Thursday, May 6, 2010

Robin Roberts, 1926-2010

Not a good week for baseball. On Tuesday, we lost Ernie Harwell, the voice of the Detroit Tigers. Now, I find out that Robin Roberts has died at the age of 83.

Aside from the coincidence of their name, and some athletic success, there is no connection between Robin Evan Roberts, the legendary pitcher; and Robin Rene Roberts, who currently co-anchors ABC's Good Morning America after establishing herself on ESPN.

There was a commercial a few years back, promoting Major League Baseball. In the San Diego Padres' dugout, Bip Roberts was talking about what a good investment baseball cards were. He opened a price guide, showing that his own rookie card was worth $600. Sitting next to him was Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre himself, and Tony said, "Yo, Bip, you're looking at Robin Roberts. Your card is worth 4 cents." To which Bip protested, "Yo, T, 6 cents in good condition!"

So what did Robin Roberts do to get a value of 600 smackers for his rookie card? Well, he won 286 games. 234 of those were for the Philadelphia Phillies, from 1948 to 1961. For the first few of those seasons, the Phils were a good team. But for most of that time, they weren't. Still, from 1950 to 1955, Roberts won 20 games every season. That's 6 straight. How many pitchers, in this era of 5-man rotations and questionable bullpens, will win 20 in even 1 season? He did it 7 times, 6 in a row. For the pre-Mike Schmidt Phillies.

His 1st 20-win season was the Phils' 1950 "Whiz Kids" season, where they won their only National League Pennant between 1915 and 1980. In 1952, he won 28 for an 87-win Phils team. Think about that: 28 wins in 1 season. It's only been topped (or even matched) once since, by Denny McLain's 31 in 1968. Since '52, the only others to get 27 (or even 26) are another Phillie, Steve Carlton in '72; and Bob Welch with the Oakland A's in 1990.

Roberts pitched and won the 1950 season finale for the Phils, going 10 innings against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the bandbox of Ebbets Field. Had the Phils lost, there would have been a Playoff for the Pennant the next day. Instead, Dick Sisler (son of Hall-of-Famer George) hit a 10th-inning homer, and Roberts held off the mighty Brooks lineup in the bottom of the 10th to win. After just 2 days' rest, he started Game 2 of the World Series, and went 10 innings again, holding the Yankees to 1 run over the first 9, before Joe DiMaggio took him into the Shibe Park bleachers in the top of the 10th, for a 2-1 Yankee win.

On May 13, 1954, pitching against the Cincinnati Redlegs (this was the really stupid part of American history where we didn't even want to call a baseball team "the Reds" because of the implications of Communism), Roberts gave up a leadoff home run to Bobby Adams, and then retired 27 consecutive batters to win 8-1. So had he gotten Adams out, he could have had a perfect game. As it is, none of his 286 wins was a no-hitter.

After the conclusion of the 1961 season, Roberts was sold to the New York Yankees. On February 6, 1962, the Phillies announced that Roberts' uniform Number 36 would be retired by the team on March 21, when the Yankees would visit Clearwater to play the Phillies in a spring training game. It was the 1st uniform number to be retired by the organization. Roberts started for the Yankees that day, and gave up 4 runs in 3 innings, but was still the winning pitcher in the game which the Yankees won 13-10. However, he did not appear for the Yankees before being traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

Roberts pitched on until 1966, and never reached the postseason again, though he did help get the Orioles to within 2 games of the 1964 American League Pennant. He finished his career with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, and ended up as the first player elected to the Hall of Fame who'd played for either the modern version of the Orioles or for the Astros.

Because he pitched prior to 1953 and into 1966, he was able to become the only pitcher to defeat the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta.

He was honored with the retirement of his number by the Phillies and the modern versions of 2 minor-league teams he pitched for: The Wilmington Blue Rocks (Delaware) and the Vermont Mountaineers. He is also a member of the Michigan State University Hall of Fame, and in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, the minor-league ballpark is named for him.

When the Phillies began the Philadelphia Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978, Roberts and longtime A's manager-owner Connie Mack were the first 2 inductees. A statue of him stands outside the 1st-base entrance of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Check the link to Philly sports blog The 700 Level off to the side of this one, and there will be a link to a picture of the statue.) In 1999, The Sporting News named him Number 74 on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and he was a nominee for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

I was at Veterans Stadium in 2003 when the Athletics came in for an interleague series, their first appearance in Philadelphia since they moved out in 1954. Along with a few surviving A's stars (including Gus Zernial, Bobby Schantz, Eddie Joost), Roberts was on hand, signing copies of his book My Life In Baseball. The fans seemed more interested in him than in the current Phillies. He'd earned that. (Of course, so had they: This was before Jimmy Rollins blossomed, before Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels arrived.)
It's been a good era for Phillies fans, but also a sad one, losing Harry Kalas last season and now Roberts. Dallas Green, take care of yourself!

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