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Roberts, Robin Evan

ROBERTS, Robin Evan

(b. 30 September 1926 in Springfield, Illinois), Hall of Fame baseball player who was the dominant pitcher in all of baseball from 1950 through 1955 and the top right-hander in the National League (NL) in the 1950s.

Roberts was the fifth of six children of Tom and Sarah Gatrick Roberts. His parents had emigrated from Wales in 1921 to the United States because his coal miner father sought work in the mines of central Illinois; his mother was a homemaker. Roberts attended a small, rural, two-room grade school where his love of sports was nurtured by his fifth grade teacher. He grew up listening to Chicago Cubs games on the radio, and he acted out the ball games as they were played.

Roberts played baseball, basketball, and football at Lanphier High School in Springfield. After graduating in 1944, he qualified for the U.S. Air Force Cadet Training Program and was sent to Michigan State University. There he starred for the Spartans basketball team and was named Michigan Collegiate Player of the Year for the 1945–1946 season by the Detroit Free Press. Roberts decided to try out for the baseball team that spring. When Spartans baseball coach John Kob asked what position he played, Roberts asked what position Kob needed. Kob said, "Pitchers." Roberts replied, "Then I'm a pitcher."

Roberts's first win for Michigan State was a no-hitter against the very good Great Lakes Training Station. During the summers of 1946 and 1947 he pitched in the semi-professional Northern League for Montpelier, Vermont, under the tutelage of University of Michigan coach Ray Fisher. In the summer of 1947 he came into his own with an 18–3 record, attracting the attention of numerous major league scouts. Later that summer he worked out for the Philadelphia Phillies in Wrigley Field in Chicago and had invitations from the Yankees, the Tigers, the Red Sox, the Athletics, and the Braves. Phillies coach Cy Perkins, soon to become Roberts's mentor, was heard to say, "Don't let that kid get out of the park." The Phillies signed Roberts for the then hefty bonus of $25,000.

Roberts graduated from Michigan State University in 1948, earning a B.A. in physical education, and reported to spring training with the Phillies two weeks late. Although he had an outstanding spring, Roberts was sent to the Wilmington Blue Rocks of the Class B Interstate League to open the season. He was called up by the Phillies to stay in June, after compiling a 9–1 record and posting 121 strike-outs and a 2.06 earned run average in 96 innings.

Roberts posted a 7–9 record with the Phillies that year and in 1949, his first full season in Major League Baseball, won fifteen and lost fifteen. Then came the breakthrough year 1950, when he led the fabled "Whiz Kids" to the NL pennant, defeating the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers 4–1 in ten innings on the last day of the season to clinch the title and his first twenty-win season. The win saved the Phillies from blowing the 71/ 2 game lead (nine games over the Dodgers) they had had ten days earlier. Beset by injuries, particularly to their pitching staff, and the loss of star southpaw Curt Simmons to the U.S. Army, Whiz Kids manager Eddie Sawyer started Roberts five times in the final eight days of the season.

Although the Phillies were not able to repeat their 1950 performance, Roberts went on to true stardom and dominance. He won twenty or more games in six consecutive seasons, missing a seventh straight twenty-win year on the last day of 1956. His best year was 1952 when he won twenty-eight games and had only seven losses, the first of four straight years he led the NL in wins. In 1952 the NL's next most winning pitcher had eighteen victories.

Roberts threw over 300 innings for 6 consecutive years. He led the NL in complete games 5 straight times and pitched an incredible 28 straight complete games during the 1952 and 1953 seasons. For the 1950s, he posted 192 wins, tops for a right-hander and trailing only Warren Spahn. He started in a record 5 All-Star games for the NL. Overall, his exceptional career spanned 18 seasons and 286 major league victories from 1948 to 1966. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Roberts had particularly keen rivalries with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson, whom he faced more than any other pitcher, and with Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals. He generally refused to brush hitters back from the plate and holds the record for the most home runs allowed. The majority of the home runs he allowed came with no one on base because Roberts had a unique ability to bear down in tight situations.

After dominating the National League for much of 1950s, Roberts struggled with the bad Phillies teams of the late 1950s. His career reached rock bottom when he was sold to the New York Yankees before the 1962 season, then released by that club without ever appearing in a game. Roberts soon signed with the Baltimore Orioles, however, where he resurrected his career for a young team that would soon win championships, winning forty-two games over the next three and a half years. He joined the Houston Astros in the middle of 1965 and in 1966 pitched the first regular season major league game on the new artificial "grass" AstroTurf in Houston's Astrodome. He ended his active major league career that year as a playing pitching coach for Leo Durocher's Chicago Cubs.

Roberts's off-the-field influences on baseball are also significant. He was instrumental in the hiring of Marvin Miller to be the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association. As the head of the screening committee for the Association, Roberts convinced the players' representatives from the individual teams that Miller was the right choice.

Roberts had pushed within the association for a full-time executive director since 1960. When Miller was hired in 1966, Roberts's intent was for Miller to negotiate with the owners to improve the players' pension plan and secure their licensing rights. When Roberts offered Miller the job, he exacted a promise from him that the players' union would never strike. When the Players' Association, under the leadership of Miller, struck against Major League Baseball for the first time in 1972, Roberts, by then retired as an active player, immediately called Miller to remind him of his promise. Miller said, "Robin, I have been waiting for your call." Miller did not end the strike, however.

After retiring from baseball, Roberts worked as a stockbroker and served as baseball coach at the University of South Florida for eight years. Now retired, he lives in the Tampa, Florida, area with his wife, the former Mary Kalnes, whom he had married on 26 December 1949. They have four sons. Roberts remains active in baseball, serving on the Board of Directors of the Baseball Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1976, and the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT).

There is no full-scale biography of Roberts, but the Library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, houses material on his career. His book, The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant (1996), coauthored with C. Paul Rogers III, contains a substantial amount of autobiographical material. Roberts was featured in "The Whole Story of Pitching," Time (28 May 1956), a cover story. Donald Honig devotes a chapter to Roberts in his oral history Baseball Between the Lines: Baseball in the '40s and '50s as Told by the Men who Played It (1976).

C. Paul Rogers III

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