Over the course of his career, Robin Roberts was two distinctly different pitchers.
Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner described the early part of his career best, when he said “Probably the best fastball I ever saw was Robin Roberts. His ball would rise around six or eight inches, and with plenty on it. And he had great control.”
But Roberts was able to last 19 years in the big leagues by transitioning into a craftsman who out-smarted his opponents. And each pitcher was among the most effective in the game.
Roberts first toed the rubber for the Philadelphia Phillies at the age of 21 in 1948, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He walked the first batter he faced on what he described as “four of the wildest pitches you ever saw.” Roberts settled down though and struck out the next batter using what would become his signature pitch, the hard rising fastball. Roberts went eight innings exhibiting strong command, but took the hard-luck 2-0 loss. He bounced back five days later and earned the first of his 286 career wins a complete game victory over the Cincinnati Reds.
From 1950-1955, Roberts was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the league. He recorded six straight 20-win seasons and in 1950 led the “Whiz Kids” to their first World Series appearance since 1915.
Phillies teammate Curt Simmons recalled: “He was like a diesel engine. The more you used him, the better he ran. I don’t think you could wear him out.”
In 1952, Roberts had his best season, going 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA over 330 innings. He won his last eight starts of the season – all complete games, including a 17-inning performance against the Braves. It was one of 13 straight compete games he pitched against the Boston/Milwaukee franchise from 1952-54. He went 12-1 over that stretch, losing only when the Braves' Jim Wilson no-hit the Phillies on June 12, 1954.
Roberts never missed a start in the 1950s. He led the NL in innings pitched each year from 1951-55 and complete games each year from 1952-56. He amassed a streak of 28 straight complete games during the 1952 and 1953 seasons.
As the decade wore on, Roberts lost velocity on his fastball. His precision control allowed him to reinvent himself as the type of finesse pitcher that Hall of Famer Willie Stargell said “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.”
Roberts made his last big league appearance in 1966, going 5-3 with a 2.48 ERA in 11 games for the Double-A Reading Phillies at the age of 40 in 1967.
A seven time All-Star, Roberts started five All-Star Games, tied for the most all-time.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976 and passed away on May 6, 2010.