Robin Roberts 1926–2010
TAMPA — A humble, friendly, and generous man, a devout Christian, a loving a father and husband, a worker for his community, an effective coach and teacher, an engaging storyteller, and, oh yeah, a Hall of Fame pitcher, died at his Temple Terrace, Florida home of natural causes Thursday at 83.
Robin Roberts’ health had deteriorated in recent months. And he had lost some of his spark and bounce after his wife, Mary, died five years ago. But he did not suffer a period of debilitating illness before dying Thursday of respiratory ailments. He was able to indulge his love of baseball, which never waned through Roberts’ long life, right to the end.
The greatest right-handed pitcher in Philadelphia Phillies history watched his Phillies Wednesday night on ESPN, and then tuned in the Tampa Bay Rays’ game from the left coast, which lasted well into the morning of Roberts’ last day. Happily, Roberts’ two favorite teams won the last games he was able to watch.
Baseball fans of a certain vintage know about Roberts and can be absolutely lyrical in speaking of him. And why not? His numbers tell a remarkable story. A durable pitcher with a smooth and easy motion who relied mainly on a live fastball with the occasional curve thrown in, Roberts was able to win consistently for some forgettable Phillies teams of the fifties.
It started out upbeat enough, with Roberts and the Phillies “Whiz Kids” of 1950 making it to the World Series in Roberts’ sophomore year in the bigs. But the “Kids” were exhausted after a grueling pennant race that wasn’t decided until the final day of the regular season. The Phillies pitching staff was so depleted by injuries and the military draft that Roberts had to start three of the Phillies’ final five games, an event that would likely have occasioned an unfair labor practices action from today’s players union. In the World Series, the Yankees swept the Phillies four straight, with Roberts losing the second game 2-1 when Joe DiMaggio tagged him for a homer (no shame in that) in the 10th.
After 1950, Roberts was not to see post-season play again, though this was hardly his fault. While Roberts defined durability and reliability through the first half of the fifties, and was picked by National League managers to start three All-Star games, his Phillies faded like a cheap T-shirt. They spent most of the decade below .500. Roberts won 20 for the 1950 pennant winners, and then followed with win totals of 21, 28, 23, 23, 23, and 19 for less competitive Phillies teams. He finished with 286 wins, 234 of them with the Phillies, and a spot in Cooperstown.
Nowadays, after “quality starts” of six innings, baseball managers turn games over to bullpens of various specialists: set-up men, lefties who come in to pitch to one left-hander, and finally the cock-of-the walk, the closer. Today, a guy who pitches 200 innings over a 162-game season is a “workhorse.” Roberts, who always respected the game, never had anything bad to say about this practice. “It’s just different now,” was his take. But from 1950 through 1955 Roberts never pitched fewer than 304 innings in a 154-game schedule. In 1956 he fell off to 297 IP. Now that’s a workhorse.
The complete game, a rarity today in baseball at any level, was a Roberts specialty. “When I went out there, I went out there for nine innings, because that’s what you were supposed to do,” Roberts said on numerous occasions.
Suiting the action to the word, Roberts’ complete-game totals for the front half of the fifties were 21, 22, 30, 33, 29, and 26. Any of these years would constitute good career numbers by today’s practices. But these stats were just very good by the standards of the fifties, when lots of pitchers went nine. Roberts finished 305 of the 609 games he started. And he did this without pharmaceutical help.
Thanks to his consistent excellence on the mound and his unassuming, team-player personality, Roberts was a favorite of Philadelphia sports fans, who have a well-earned reputation as some of the toughest on the planet. Perhaps they’ve mellowed in the light of recent success, but it has been said of Phillies fans that they would boo your kid at an Easter egg hunt. They didn’t boo Roberts, even when he had one of his rare bad outings.
As a youngster, my neighbor, friend, fellow-writer, and Philadelphia native Joe O’Neill saw Roberts pitch at Connie Mack stadium. He said Roberts was to Philadelphia what Stan Musial, who also got a pass from the boo-birds, was to St. Louis. On the subject of Roberts with Philadelphians, so pre-Miranda on other subjects, seldom is heard a discouraging word.
As is invariably the case in athletic careers, Roberts’ skills eventually eroded and he ended his career with shorts stays with the Orioles, Astros, and Cubs. He stayed involved with baseball after his last pitch, helping establish the Major League Players Association. He was pleased with much of the improvement the union brought for players, but he hated the strikes and often lamented that in the heated, often butt-headed atmosphere between players and owners there is no one to represent the fans.
After Roberts hung up his cleats we learned that he wasn’t a team player only in The Show. Like so many other natives of Illinois, Roberts found his way to Florida where from 1977 through 1985 he was the head baseball coach at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Eddie Cardieri, his assistant for his last three years and who went on to lead USF’s baseball team himself for 21 years, called Roberts an outstanding coach and teacher who gained the respect of his players through his “great feel for the game” which he was able to communicate to young athletes.
“He taught kids to keep it simple, to not make the game too tricky,” Cardieri told me. “He taught pitchers they could succeed if they commanded two pitches — if they could throw a fastball and an off-speed pitch for strikes.”
Cardieri said he roomed with Roberts when the team traveled and remembers fondly not only the long conversations where the younger Cardieri learned a lot about baseball, but of enjoying Roberts’ large repertoire of stories from his playing days which included parts for such as Satchel Paige, Yogi Berra, and other household names from fifties and sixties baseball.
“The stories were so good, and Robin was so good at telling them, that you enjoyed them the tenth time you heard them as much as you did the first,” Cardieri said. “I’m blessed for having been able to work with him. He was always a gentleman. Just a fine human being.”
You’ll get no argument on this from Wally Meyer, pastor at Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, where Roberts was a regular attendee.
“He was generous to the church and to others,” Meyer told me. “He was humble, and always patient when people would ask him for autographs, even when he knew they were sending them to E-Bay. He was a joy to know.”
Meyer also liked Roberts’ baseball stories, including the one about the rookie Lou Piniella who was sent up to pinch-hit for Roberts (who wasn’t a bad hitter for a pitcher). Piniella grounded out to shortstop. Later in the clubhouse the by then venerable Roberts joshed the rookie, saying, “I could have done that.”
Those who knew him will tell you that, taken all around, Robin Roberts was a Hall of Famer as a man as well as a pitcher. His long and productive life was more than a quality start. It was a very complete game. He will be missed.