Robin Roberts: A complete pitcher
Two days after the passing of broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell, baseball lost another of its greatest ambassadors with the death of Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts of natural causes at the age of 83. Roberts won 286 games pitching mostly with Phillies teams that except for the “Whiz Kids” year of 1950 when he pitched against the Yankees in the World Series were usually middle of the pack at best.
Roberts was also a member of the Hall’s board of directors and served last year on two Veterans Committees, the one for executives and the one for managers and umpires. I served with Robin on the latter committee and can attest that his views were thoughtful and direct. And there was never a finer dinner companion. Roberts lived in the Tampa area and occasionally accompanied Hall president Jeff Idelson and me to dinner while we were there with the Yankees during spring training.
“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,” Idelson said Thursday.
Roberts, who was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 1976 along with former Indians pitcher and Yankees manager Bob Lemon, was actually with the Yankees in spring training in 1962 when his old uniform No. 36 was retired by the Phillies, the first player for that franchise so honored. The ceremony took place at the Phillies’ facility in Clearwater, Fla., on a day in March when the Yankees were in town and Robin was the starting, and eventual winning, pitcher.
The Phillies had sold Roberts’ contract to the Yankees after his abysmal 1-10 season for last-place Philadelphia in 1961, but he never got to pitch for the Bombers. They released him in May. Roberts signed on with the Orioles and was 42-36 in 3 ½ seasons in Baltimore.
Roberts was a dominant pitcher in the National League in the 1950s. The hard-throwing righthander was a 20-game winner six times and led the league in innings pitched and complete games five times each. He once pitched 28 consecutive complete games, a feat that will never be duplicated in this era of pitch counts, and ended his career with 305 complete games in 609 starts. That’s 50.1 percent!
Roberts’ 1952 season (28-7, 2.59 ERA, 30 complete games in 37 starts, 330 innings) earned him the runner-up finish to Cubs outfielder Hank Sauer for the NL Most Valuable Player Award. Roberts’ failure to win the MVP Award that year was among the reasons commissioner Ford C. Frick pushed for the BBWAA to establish an award for pitchers, which was adopted in 1956 and called the Cy Young Award.
Robin’s most notable achievement away from the field was his part in hiring Marvin Miller as executive director of the Major League Players Association in 1966. Roberts was the chairman of the committee that also included Jim Bunning, Harvey Kuenn, Brooks Robinson and Joe Torre, and had been led to Miller through contacts he had at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
When Robin was honored with the Casey Stengel “You Can Look It Up” Award at the New York Baseball Writers’ Dinner in 2003, Miller attended the affair out of respect for Roberts.
“Robin was so proud to be a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and he 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,” Hall of Fame board chairman Jane Forbes Clark said.
Here are some thoughts about Robin from other Hall of Famers:
Dennis Eckersley – “Robin was my favorite Hall of Famer. I felt a genuine connection with Robin. He had an ease about him and he transcended generations. He touched many lives, mine being one. I feel blessed to know him, and I will miss him deeply.”
Ryne Sandberg – “He was very supportive of my managing at the minor league level. He often told me to get your pitchers to throw as often as they can, all year around. He also said the best pitch in baseball was a fastball at the knees. He told me he became a Hall of Fame pitcher when he started pitching to contact, allowing his teammates to make the plays. I will miss him.”
Jim Bunning – “A truly great all-time pitcher and hall of famer in baseball, but even more, truly a great human being who I will miss dearly, as will all Phillies and baseball fans across America.”
George Brett – “I first met Robin in 1999 when I was inducted. He welcomed me with open arms and I had the chance to get to know him over the years and even manage against him in Hall of Fame Fantasy Camps. I have never met a kinder, nicer, more genuine person in my life. He had that knack of being able to embrace you and become your friend, regardless of age.”
Johnny Bench – “Robin was a Hall of Fame person. He gave so much of his time and intellect to the game and the players. He will be missed for his smile and wit. His passing hurts so much.”
Ralph Kiner – “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, which made him very difficult to hit.”