probably the best fastball I ever saw was Robin Roberts’.” Ralph Kiner once said. “His ball would rise around six or eight inches, and with plenty on it. And he had great control.”
“He looks like the kind of pitcher you can’t wait to swing at, but you swing and the ball isn’t where you thought it was,” the late Pirates slugger Willie Stargell once said.
“You know,” Green said, “for all the success Robbie had, he did it without a breaking ball. He had that little ‘slurvy’ thing that was an ugly pitch. But he got you when it counted. A man on third with less than two out just didn’t score. He’d bear down like nobody else. And he never threw at any one. That wasn’t him.”
Stan Lopata, one of Roberts’ catchers with the Phillies, recalled that he didn’t have the best move to first base. “They’d always be running on him,” Lopata said Thursday. “[Fellow catcher] Andy Seminick and I went to Robbie one day and said ‘You gotta give us a chance.’ And Robbie said ‘They can steal second, they can steal third, but they’re not gonna score. And 99 times out a hundred, they stayed at third.”
Roberts was born in Springfield, Ill., the son of an immigrant Welsh coal miner. He attended Michigan State University and participated in an Army Air Corps training program. He returned to the school following World War II. He signed with the Phillies in 1948.
His extraordinary workload in the early to mid-’50s took a toll on his shoulder. In 1956, he lost 18 games but won 19. In the following seasons his career took a steep descent. He won 10 games, his fewest victories since his rookie season, and he lost a career-high 22 games, the most in the National League, in 1957. He won in double figures through 1960 but produced a 1-10 record in 1961.
The Yankees purchased his contract after that season, but Roberts was released by the Yankees without pitching for them in May 1962. He became something of a finesse pitcher thereafter, pitching for three teams before returning to the Phillies’ Reading team at age 40.
He played an integral role in establishing the Players Association. Michael Weiner, the current executive director of the union, noted as much in a statement Thursday. Weiner said Roberts helped “the players of his day understand the benefits to be gained by standing together as one. Robin and his peers had the foresight to hire Marvin Miller as the MLBPA’s first executive director in 1966, a decision that has since benefited all Major Leaguers and their families.”
Miller could not be reached Thursday.
Roberts later served as head coach of the University of South Florida in Tampa and roving Minor League instructor for the Phillies.
He is survived by four sons, Robin Jr., Dan, Rick and Jim; one brother, John; seven grandchildren and one great-grandson.
“Dad didn’t miss a Phillies game on television, including [Wednesday] night,” Jim Roberts said Thursday. “He really loved this team and was so thrilled that he was included in the World Series festivities the last two years.
“He’d sit there and would comment, ‘Did you see Jimmy make that play? … Chase can really play this game … My man Jayson is some kind of an athlete … Did you see that change-up from Cole? … How strong is Ryan? … Roy makes pitching look so easy and it isn’t … I wish I had Brad’s slider … Shane can fly. Can’t he?'”
And thus another great of the game, and a gentleman, fades away. Condolences to both your family and to the Phils, Robbie. You will be missed.