Robin Roberts Dies at 83
Robin Roberts died today at 83.
I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times over the years. I remember last seeing him this spring, sitting in the Phillies’ clubhouse at Bright House Field in Clearwater and chatting with Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and others. Everything you heard about Roberts is a true. He was a Hall of Fame pitcher, but a very, very kind guy, too. No ego at all. He provided me a tremendous amount of his time as I wrote my Phillies book “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly” two summers ago. I thought I’d share you an excerpt from the book, which I hope gives people a sense of how truly special he was on the field.
The excerpt comes from a chapter where I write about the five greatest pitchers in Phillies history. Roberts certainly is one of them.
The best pitcher in baseball in the 1950s was…
Warren Spahn? Whitey Ford?
Early Wynn? Don Newcombe?
How about Robin Roberts?
“He was the top pitcher at that time,” Willie Mays said.
“It’s a compliment,” Roberts said. “I certainly enjoyed it. I just showed up and pitched.”
Roberts dominated the ’50s. He won 199 games, more than anybody except Spahn, who won 202. Roberts, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976, won 20 or more games each season from 1950 through 1955. He won 19 games in 1956. He led the National League in strikeouts (1,516), complete games (237), and innings pitched (3,012) in the ’50s. He finished second behind Spahn with 30 shutouts. He finished fourth behind Spahn, Johnny Altonelli, and Sal Maglie with a 3.32 ERA. He threw an astounding 28 straight complete games from 1952 to 1953. He also started for the National League in the 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, and 1955 All-Star Games.
“First of all, he had control,” Mays said. “He didn’t have a good curveball. He had a good fastball that he controlled in and out. He’d never knock you down, but he was quick. He knew what he was doing. I could hit him pretty good, but I never hit home runs against him. I think I hit one home run off him in the last game of a series in ’56. I just scraped the scoreboard in the Polo Grounds. He threw a curveball to me. He never did throw that curveball to me again.”
But Mays had his hands full without the breaking ball.
“He was a hard pitcher,” he said.
The Cy Young didn’t come into existence until 1956, but Roberts finished in the top 10 in National League MVP voting five times in the 1950s. He won The Sporting News’ Pitcher of the Year Award in 1952 and 1955. He went 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA in 1952, his best season in the majors. No National League pitcher had won 28 games since 1935, when Dizzy Dean won 28 for the St. Louis Cardinals. No National League pitcher has won that many games since. Roberts led the league in wins four times (1952-55), innings five times (1951-55), strikeouts twice (1953-54), and complete games five times (1952-56). And despite all those innings, he never walked more than 77 batters in a season.
“He had real good control,” said catcher Stan Lopata, who was Roberts’ teammate from 1948 to 1958. “He had a good fastball. He had a little movement on it. We’ve seen pitchers with better breaking balls, but his big asset was his control. He made them hit. He figured, Hey, I have eight guys out there. Let them earn their money. He had such an easy motion. It snuck up on you. You’d think, Hey, man, I can hit this guy. And then the ball is by you. That easy motion fooled a lot of guys. Yep, they’d all say they could hit him, but they never did.”
That was why Roberts rarely worried about base-runners.
“There weren’t too many ballclubs that would steal in the National League, but Andy Seminick and myself would say, ‘Hey, Robbie, how about giving us a chance and hold these guys on?’” Lopata said. “He would say, ‘If they steal second base and third base, they’ve still got to score from third. Don’t worry about it.’ That’s the attitude he had. And he got them out, too. That’s the confidence he had.”
In his only postseason in 1950, Roberts started Game 2 of the World Series against the New York Yankees at Shibe Park. He allowed 10 hits, two runs, three walks, and struck out five in 10 innings in a 2-1 loss. He allowed a solo home run to Joe DiMaggio in the tenth inning to lose the game. Roberts pitched a scoreless inning in relief in Game 4 to finish the Series 0-1 with a 1.64 ERA.
“I was on a good club,” Roberts said. “We were a good team when I won 20 games. When we weren’t a good team I didn’t win 20 games.”
But Roberts is being modest. The Phillies only had three winning seasons in the ’50s, so he won on some teams that played pretty poorly. On the other hand, Spahn’s Milwaukee Braves had eight winning seasons in the ’50s. Put Roberts on a better team, and he probably would have won a few more games. He probably would have won at least 300. He finished 286-245 with a 3.40 ERA in a career that lasted from 1948 to 1966. He started 609 games. He threw an astounding 305 complete games.
“I just assumed that I was going to pitch a complete game,” Roberts said. “I did a lot of times. And in the ones I came out they pinch-hit for me late in the game. So a number I could have finished, but didn’t.” He paused. “But there also were a number of them I shouldn’t have finished and I did,” he said, laughing.
But as good as Roberts was, it is a little surprising today that he is not more recognized for his accomplishments outside of Philadelphia. There are reasons for that. The Phillies made just one World Series with Roberts. The New York Yankees went eight times. The Brooklyn Dodgers went four times (the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series in 1959). The Braves went twice with Spahn. Roberts often jokes that he is not the most recognized Robin Roberts today. The broadcaster is.
“A lot of my friends have gone to the television when they heard Robin Roberts was coming on,” he said. “They saw a prettier picture than me, I’ll tell you that.”
But she couldn’t pitch like Roberts.
“Oh, people know about Robin Roberts,” Mays said. “You may not hear it too much, but they know about him. Even if the fans don’t know, the players do, because he was one of the special pitchers.”