Robin Roberts died yesterday at the age of 83. Roberts was a remarkable pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies during the early and mid 1950s. He won 20 or more games in six straight years and 19 games in 1956. His best season was 1952 when he went 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA, and was named Major League Player of the Year by the Sporting News.
During his stretch of 20 win seasons, Roberts pitched more than 300 innings each year and completed about 70 percent of the games he started, including 30 of 37 in 1952.
Roberts accomplished all of this without overpowering stuff. His SABR biography quotes this contemporary assessment:
He never bothers with fancy stuff but makes do with what he has: a dinky curve, a sneaky but unspectacular fast ball, and a frustrating change of pace. He offers no single dramatic talent — he has no counterpart of Carl Hubbell’s spectacular screwball, Walter Johnson’s terrifying fastball, Bobby Feller’s strike-out touch. Pitch for pitch, many of his contemporaries have what the trade calls ‘more stuff,’ pitches that are harder, faster, or trickier. But better than any of them now on the mound, Robin Roberts can put the ball where he wants. There is one precious-diamond word for him — control.”
A byproduct of this style was another Roberts characteristic — lots of home runs allowed. In his peak years, he gave up around 30 per year. In the early years of his decline, the number jumped into the 40s. He led the league in home runs allowed for four consecutive seasons. Along with his control, Roberts’ stubborn refusal to knock batters down (a prevalent practice of the day) and to yield intentional walks contributed to the high numbers of homers.
Many of the home runs came in situations when he could afford them, but naturally that wasn’t always the case. During the 1950 pennant race, he lost to the Cubs on a home run by Hank Sauer. After this bitter defeat, teammate Dick Sisler (son of Hall of Famer George) told Roberts, “my old man says anytime you let a home-run hitter beat you in a late inning game, you are a bad pitcher.” Roberts replied, “If you hit like your old man, I wouldn’t be in so many close ballgames.” Sisler gave Roberts a hard look and left the shower. Roberts wondered if they would tangle in a fight with only the clubhouse boy left to break it up.
When Roberts stepped out of the shower, Sisler reappeared with a beer in each hand. Sisler gave Roberts one of the beers and said, “that wasn’t called for; we’ve talked enough haven’t we?” Roberts answered, “yes we have, Dick.” The two sat in the clubhouse and drank beer together, amity restored.
The Phillies went on the win the pennant. Roberts won the clinching game 4-1, pitching all 10 innings. Sisler hit the game-winning home run, after Roberts had singled to start the 10th inning.
By the late 1950s, Roberts’ career was in serious decline. In 1961, it was seemingly finished, as he went 1-10 with a 5.85 ERA. During these years, Roberts drew heavy criticism for stubbornly refusing to change his pitching style. His manager, Gene Mauch, joined in, saying, “Roberts can’t pitch his fastball past his Aunt Matilda.”
The Phillies released Roberts following the 1961 season. He went to spring training with the Yankees in 1962, but they too released him. When two National League expansion teams, Houston and the Mets, showed no interest either, Roberts almost quit baseball. But after consulting with his friend and mentor Cy Perkins (an old-time catcher), he signed on with the Orioles.
There, Roberts finally reinvented himself as something of a junk-ball pitcher. He won 37 games over the next three years, and 10 more in 1965 pitching for Baltimore and Houston that season.
Those extra wins assured that Roberts, with 286 career victories, would be elected to Hall of Fame. That election occurred in 1976, ten years after his retirement.