Robin Roberts – The Phillies Greatest Right-Handed Pitcher

Robin Roberts, a Baseball Hall of Famer, was recruited to play at Michigan State, but the sport he was sought after for was basketball. But while in East Lansing as a Spartan, Robin Roberts developed into a premier baseball pitcher, and while in college he once no-hit their bitter rival, the Michigan Wolverines. Robin Roberts was signed by Philadelphia as an amateur free agent in 1948 when he was 21, and after a short stay in the minors he was up with the Phillies for good. Once there, he quickly became the greatest right-handed pitcher in their history, a workhorse who would enjoy six twenty win seasons in a row. Robin Roberts was a fierce competitor who hated coming out of the game. “I never slept when I lost. I’d see the sun come up without ever having closed my eyes. I’d see those base hits over and over and it would drive me crazy.”

Working with a great fastball and incredible control, Robin Roberts soon was entrenched as the ace of the Phillies’ hurlers. His first year he was only 7-9, then 15-15 in 1949, but after that he was one of the game’s toughest pitchers for most of the Fifties. Philadelphia won its first pennant in thirty five years in 1950, with Robin Roberts a big part of the equation. Known as the “Whiz Kids” because of their youth, the Phillies needed Robin Roberts to win his last start, in the season finale, to clinch the flag. He won a ten inning affair with the Brooklyn Dodgers for his 20th victory and in the process became Philadelphia’s first twenty game winner since Grover Alexander in 1917. The Phillies beat the Dodger by two games for the right to face the Yankees in the World Series.

After the Yankees’ Vic Raschi had opened the Series by shutting the Phils out 1-0 at Shibe Park on a two-hitter, it was up to Robin Roberts to even things up. He hooked up in a terrific duel with Allie Reynolds on October 5th in front of 32,000 fans. An infield single by the Yankees’ Gene Woodling in the second gave New York a run, and then Robin Roberts settled down. Philly tied things up in their half of the fifth on a sac fly by Richie Ashburn, who would one day wind up enshrined in Cooperstown with Robin Roberts. The score remained that way until the tenth inning. Joe DiMaggio, who had been held in check all day by Robin Roberts, belted a home run leading off the inning, and when Philadelphia could not push across the equalizer in the bottom of the frame, the Yankees had defeated Robin Roberts 2-1. When Philly blew a 2-1 lead late in Game Three to lose 3-2, it was all over but the shouting, and Whitey Ford finished them off 5-2 for the sweep. It was the only post-season appearance of Robin Roberts’ nineteen year career.

Robin Roberts won 21 games the following campaign, throwing a league high 315 innings; he would lead the NL in innings pitched for the next five years, each time well over 300. In 1952, Robin Roberts had his finest season, going 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA. The Pirates’ Ralph Kiner, himself a Hall of Fame slugger, faced Robin Roberts quite often during this period. “Probably the best fastball I ever saw was Robin Roberts’. Robin didn’t throw as hard as Rex Barney, but 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.”

That great control did mean that Robin Roberts was always around the plate with his pitches, meaning he was susceptible to allowing home runs, which he did in bunches. Five times in his career Robin Roberts led the league in homers allowed, and by the time he was done pitching he was the all-time leader with 505. He gave up a then record 46 in 1956, and failed to win 20 games for the first time since 1950, finishing with a 19-17 mark. Often, the round trippers came when he was way ahead, and they were usually solo shots. The strain on his arm of pitching so many innings finally began to take its toll on Robin Roberts. His six twenty win seasons included 161 complete games, and Robin Roberts would not win more than fifteen games in a single season after winning seventeen in 1958. He even lost 22 games in 1957, as the Phillies got progressively worse each year. In 1961, Robin Roberts went just 1-10, and the Phillies won a mere 47 games. He was let go after the season, but caught on with the Orioles and had three decent seasons before finishing his career with the Astros and the Cubs. Robin Roberts loved the game so much he went to the minors hoping to get another chance, but none came. He remembered those final seasons. “When I was with Houston at the end of my career, Bob Gibson walked up to me one day when I was running in the outfield. He asked me why I didn’t quit and said what a shame it was that I was ruining a great career and just trying to hang on. Years later, I saw him trying to do the same thing.”

Hanging on a bit too long took none of the luster off of what Robin Roberts had accomplished. Ten years after he threw his last major league pitch in 1966, Robin Roberts was inducted into the Hall of Fame. His final record was 286-245, with 45 shutouts and a lifetime ERA of 3.41. Robin Roberts ranks 19th on the all-time list of games started with 609, 20th in innings pitched with 4,688, 40th in strikeouts with 2,357, and 27th in wins. Robin Roberts had a great sense of humor as well as a strong right arm. When asked what the highlight of his seven All-Star appearances was, Robin Roberts replied, “When Mickey Mantle bunted with the wind blowing out at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field”.

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