The Philadelphia Phillies, the scourge of the NL East, are visiting Turner Field, and they’ve made themselves right at home. You might have noticed the Phillies jersey with number 36 on the back hanging in their dugout.
They’re also sporting No. 36 patches on their right uniform sleeves. That’s in honor of the greatest right-handed pitcher in Phillies history. Hall of Famer Robin Roberts passed away on May 6 of natural causes. He was 83.
“He was still really close to this organization, and he loved the current team,” Larry Shenk, the Phillies vice-president of alumni relations, told the Associated Press. “He was a special human being.”
“He was a boyhood hero of mine,” added Phillies team president David Montgomery. “Then I had a chance to meet him personally. I remember pinching myself, knowing I was talking to Robin Roberts! His career and stats speak for themselves. But first and foremost, he was a friend, and we’ll miss him badly.”
Even today’s players revered and respected Roberts. “Robin would always tell me stories about people in my family, being that he was from my hometown,” Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth told the A.P. Werth’s granddad, Dick “Ducky” Schofield, played against Roberts in the ‘50s. “He would make it a point to tell me good things about him. That was how much of an overall good guy he was. He will definitely be missed. And remembered. He definitely has a special place in my heart,” Schofield said.
He’s always had a special place in the hearts of Phillies fans of a certain vintage as well. Travel back with me to September, 1950. A young Phillies team dubbed “The Whiz Kids” was trying to win the team’s first pennant in 35 years. During most of that stretch, the Phils weren’t just bad, they were dreadful.
The Whiz Kids led the Dodgers by 7 1/2 games with 11 to go. They still led by five heading into the season’s final week. Then they lost five straight. On the season’s final day, they sent out their ace, the 24-year-old Roberts, to face the Dodgers.
The Phillies could clinch the pennant with a win. A loss meant a three-game playoff. But the situation was really do-or-die. Roberts was making his third start in five days, and going on two days rest. How would he have anything left for a playoff series?
Roberts, described by Roscoe McGowen in the New York Times as “the courageous young righthander,” held the Dodgers to one run on five hits — through 10 innings. In the top of the 10th, the Phillies’ Dick Sisler hit a three-run home run off of Don Newcombe.
When Roberts retired Tommy Brown on a popup to Eddie Waitkus at first, the Phils victory unleashed paroxysms of joy. Included in the celebration were my mom and granddad, dancing around the kitchen table after listening to the game on the radio.
That win was Roberts’ 20th of the season. He was the first Phillies pitcher to win 20 games since Grover Cleveland Alexander, way back in 1917.
Two years later, Roberts ended the season in the Polo Grounds, beating the Giants, 7-4, for his 28th victory. No National League pitcher had won that many since Dizzy Dean in 1935. No National League pitcher has won that many since.
Nor is anyone likely to. Roberts pitched in a different era. Pitchers were allowed to build arm strength, and weren’t regulated — or babied — by pitch counts. Check out these numbers: From 1950 through 1955, Roberts pitched over 300 innings every year. In ‘56, he pitched 297. Today, 200 innings pitched is considered a monumental achievement.
In those seven years, Roberts averaged 38 starts a season — and 26 complete games. He also averaged 22 wins. That’s a Hall of Fame career right there.
He led the league in starts for six straight years, in complete games and innings pitched for five straight years, and wins for four straight years.
For good measure, he also led the league in strikeouts a couple of times. “He had the best fastball I ever faced,” Ralph Kiner often recalled on Mets broadcasts.
“I had a high fastball,” the modest Roberts once told the A.P. “I either overpowered them, or they overpowered me!”
Roberts also played a key role in one of baseball’s epic moments. On the last day of the 1951 season, Roberts, who started the day before, was called upon in relief against the Dodgers. He wound up pitching five innings, surrendering a home run to Jackie Robinson in the 14th inning.
“If I don’t give up that home run to Jackie,” Roberts told Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, “there is no Bobby Thomson home run. There is no playoff. It’s a good thing I gave up that homer to him, isn’t it?
“Of course, one thing I could do was give up home runs!”
Yes, Roberts still holds the Major League record for most home runs surrendered in a career. “You want to be proud of your successes,” he told Posnanski, “but you want to be proud of your failures, too. The important thing is to try hard.”
Roberts’ eternal effort moved no less a writer than James A. Michener to pen this in the New York Times in 1974: “When he won, he was gracious. When he lost, so often in extra innings with his teammates giving him no runs, he did not pout. Day after day, he went out there and threw that high, hard one down the middle, a marvelously coordinated man doing his job.”