By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 91: Robin Roberts

One day, a few years ago, Robin Roberts called me out of the blue. I had never spoken with him before. He never did say how he found my number. He just left a message saying that he was Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher, and he was in Kansas City to visit his brother, and he was hoping I might take him on a tour of the Negro Leagues Museum. He said that he wanted to tell me some baseball stories.

I remember thinking how odd that call was — I was sure for a good while that it was a gag of some kind. But looking back on it, I’m kind of embarrassed for thinking that. Robin Roberts was 77 years old when he called. He wanted to see the Negro Leagues Museum. He’d read a few of my columns, thought he saw a a bit of kindred baseball spirit, and thought I might get a kick out of talking some baseball with him. It’s a shame that our natural reaction — or mine, anyway — so often leads toward mistrust or worse. I wish I followed more of my instincts like Roberts did.

In the end, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would pretend to be Robin Roberts. So I did call him back, and we did go to the museum (a good man named Johnnie opened it special for us after hours), and it’s one of my favorite baseball experiences. He told stories for hours. Roberts was a marvelous story teller. Every photo in the museum, every exhibit, every signed baseball seemed to spark a story from him. I remember one in particular: He was talking about how, in late September 1951, he pitched a Saturday game against Brooklyn. The Dodgers had been in free-fall. They had blown six of eight games. Their four-game lead over the Giants, which had seemed so safe, was completely gone with two games left in the season.

The Dodgers beat Roberts that day 5-0 — Philadelphia committed three costly errors and couldn’t do anything against Don Newcombe — but the Giants won too. So that meant they were tied going into Sunday. The Giants beat Boston, meaning Brooklyn needed to win to force a three-game playoff. The Phillies led the game 6-1 at one point and 8-5 going into the eighth inning. Then the Dodgers somewhat miraculously scored three runs to tie the game. In the ninth, the Philadelphia manager Eddie Sawyer called for Roberts to pitch on 0 days rest. The Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen asked the same of Don Newcombe. It was a different time.

And so they battled — Roberts and Newcombe — into the 10th, the 11th, the 12th, the 13th, the 14th, neither giving up a run. Then in the top of the 14th inning, with two outs, Roberts faced Jackie Robinson. In his career, Robinson faced Robin Roberts more times than he faced any other pitcher, and the two had some legendary battles. Jackie won this one. He crushed a long home run. That won the game from for Brooklyn and forced the famous three-game playoff that was ended when Bobby Thomson hit the home run that won the pennant.

Roberts offered a wonderful long version of this story but ended it in an unexpected way: “If I don’t give up that home run to Jackie, there is no Bobby Thomson home run. There is no playoff. It’s a good thing I gave up that home run to him, isn’t it?”

He smiled. “Of course,” he added, “one thing I could do was give up home runs.”

He was right about that. Roberts gave up 505 home runs in his career, still second-most in baseball history (behind, only, Jamie Moyer). But Roberts was too modest a man to talk about some of the things he could do, like throw a fastball that was probably as hard and effective as Bob Feller’s or Bob Gibson’s or Sandy Koufax’s, and throw that fastball exactly where he wanted time after time after time.

From 1950 to 1955, Roberts led all National League pitchers in WAR. In four of those years, he led the league in innings pitched, twice in strikeouts, three times in wins, once in WHIP and three times in strikeout-to-walk ratio. When you put everything together, he was the best in the league every year.

And he was, basically, a one-pitch pitcher. He did have a couple of different curves he used in his career — a slower one when he was young, a faster one that was sometimes mistaken for a slider when he was older — and he would change speeds once or twice a month. But basically, he threw fastballs. He had dazzling control and would move the fastball around — high then low, inside then out — but it was basically one pitch. “I wasn’t trying to trick anybody,” he told me. “They knew what I was going to throw. The question was if they could hit it.”

From 1950 to 1954, they mostly could not. He finished second in the MVP voting in 1952, and that was widely regarded as his best season — 28-7, 2.59 ERA, 330 innings, 1.2 walks per nine, 30 complete games, 3 shutouts. But it’s likely he was even better in 1953 and 1954, even if his won-loss record did not indicate it. In both those years, he threw more innings, led the league in strikeouts, threw more shutouts and again led the league in fewest walks per nine innings. Anyway, he was amazing for those five years. Put it this way: From 1950 to 1954 — just those five years — Roberts was 42.5 wins above replacement. That’s a higher WAR than eight pitchers already in the Hall of Fame had in their entire careers, including Catfish Hunter and Bob Lemon.

Roberts reliance on the fastball and his unwillingness to throw too far inside and knock hitters down (“It just wasn’t me,” he would write in his autobiography) probably made hitters more comfortable facing him as the years went along. That combination — dig in, here comes the fastball — might be the main reason he gave up so many homers. He gave up 40 or more homers for three straight years starting in 1955. Still, even after his amazing five seasons, even with the home run bug, he was often effective. In 1955, he won 23 games. In 1958, he finished second in the league in WAR after going 17-14 with a 3.24 ERA and 21 complete games.

In all, Roberts completed 305 games — since World War II ended, only Warren Spahn completed more. He took the ball anytime a manager offered it, and he threw fastballs until the game was over. His career would undoubtedly have been very different had he been born 50 years later. With his golden arm, managers would have never let him throw all those innings. With the hitters’ approach these days, he would probably have had many more strikeouts. His career would not have been so top-heavy — so much of his greatness concentrated in the early years — but I don’t know that it could have been any better. As he said: “I had a great time.”

I always remember how we said goodbye that day at the museum. Johnnie, who had opened up the museum for us, asked if he could take a photo of Roberts swinging the bat. Roberts, of course, agreed and actually had Johnnie take pictures of him swinging both left-handed and right-handed. Roberts was a switch-hitter.

“Here comes the fastball,” Johnny shouted as he took a photo.

“Take it again, I blinked,” Roberts said. “I was looking for the curve.”

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31 Responses to No. 91: Robin Roberts

  1. Shao Ping says:

    Stating the obvious, but this series is wonderful.

  2. Wilbur says:

    I happened to read the SABR essay on Robin Roberts just a few days ago. What a class act he was.

  3. Rich says:

    Great story. What an amazing experience that must have been.

    After reading this, I went to look up Roberts’ numbers and found something odd: In 1954, he led the NL in both hits allowed and WHIP. That seems almost impossible.

    • Trent Phloog says:

      I think it helps if you also lead the league in innings pitched/batters faced and fewest walks per 9, which obviously depresses WHIP… still, that’s quite a feat.

      I’d be curious to know how often (if ever) that combination has occurred. There must be some way to get BBREF to spit out that info…

      • ksbeck76 says:

        It looks like in addition to leading the league in innings pitched/batters faced and BB/9, he also finished second in the league in hits per nine innings. It looks like leading the league in hits allowed is definitely a product of facing a lot of batters.

      • ksbeck76 says:

        In 1954, Roberts led the league with 336.2 innings and 289 hits allowed. Warren Spahn finished second in both categories, with 336.2 and 283.1, respectively. I’m going to guess that (especially in that era) that the league leaders in hits allowed are almost always pitchers who are good enough to rack up a lot of innings.

      • Trent Phloog says:

        To answer my own question, the only times a pitcher has led the league in H and WHIP:

        1908 – Christy Mathewson – 281 H (led NL) – 0.827 WHIP (led NL)
        1913 – Christy Mathewson – 291 H (led majors) – 1.020 WHIP (led NL)
        1916 – Pete Alexander – 323 H (led majors) – 0.959 WHIP (led NL)
        1954 – Robin Roberts – 289 H (led majors) – 1.025 WHIP (led majors)
        1976 – Randy Jones – 274 H (led NL) – 1.027 WHIP (led NL) — won CYA

        …that’s the whole list. (Strangely, no one’s ever done it in the AL.)

        Robin is the only player to lead BOTH leagues in both categories, so yeah… quite an accomplishment.

        • James Smyth says:

          Great list. I’ll add two more from the 19th Century.

          Guy Hecker did it with the 1884 Louisville Eclipse of the American Association. He went 52-20 with a 0.868 WHIP while allowing 526 hits in 670.2 innings!

          John Clarkson of the 1889 Boston Beaneaters went 49-19 with a 1.277 WHIP and 589 hits allowed in 620 innings.

          • Rick R says:

            Guy Hecker! The only man ever to lead the league in batting average and ERA (he clearly will be Joe’s number 1 choice as the greatest player of all time)

  4. AaronB4Mizzou says:

    Joe, nice work as always, thanks! Here’s some thought you may already know of: around 1955 or so, the Cards had a deal in place to get Roberts…for Stan Musial. I’m assuming some other pieces were involved, but management had agreed on the deal. It was ownership (Busch) who nixed the deal.

  5. Not really, Roberts led the league in IP with 336 and had 53 more Innings Pitched than 2nd place (Warren Spahn) and 76 more innings than 3rd place (Carl Erskine). So, he faced far more batters, and was actually second in the league in fewest hits/9 innings. That, and he only had 61 walks all season. Which were fewer than Erskine or Spahn had in far fewer innings.

  6. from 1950-56 (7 seasons) Roberts started at least 37 games each year (also averaged 4 relief appearances per season). Rest on NL during that period had just 8 seasons where someone started at least 37 games.

    That means Roberts was an outlier in terms of starts and innings even during 1950’s.

    That same period saw an average of just 13 NL pitchers per season making at least 30 starts AL had only 78 during same time period. That means less that 2 pitchers per team on ave started 30 games.

    What top pitchers did back then was pitch more often. Over 10% of appearences for those who started at least 30 games were relief appearences.

    Roberts started 90% of his pitching appearences, so he was typical of his time in terms of his starts/relief mix

    Pitchers pitched more innings when they did pitch.

    A final note regarding today’s starting pitchers – they are all on the same schedule – no extra work expected of an “ace”. AL and NL have had one pitcher in past 10 years make 36 or more starts (2003 Roy Halladay and Greg Maddux – 36) and only Dave Stewart in 1988, Tom Browning 1989 and Greg Maddux 1991 (each w/37) has scratched the bottom of Roberts 1950-56 run in terms of games started in past 25 years.

    Todays norm is 34-35 as a league leader.

  7. Donald A. Coffin says:

    It’s interesting how much of an outlier Roberts was in terms of walks allowed (although his W/9 may not look so dramatic these days). His career K/W ratio of 2.61 may not look all that impressive. BUT in every year (but two, near the end of his career) his K/W ration was always about 1.5 times–or greater than that–the MLB average, and it was never below the MLB average; for his career, his K/W average was essentially twice as high as MLB as a whole. For comparison, Warren Spahn, how had (and has) a reputation for great control during his career, had a career K/W ratio of 1.80 (compared with Roberts’ 2.61–more than 40% higher than Spahn’s); Whitey Ford’s (interestingly) was also 1.80. Both Spahn and Ford had careers that spanned essentially the same years as did Roberts.

  8. Bill Troy says:

    Joe: I am so envious that you got to spend that kind of time with Robin Roberts. Wow, what a gift! (Not that you didn’t earn it, what with your columns that he liked, etc.) Robin Roberts was the dominant pitcher in the big leagues during my first 6 years following baseball — 1950-1955 (ages 10-15). Later, perhaps in my 20s, I happened to see an opinion piece written by Robin Roberts, I think in Sports Illustrated, on the subject of Little League baseball. The drift was that adults were ruining the game for kids by putting so much pressure on them to win. That perspective, more commonplace now, was not so prevalent then, and it struck me as an unusually thoughtful attitude for a former professional athlete — the kind of person whom you would not expect to be penning opinion pieces in prominent national journals to begin with. Once recently I saw just the briefest clip of him warming up to pitch in one of those compilations of color home movies made by ballplayers and their families. Boy, such a sight. Smooth. Power. Same feeling I get from watching old film of Dizzy Dean in motion.

    • buddaley says:

      I too grew up in the 1950s and thought Roberts had to be a great pitcher since he won 20 games six years in a row and led the league in wins four of those years. Turns out I was right, albeit perhaps not for the entirely right reason.

      In any case, in 1962 the Phillies sold Roberts to the Yankees, and as a rabid Yankee fan I was elated only to be deflated when NY released him without Roberts ever throwing an inning for them. He went on to have three pretty decent years with Baltimore. I always regretted not having a chance to see this great pitcher on the mound in a Yankee uniform.

      Roberts lived in the Tampa Bay area in his old age, and I recall seeing him interviewed on a local sports broadcast. He was over 80 by then but his responses were clear and sharp and exceptionally thoughtful. I was particularly impressed because there was no hint of disdain for contemporary players or pitchers as is often the case with old-timers. On the contrary, he expressed great admiration for the skill of current players and showed an appreciation for the newer forms of statistical analysis and evaluation as well.

      And on top of that, he was charming and completely at ease.

    • Jon says:


      I saw the same article, I hated Little League because of the famous “baseball dad”……..I quit playing and never played until high school again. I saw a special on Robin as the baseball coach at University of South Florida on NBC one Saturday and turned to my dad and said that is where I am going to college. I did just that as a walk-on and by the time I left, i was on full scholarship and his catcher for 4 years. I remained close to him and family in the Tampa area until his death in 2010 and everything you folks say here I have heard a dozen times. He was the finest man I ever met and knew him and his beautiful wife Mary longer than I knew my own parents. I am so thankful to have had him in my life. One day I asked him how many games would he have won if not for pitching on a 2nd division ballclub….he said close too 100 games. Add that too his 286 and folks that puts him behind Mr.Young and Mr. Johnson…………..that is rarified air !!!!!

      Doing all of it by throwing a fastball wherever he wanted…..the best way to describe his fastball was by fellow Hall of famer Red Schoendist…….Red said that 3/4’s of the way to the plate….his fastball appeared to hit a cake of Ice and just take off !!!!! One run homers hurt……but not as bad as the others and walks kill.

      Cookie – Tampa, Florida

  9. Bob McAllister says:

    Well, here is my long Robin Roberts story…He pitched for the Twin City team in the Northern League in Montpelier VT while I was pitching nickel Cokes in the stands for a half-cent a bottle and spending a dime to take the bus from Barre VT to Montpelier to the game…..I don’t remember his record there, but he was much admired as a person and a helluva pitcher….

    Well, forty or 45 years later, I was I the investment business in Hartford and had reason to call a Philadelphia firm and the answerer said “Robin Roberts”. I knew, of course, this was the Hall of Famer I had watched as a kid in Montpelier. I said, “Robin Roberts????? Were you the guy who pitched for Montpelier in the Northern League???” He responded yes, and we were off on a conversation about the manager of the team and his old teammates and he never once mentioned he was also the Hall of Famer….He ended the conversation about those old days by asking if I remembered how the smoke from the town dump would sometimes float across the field and they needed to turn the lights on to play…..he was a truly modest and great guy. I think he returned to that VT ball field when they rededicated it In 2003 to throw out the first pitch. The consummate gentleman and athlete..

    • James Smyth says:

      Nice story. Recreation Field in Montpelier is a wonderful old ballpark. I used to do play-by-play in a wood-bat collegiate summer league that has a team there. Picturesque among the trees, it was my favorite road venue in the league (along with Goodall Park in Sanford, Maine).

    • Jon says:

      He did and his Manager was Ray Fisher the head baseball coach at the University of Michigan at the time (Robin pitched at Michigan State while on a basketball scolarship) Ray also goes down as one of the losing pitchers for the Reds games in the 1919 World Series….Robin said, ” Ray what whappened” ?

      Ray replied ……..I pitched against the only guy trying ( Dickie Kerr).

      Robin drove back to Springfield, Illinois after that summer league and stopped in Chicago to work out for a half dozen teams………he left Chicago a Philadelphia Phillie !!!

  10. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Another great read and another excuse to play along. At No. 91, I will go with Tony Gwynn.

  11. Herb Smith says:

    Roberts, Blyleven, Schilling, Fergie Jenkins…a lot of great pitchers give up tons of home runs. It’s because they realize the supreme importance of getting “Strike One.” You throw enough fastballs over the plate, you’ll occasionally get tagged.

    Fergie finished with more WAR than Nolan Ryan, yet he also was basically a one-pitch pitcher (although his 2-seamer and 4-seamer went opposite ways, so it was as if he had two pitches).

    Great series, and we’re still in the 90’s!

    • cookie says:

      Robin would tell a story about Curt Shilling when he was a young Phillie….Curt looked at Robin and said……….what did you do when you got to 0-2……..Robin said…….try to go 0-3 !

      It is that simple….too bad we got numbnut pitching coaches and organizations making it more difficult.


  12. Chris H says:

    Fascinating to read this today after reading about Mariano yesterday. It has me wondering, when the Yankees were trying to make Mariano a starter, was the assumption that he had to have two or three pitches and so he was mixing an inadequate curve and an inadequate changeup into his repertoire. Of course, a starting pitcher *has* to have more than one pitch. And so, seeing the curve was never going to make it, somebody decided Mariano had to go to the bullpen, and the rest is history, for better or worse.

    (Which reminds me of when Pat Corrales was Cleveland’s manager and Ernie Camacho was their closer – for however many games they ever needed a closer under Corrales – and Corrales would stand on the top step of the dugout and yell “No tricks!” every time Camacho would think about throwing something off-speed. And that’s the only time I expect Ernie Camacho to make an appearance in this series.)

    Anyway, Cliff Lee strikes me as maybe the closest thing we have to Robin Roberts today. With vastly fewer innings, of course.

  13. Dennis Laudal says:

    Reading Marvin Miller’s book, Robin Roberts was as instrumental as anyone getting Marvin to head the Players Association. The really funny detail was when Robin asked Marvin if he would mind having Richard Nixon as his general counsel!

  14. mrgjg says:

    From 1950-1954 Robin Roberts had the most dominant 5 yr. run in comparison to his peers ever. He basically AVERAGED Justin Verlanders 2011 MVP season.

  15. rickda says:

    Awesome. Best one yet.

  16. Re that 1951 last day of the season game: Roberts actually entered the game in the 8th. He gave up a game tying single to Furillo, then got Reese to hit into a DP, and then pitched five shutout innings before Robinson beat him with a two-out HR. Newcombe ALSO entered the game to start the bottom of the 8th, gave up a leadoff single, and did not allow another hit (but five walks and a HBP) until he was taken out with two outs and two out in the bottom of the 13th (so he did not get the win). Robinson saved him in the bottom of the 12th with a diving catch of a line drive that would have scored the winning run (oddly enough, Roberts was the runner).

    Think about it, folks. The two best pitchers in the league pitching on less than 18 hours rest in relief in a crucial game FOR ALMOST SIX INNINGS. I still consider it the greatest game ever. I listened to it on radio — there was no road TV then.

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