Durable Roberts played to win
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – For the seven other National League teams of the 1950s, facing the Philadelphia Phillies usually meant a battle with Robin Roberts.
And at the end of the day, it was Roberts who was usually left standing.
Roberts, a 1976 Hall of Fame inductee who won 20 games-or-more in six straight seasons with the Phillies, died Thursday at his Temple Terrace, Fla., home of natural causes at the age of 83. One of the most durable pitchers of the modern era, Roberts finished his 19-year big league career with 286 wins, 305 complete games and 45 shutouts.
“Robin was a true gentleman of the game, a Hall of Famer in every sense,” said Hall of Fame Chairman Jane Forbes Clark. “He was so proud to be a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and served as a Hall of Fame Board member with great distinction, thoughtfulness and a fondness for the Museum's role in preserving the game and its history. Cooperstown will miss one of baseball's most compassionate and caring individuals, and we extend our deepest sympathy to his family.”
Born Sept. 30, 1926 in Springfield, Ill., Roberts served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, then returned to play baseball for Michigan State University. Signed by the Phillies before the 1948 season, Roberts made his big league debut on June 18 of that year.
“My father was a very hard worker, a coal miner and a factory worker, and for me to get paid to play baseball for a living was interesting,” Roberts said. “I saw how hard other people had to work and realized how fortunate I was.”
Roberts didn’t take his good fortune for granted. In each of his first nine full big league seasons, Roberts appeared in at least 39 games and completed an average of 23 per year. He won 20-or-more games from 1950-55 and won 19 in 1956. His best seasons came in 1950 (when he went 20-11 and pitched the Phillies to the NL pennant during a furious battle with the Dodgers) and 1952 (when he was 28-7 and finished second in the National League Most Valuable Player voting).
“You give Robin Roberts a run or two lead in the late innings and there was no way anybody was going to take it away from him,” said former Milwaukee Braves pitcher Gene Conley. “He could reach back when he had to. He didn’t look like he was doing anything different, but, boy, he was doing it when he had to.”
Roberts parlayed above-average fastball and pinpoint control into a 3.41 career earned-run average and 2,357 career strikeouts. But it was his tenacity on the mound that separated Roberts from his peers.
“I never slept when I lost,” Roberts said. “I’d see the sun come up without ever having closed my eyes. I’d see those base hits over and over and they’d drive me crazy.”
Still, few batters got the best of Roberts, who was selected to seven straight All-Star Games (starting the game on the mound for the NL in five of them) and led the NL in wins each year from 1952-55. He topped the league in innings pitched each season from 1951-55 and led the NL in complete games each year from 1952-56.
“Probably the best fastball I ever saw was Robin Roberts,” said fellow Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner. “Robin didn’t throw as hard as Rex Barney, but his ball would rise around six or eight inches, and with plenty on it. And he had great control, which made him very difficult to hit.”
Roberts stayed with the Phillies through the 1961 season before closing out his career with Baltimore, Houston and the Chicago Cubs. The year after his Hall of Fame induction in 1976, Roberts became the baseball coach at the University of South Florida, leading the Bulls for nine seasons.
He was the Hall of Fame’s Membership Spokesman in 2008 and regularly participated in Hall of Fame programs. He was a long-standing member of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors.
“Robin was such a giant in baseball,” said Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. “Not only was he the face of the Phillies in the 1950s, but he was among the most dominant hurlers to ever step on to a pitching mound. His legacy will be his Hall of Fame career and his important role in establishing the players' association, but his hallmark was the class and dignity with which he led his life. Robin's warm heart and humorous personality made him a fan favorite and there's not a person who met him who did not become richer because of that. He was a dear friend, a frequent visitor to Cooperstown and we'll miss him very much.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum