Friday, May 07, 2010

Robin Roberts: A 'Phillies treasure'

Philadelphia Daily News
May 7, 2010

ON MAY 13, 1954, Robin Roberts gave up a leadoff home run to Cincinnati Reds third baseman Bobby Adams at Connie Mack Stadium. He then retired the next 27 batters he faced.

Warren Giles was the National League president at the time. His 19-year-old son, Bill, was listening to the game on the radio. Among the crowd of 6,856 at 21st and Lehigh was 7-year-old Dave Montgomery.

Years later, Giles was working in the Phillies organization. Montgomery was coaching football at Germantown Academy, whose roster happened to include two of Roberts' sons. Roberts eventually introduced Montgomery, a recent Wharton School graduate, to Giles, who hired him on the spot. Montgomery later succeeded Giles as Phillies president.

It's not really surprising that Roberts, who passed away of natural causes yesterday morning at age 83 at his home in Temple Terrace, Fla., would be the link to that piece of Phillies history. For more than 60 years, he was not only the greatest righthanded pitcher in franchise history but a thread that ran through the organization and baseball, first as a player and later as a beloved ambassador.

He is one of just four former players with a field named after him at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Fla., and a statue honoring him at Citizens Bank Park. Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Rich Ashburn are the others. He was the ace of the 1950 Whiz Kids rotation, the only Phillies team to appear in the postseason between 1915 and 1976. The team retired his number. He was the first inductee to the Phillies Wall of Fame in 1978. He was an occasional visitor to the clubhouse both in spring training and during the regular season and avidly followed the Phillies.

"He would call numerous times. 'Did you see that play Jimmy made last night? That was unbelievable,' " recalled longtime media relations director Larry Shenk, now vice president of alumni relations. "He was a special human being, very special."

Montgomery called him a "Phillies treasure" and added: "I'm very proud of the relationship that Robin had with this club. Yes, he was a Hall of of Fame pitcher and his stats speak for themselves. But first and foremost for all of us here, he was our friend. We will miss him."

He came back to Philadelphia every year to help the organization by meeting and playing golf with sponsors and suiteholders and was scheduled to be in town next month.

He was such an integral part of the organization that he was given a championship ring after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. "I'm ready for another ring," he told director of team travel Frank Coppenbarger this spring.

He also had a wider impact in the game. Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, he served on the board of directors and returned without fail to Cooperstown, N.Y., for induction weekend each year. He was also instrumental in helping hire Marvin Miller as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966.

"Known as one of the greatest pitchers of his era, Robin's legacy extends far beyond the diamond," current executive director Michael Weiner said in a statement. "Robin played an important role in establishing the Major League Baseball Players Association as a bona fide labor organization by helping the players of his day understand the benefits to be gained by standing together as one."

Yet he was also respected by ownership. "Robin truly loved baseball and had its best interests at heart," commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "We will miss him."

Schmidt thought of him as a friend. "Robin will always be remembered for his Hall of Fame pitching career, but those closest to him will remember him more for his dedication to his family, the players association, the Hall of Fame and his coaching influence on young men at many level," he said. "He was a special guy. Anybody who knew Robin or had a chance to work with him in any way knows what a kind man he was."

Opposing players admired him as well. St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon remembered facing him in 1966 when Roberts was with the Chicago Cubs and in his final season.

Shannon was on his way to being named the National League's Player of the Month for July but, on this day, he went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly. "He stopped my [10-game] hitting streak. He was finished at the time, but the old man showed the kid who was boss that day, I can tell you that," he said with a laugh.

Baseball is a story told through statistics and Roberts certainly had eye-popping numbers. He made 609 big-league starts and completed almost exactly half of them (305), including 28 straight at one point. He had at least 20 wins and 300 innings pitched for six straight seasons (1950-55). He made the All-Star team 7 straight years. He won 286 games. He pitched 19 years in the majors, the first 14 with the Phillies, before finishing with the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros and Cubs.

Roberts was both durable and tough, remembered senior adviser Dallas Green.

"I watched Robbie a long time, and the thing I can remember more than anything is with a man on third and less than two outs, he'd kick it up another notch and they didn't score. That's what made him real special," Green said. "And he stayed in the game. He was a pretty good hitter, an excellent fielder. He did everything a pitcher had to do to stay in the game, and, of course, the manager kept him in there.

"Back in those days, that's what you were paid to do. You were paid to go nine innings. These five or six innings we have today . . . Robbie pitched a lot of years with a bad arm. We didn't have the medicine and stuff we have today, so he grit his teeth and did what he did."

Even if he had done nothing else in his career, he would have secured his place in Phillies history for what he did in 1950 when he made three starts in 5 days at the end of the season, including beating the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game to send his team to the World Series.

"One in a million," said Whiz Kids teammate Bob Miller.

PHILADELPHIA - MAY 06: Jamie Moyer(notes) #50 of the Philadelphia Phillies sits in the dugout next to a jersey of Phillies Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts prior to playing the St. Louis Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park on May 6, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Roberts passed away today at the age of 83. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Said Phillies lefthander Jamie Moyer, who graduated from Souderton Area High School and attended Saint Joseph's: "He's meant a lot to the city. He's meant a lot to this organization. When things happened, in pregame ceremonies, he was always included. People always appreciated him. People knew a lot about him and his career. It wasn't like, 'That was the guy who pitched back then.' He was very well-respected in all walks of life."

Added centerfielder Shane Victorino: "Everybody knows how good he was. He wasn't a Hall of Famer for no reason. People know. We lose another legend in Phillies history. It's unfortunate again. I saw him in spring training. It seemed like he was fine.

"I look up on the scoreboard. I see the Phillies' all-time leaders. In fact, I was looking [Wednesday] when I went out for stretching. You look at some of the numbers and it's like, jeez, just everything he did. Everything around here is him, Schmitty, Richie Ashburn, Harry Kalas. These guys are legends in Phillies history. These are guys who made the Phillies who they are."

The organization has planned a variety of tributes. A moment of silence was observed before yesterday afternoon's game and Phanavision played a video highlighting his remarkable career during the second inning.

His No. 36 jersey will hang in the dugout both at home and on the road for the rest of the season. Beginning with tonight's game against the Braves, a No. 36 patch will be worn on the right sleeve of the team's uniform tops.

The Phillies' 1950 National League pennant will fly at half-staff. A black drape will be hung on his Wall of Fame plaque in Ashburn Alley and his portrait in the Hall of Fame Club; his statue at the First Base Gate will be adorned with a wreath.

Roberts was a standout basketball player at Michigan State and became head baseball coach at the University of South Florida after he retired. He also was a roving minor league pitching instructor for the Phillies.

Giles told a story about the day, 60 years ago, when his father was still running the Cincinnati Reds and invited him to drive from the team's training site in Tampa to Clearwater. "He said, 'I want to show you a young pitcher. He just got out of Michigan State University.' It was Robin Roberts. He said, 'He's going to be a great one, Bill,' " Giles said.

"When I think of Robin there is definitely one word that comes quickly to mind: class. He was a class act both on and off the field. The way he lived his life was exemplary."

Roberts' wife, Mary, passed away in 2005. He is survived by four sons: Robin Jr., of Blue Bell; Dan and Jimmy, both of Temple Terrace; and Rick, of Athens, Ga.; one brother, John, of Springfield, Ill.; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

A funeral service is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Temple Terrace. In lieu of flowers, mourners are asked to donate to the church, the Baseball Assistance Team or the Gold Shield Foundation.

Recalling Roberts' 17-inning complete game

By Bill Conlin
Philadelphia Daily News Sports Columnist
May 7, 2010

I SPENT A LOT of time yesterday sifting through the detritus of 62 years to uncover one shining moment that put a high luster on the fabulous baseball career and exemplary life of Robin Roberts.

The last Sunday of the 1950 season is the obvious choice. The Phillies' great righthander was making his third start in the final 5 days of a campaign where the Dodgers relentlessly reeled in Eddie Sawyer's young and depleted ballclub like a fisherman about to land a minnow with a pole rigged for marlin. So Whitey Ashburn threw out Cal Abrams at the plate in the bottom of the ninth to avert a Monday playoff. Dick Sisler bombed a three-run homer off Don Newcombe in the 10th. Robbie reached deep for that little extra he always seemed to have in his breast pocket, and the Phillies went to their first World Series since 1915.

Manager Eddie Sawyer gave his ace off in Game 1, raising eyebrows throughout baseball by starting relief ace Jim Konstanty against the heavily favored Yankees. Roberts started Game 2 Thursday on 3 days' rest. It was his fourth start in 9 days. A fading Joe DiMaggio beat him, 2-1, in the 10th with a homer.

There were brilliant individual games, of course, sprinkled through his time here with a rapidly fading Phillies team like leitmotifs in a gloomy Wagnerian opera.

But let me reach out to the longest afternoon of Robin Roberts' career for a performance that captures the distilled essence of the Hall of Fame legend who died in his Florida home yesterday morning after spending Wednesday night watching the Phillies beat the Cardinals.

On Sept. 6, 1952, Roberts went for his 23rd victory against the tough Boston Braves. It did not go well for Robbie. After eight innings - and why was he still in there? - it was 6-6. Robbie had allowed five earned runs on nine hits.

"Stubborn as a mule," Stan Hochman described him to yesterday. He pitched a scoreless ninth and the game staggered into extra innings. In fact, despite allowing nine more hits for a total of 18 in a game the Phils won, 7-6, in the bottom of the 17th on a Del Ennis walkoff, Roberts hung eight more goose eggs on Boston.

Now, I want all you pitch-count advocates to cover your eyes. And if you're coaching your Little League kid to be the next 75-pitch wonder, hide the newspaper, the laptop or the iPod.

When Robin got the final out in a 1-2-3 inning - one of his few clean frames - he had faced 71 batters. With his control and riding four-seamer, the drop-and-drive righthander normally had a ton of pitches fouled off. He struck out only five. So, if you assume a conservative average of five pitches per hitter, you can also assume that Robbie's pitch count was well into the 300s. No, Sawyer didn't use him in the second game of the doubleheader. But he came back on his turn Sept. 11, and beat the Cardinals, 3-2, for No. 24 on his way to 28-7 and 30 complete games.

Roberts was running on fumes by 1961 and manager Gene Mauch was in no mood to bronze fading Hall of Fame careers, not with the dreck he was running out there in his second season. It has been variously reported through the obscuring mists of time that Mauch observed, as Robbie careened toward a 1-10 record and an October sale to the Yankees, "He's pitching like Betsy Ross." Or, "He's pitching like Dolley Madison." I had not heard Hochman's revisionist version, "He's pitching like Molly Putz." When I asked Mauch about the line decades ago, he said he couldn't remember.

Roberts was not a vindictive man by any stretch. But he did have an in-Mauch's-face moment. After being released by the Yankees, Orioles and Astros, he landed with the Cubs in July 1966 in the role of player/pitching coach for manager Leo Durocher. He began working with a tall, young righthander named Ferguson Jenkins, who had been traded to the Cubs by Phils GM John Quinn in the ill-advised acquisition of veteran righthanders Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl. Roberts was blown away by Fergie's talent.

"I went to Leo and said, 'You've got to move this kid out of the bullpen and into the rotation,' " Roberts told the salty Durocher. "He's got a heavy sinker he can throw to either corner, got a late-breaking, hard curve."

On July 15, 1966, Robbie pitched his final career complete-game victory, outpitching the Pirates' Vern Law, 5-4. Durocher gradually worked Jenkins into his rotation. On Sept. 6, Fergie defeated Phillies ace Jim Bunning, 7-2.

"All he did was win at least 20 for the next six seasons pitching in [Wrigley Field]," Robbie said.

In the fractional jargon of baseball, Robin Roberts, 83, passed away with one out in the eighth inning of a magnificently balanced and underrated life that was lived without scandal, controversy or the smallest trace of pettiness. During his 9 years as baseball coach at the University of South Florida, he turned an invisible program into a perennial NCAA Tournament team. He probably could have been an NBA backcourt man after a fabulous career at Michigan State, where he led the Spartans in field-goal percentage all 3 years and was captain as a junior and senior. But pitching was his passion.

If Rich Ashburn was His Whiteness, the pulse and personality of the Phillies' organization, Robin Roberts was its White Knight, an unassuming man who looked like Everyman, but threw the baseball like Superman, even in that long-forgotten game in which his pitch count would have been a felony even in Clark Kent's Metropolis.

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The Complete Pitcher

By Bill Lyon
For The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 7, 2010

Robin Evan Roberts was a starter.

And his own setup man.

And his own closer.

All in the same game.

Baseball, as played by the Phillies, was this simple back in the halcyon days of the 1950s: The manager would give Robin Roberts the ball and Robin Roberts wouldn't give it back.

He didn't just win 20 a year, he would pitch 20 complete games a year.

And he would do so without the aid of suspicious pharmaceuticals, whatever they were.

Without a pitch count, whatever that was.

Without long toss, whatever that was.

Without four days in between starts, whatever they were. Sometimes without three days in between, whatever they were.

Robin Roberts had an elastic right arm and from it he coaxed 19 big-league seasons and almost 4,700 innings, and if you look up tireless in the dictionary, there is his picture.

I asked him last October, during the World Series, what his secret was, and he replied: "Well, we used our arms a lot."

What a quaint concept.

Robby, gentle soul, passed Thursday. The same thread will run through all the eulogies to come: We have lost a good man and true, a man of grace and quiet dignity, a man who reached the Hall of Fame but remained self-effacing. No one was more unimpressed with Robby than Robby himself.

There was no strut in him, not a shred of ego. He was a master craftsman, and he was more than glad to mentor in the fine art of that craft those who asked, regardless of their station in life. Twenty-game winner or scuffling journeyman, he treated them all the same.

Elsewhere on these pages you will find the numbers he amassed. They are staggering, and they all speak to his stamina, his endurance, his reliability. Give him the ball, lean back and enjoy.

Down in the bullpen they used to say the best day to have a hangover was when Robby's turn came around. You wouldn't even have to get loose.

There was a simple economy to his approach, and there was no wasted effort in his mechanics. He kept the number of moving parts to a minimum and kept his delivery fluid. And most of all he threw strikes.

The hitters knew that, knew he was always around the plate, and they tried to capitalize on it, which is reflected in the home runs he yielded. Had he been the least bit nasty, well . . . But it just wasn't his way to play stick-it-in-their-ear. He was simply too nice.

Besides, all those eager swingers who were rushing to put the ball in play helped keep his pitch count low. Plus, no fielders, after standing there killing grass while waiting for a nibbler to finally wind up, ever complained about playing behind Robby - heads up, line drive coming.

Asked for his routine, he said: "I ran and worked out the day after. Threw some batting practice. Shagged batting practice. Played a lot of pepper."

Quite a contrast to the coddled, baby-armed divas of today.

"I never asked the manager to take me out or leave me in," he said. "I just took the ball."

He finished 14 wins shy of 300, and had his career been spent with good teams he would have breezed past that magic number. As it was, of his 14 seasons with the Phillies, they had losing records in 10 of them.

He was never one to point that out.

The last time we talked, six months ago, in the heart of the postseason, Cole Hamels walked past, slumped in despair, locked in doubt, wondering how it was that the champagne had turned to vinegar. The others were giving him a wide berth, just in case whatever he had was contagious.

But not Robby.

"Hey, Lefthander," he called.

Hamels looked up, warily, braced for yet another critique.

"Don't forget," Robby said, "just how good you are."

Sooner or later, you are pleased to see, class really does reveal itself.

There's a name for it: Gentleman.

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer columnist.

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