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.”