May 6, 2010

THE VALUE OF THE #1:

Robin Roberts was proud of his successes as well as his failures (Joe Posnanski, 5/06/10, SI)

A few years ago, I came home and found a message on the answering machine from someone who claimed to be Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher. The person was calling because he had read some of my work, and he liked it, and he happened to be in Kansas City to see his brother and he wanted to meet me at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum so he could tell me some baseball stories.

My first thought was that it had to be a put-on. Hall of Famers don't just call up sportswriters they don't know because they want to chat. But I also had to admit that I didn't quite get why anyone would pretend to be the pitcher Robin Roberts (as he had to be known so as not to be confused with the television anchor Robin Roberts). And then, I had to admit that I really didn't know that much about the pitcher Robin Roberts.

I did a little research. The thing that jumps out at you when you look back at Roberts' career are the complete games. From 1950 through 1956, Robin Roberts started 37 or more games and completed more than 20 games every season -- that's Deadball Era stuff. Roberts led the league in starts six straight years, in complete games five straight years, in innings pitched five straight years, in victories four straight years. He was, in those days, a force of nature. Put it this way: He threw 28 consecutive complete games in 1952-53, and he was so enraged when he got pulled after seven innings against Brooklyn* -- Bums Send Roberts To Showers! -- that, for perhaps the only time in his career, the genial Roberts refused to talk to reporters.


Even better, check out his saves for those years, when he'd pitch in relief between starts.


MORE:
Hall of Fame pitcher Roberts dies at 83 (Marty Noble, 5/06/10, MLB.com)

"He was like a diesel engine," Roberts' teammate and fellow Phillies starter Curt Simmons said from his home in Arizona. "The more you used him, the better he ran. I don't think you could wear him out. The end of the 1950 season, I was in the Army and I think Bob Miller had a bad back. I know Robin had to throw almost every day."

Dallas Green, the former Phillies manager and pitcher, became one of Roberts' friends despite an eight-year difference in age. Green who broke into the Majors in 1956, attended Roberts' professional debut in 1948 in Wilmington, Del., where Green lived. Roberts' first game was as a member of the Blue Hens. "Robbie was a real special person to me," Green said Thursday. "I love him. He was as old-school as you could get. He'd just run and throw to get in shape. I tell all the kids that now."

Roberts contended that pitching came easily to him. "Too many people try to make it more complicated than it really is," he would say as part of his continuing effort to deflect praise. His efforts in that regard weren't as successful as his pitching. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

He won 286 games overall and still was pitching in the Minor Leagues when he retired because he wanted 14 more wins. "Three hundred was big to him. He wanted it," Green said. "We were roomies at Reading in the old Eastern League and we were both at the end. Robbie just ran out of gas. The will was there. It was always there."

The second-leading all-time winner among the Phillies -- Steve Carlton won 241 games to Roberts' 234 -- Roberts was recognized primarily as a power pitcher until late in his career when he pitched for the Orioles, Astros and Cubs. His career strikeouts total of 2,357 was unremarkable. It ranks 40th all-time. But he walked merely 902 batters and never more than 77 in a season.

The numbers that distinguished him most during and after his 19-year career were his victories, shutouts (45), complete games (305) and home runs allowed (505), the most ever. But like fellow Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, Roberts was renowned for limiting the damage. Sixty-five percent of the home runs he surrendered were hit with the bases empty.

His complete-games total ranks 38th all-time and nearly all of those who pitched more played well before Roberts broke in on June 18, 1948. He pitched 28 consecutive complete games from August 1952 to July 1953. What would closer Brad Lidge have done during Roberts' time with the Phillies?

That will remain an unknown, but Lidge certainly developed an appreciation for the pitcher now memorialized by a statute outside Citizens Bank Park.

"Every time he came around the clubhouse he would start talking about pitching," Lidge said Thursday. "He talked with me about my slider, and anything he had to say, I was all ears. Another thing about Robbie was that he never talked about the way things were when he played the game. He realized that the game changed with time. I was really fortunate to be able to talk with a living legend about pitching."

Lidge's teammate Jamie Moyer provided this perspective: "Almost every day I look at the Phillies Hall of Fame jerseys that hang in the hallway by the clubhouse. I try to appreciate what Robin did as a pitcher. Looking back at the impact he had on the game, it was special. He would always kid around when he came by and would be concerned about how I was and how my family was doing. I feel like I lost a friend. He bled Phillies Red. He was a true Phillie top to bottom."

Roberts' contemporaries saw him in a different light. "Probably the best fastball I ever saw was Robin Roberts'." Ralph Kiner once said. "His ball would rise around six or eight inches, and with plenty on it. And he had great control."

"He 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," the late Pirates slugger Willie Stargell once said.

"You know," Green said, "for all the success Robbie had, he did it without a breaking ball. He had that little 'slurvy' thing that was an ugly pitch. But he got you when it counted. A man on third with less than two out just didn't score. He'd bear down like nobody else. And he never threw at any one. That wasn't him."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 6, 2010 8:43 PM
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