Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Requiem for Robin Roberts

The death of Philadelphia Phillies legend Robin Roberts is a sad loss to Phillies fans everywhere. He may have been the greatest right-handed pitcher in Phillies history (it’s either Roberts or Grover Cleveland Alexander). No other Phillies right-hander ever won more games than Roberts did.

Roberts was not only a stalwart pitcher for the Phillies but he was one of the best pitchers in the National League in the 1950s. He won twenty or more games in six consecutive seasons. In 1952 he won 28 games. No other National League pitcher has equaled that since. Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Ralph Kiner said that Roberts was the toughest pitcher he ever faced.

Roberts won 286 games and lost 245. His winning percentage as a pitcher was .539% which was 33 points better than the teams he played for. That was the tragedy of Robin Roberts’ career. If Roberts had pitched for the New York Yankees or the Brooklyn Dodgers, he would definitely have won 300 games. Instead he toiled nineteen seasons for mediocre teams—a diamond in the rough. There are other great baseball pitchers who suffered the same fate. Nap Rucker for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1900s and 1910s; Washington Senators immortal Walter Johnson is another example.

Every fourth day the Phillies would give Roberts the ball and every fourth day he would take on the best pitchers of the other seven National League teams. (His head-to-head match-ups with Dodgers great Don Newcombe were epic battles). Sometimes Roberts didn’t pitch every fourth day. During the final week of the 1950 Season where the Phillies were vying with the Dodgers of the National League pennant, Roberts had to pitch three times in five days. Name a top pitcher today who would be willing to do that for his team?

Roberts was a class act on the mound. One of his flaws was that he gave up a lot of gopher balls. One reason for that was he never threw at batters. In an era where the purpose pitch was a vital tool in a major league’s pitcher’s arsenal, Roberts eschewed the bean-ball. That meant hitters could dig in on Roberts. Roberts was a class act off the field too. He was an ardent advocate for the Baseball Players’ Association and when baseball was integrating racially he was a positive presence to African-American players who became his teammates.

When we lose players like Robin Roberts we are losing something more. Roberts was the last vestige of an era of baseball where there were no steroids; no illegal drugs; no Astro-turf; no games interrupted so that a top rock and roll band can perform its newest hit single and other associated nonsense like that. We’re going to miss him.

Rest in peace.

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