By Allen Barra
It’s a shame that Robin Evan Roberts couldn’t have picked a more fortunate day to die. His passing on May 6 Thursday was lost in the media swirl surrounding the arrest of former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor on rape charges and the speculation over whether Lebron James would be playing next season in Cleveland or New York. Before his memory fades entirely, a few things about his life and career should be remarked on.
Roberts pitched in relative obscurity for most of his 19 big league seasons, and his death at age 83 was relegated to the status of second-tier news. Now, after some reflection, we can put his career in perspective: he was baseball’s greatest pitcher since World War II and one of the most important men in baseball history.
He was also scandalously unappreciated. In 1960 the Associated Press conducted a survey of “164 Top-Flight Sportswriters” and “76 Nationally-Known Public Figures” to determine “The All-Star Team of the Past Decade.” Roberts didn’t make the team. He finished second to the Yankees’ Allie Reynolds. Allie had a fine career, but he was only great after coming to the Yankees in 1947. He won 131 games over the next eight seasons, and that was pitching for the New York Yankees, who won six World Series over that span.
Pitching in seven seasons from 1948-1954, Robin Roberts won 137 games, and that was while pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies, who won one National League pennant in that time. For most of those season, the Phillies were the worst team in their league, or at least would have been if it hadn’t been for Robin Roberts. From 1952-1954, Roberts won 74 games and lead his league in victories each year. (He also lead the league in 1955.)
Three decades after the AP’s poll, I talked to Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who had voted for Reynolds over Roberts, and asked him why. He told me that he had voted for Reynolds mainly because he had beat Roberts in Game Two of the 1950 World Series (2-1 in 10 innings on a Joe DiMaggio home run.)
In 1976 Roberts was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his fourth year of eligibility. Whitey Ford, practically his exact contemporary, retired a year after Roberts and was elected in 1974 in his second year of eligibility. Mr. Ford, an undeniably great pitcher, won 236 games in his career, 50 fewer than Roberts. Needless to say, Mr. Ford pitched for the Yankees.
Rich Ashburn, the only other Phillies player of note during the 1950s and later a popular sportscaster in Philadelphia, once asked me rhetorically, “With all due respect to Whitey, if he had pitched for the Phillies and Robin had pitched for the Yankees, who do you think would have made it to the Hall of Fame first?”
The Yankees, always the Yankees. After Roberts was passed over in the 1974 HOF voting, novelist James Michener wrote in the New York Times, “If he [Roberts] had pitched for the Yankees, he would have won 350 games.” I wrote pretty much the same thing in my 2004 book, Brushbacks and Knockdowns, except I projected 340, which would have made Roberts one of the seven winningest pitchers in baseball since 1901 and one of the four winningest since 1945.
But James Michener and I were both wrong. If Roberts had pitched for the Yankees, he would never have won that many games. For the best team in baseball, the Casey Stengel era Yankees had very few 20 game winners; Stengel seldom went with a regular rotation and often held his best pitchers out for important games. (There was also a rumor that the Yankees front office liked to limit the win totals of their starters so they could hold their salaries down.)
If, however, Roberts had pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers of his era, that would have been a different matter. “Robin Roberts on the mound,” says Roger Kahn, author of the definitive book on the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, “Forget it. Backed by Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges? Put Robin Roberts on those Dodgers teams and they’d have been the New York Yankees.”
Not that Roberts had anything to be embarassed about. He won more than 20 games six times, including going 28-7 in 1952 for a Phillies team that played under .500 ball when he wasn’t on the mound. He lead the National League for five consecutive seasons in innings pitched and complete games. And, amazingly, he is only in the record book now for allowing the most home runs (505) of any pitcher and for having the lowest batting average (.167) of anyone with more than 1500 at-bats.
His greatest contribution to baseball, though, came off the field in 1966 when he helped recruit a former economist for the steelworkers union named Marvin Miller as executive director of the players union. “I don’t think any former ballplayer,” says Mr. Miller, “with the possible exception of Jackie Robinson, had the respect and gratitude of more players.”
In the end, Roberts had no regrets. He once told me, “I had a tremendous career, and I pitched for a whole decade in front of some great fans.” Surely he is the only player in baseball history to accuse the Phillies fans of the era of being great. “Let me tell you,” Mr. Ashburn said. “The Phillies fans in that time were the booingest bunch in the major leagues. But they never booed Robin Roberts.”
Allen Barra’s latest book, Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark (Norton), will be published in June.