A few years ago, I came home and found a message on the answering machine from someone who claimed to be
My first thought was that it had to be a put-on. Hall of Famers don't just call up sportswriters they don't know because they want to chat. But I also had to admit that I didn't quite get why anyone would pretend to be the pitcher Robin Roberts (as he had to be known so as not to be confused with the television anchor
I did a little research. The thing that jumps out at you when you look back at Roberts' career are the complete games. From 1950 through 1956, Robin Roberts started 37 or more games and completed more than 20 games every season -- that's Deadball Era stuff. Roberts led the league in starts six straight years, in complete games five straight years, in innings pitched five straight years, in victories four straight years. He was, in those days, a force of nature. Put it this way: He threw 28 consecutive complete games in 1952-53, and he was so enraged when he got pulled after seven innings against Brooklyn*
There was no Cy Young Award then, but in the six years leading up to the award -- 1950-55 -- Roberts received some serious MVP consideration. Here's how he ranked in MVP votes among pitchers.
So, he probably would have won two Cy Youngs in his prime, and maybe more.
The prime years and innings took their toll on Roberts, who was rarely a great pitcher after 1955. He had a losing record the rest of his career and a league average ERA. But he had already made his mark. Few in baseball history threw harder than Roberts did in those overpowering years.
One other thing about Roberts' career that you should know -- he gave up home runs. Five times he led the league in home runs allowed. The 505 homers he allowed in his career is the all-time record -- at least until
Anyway, I called back the number left on the machine, and, of course, it really was Robin Roberts -- it would not be much of a story if it wasn't. We met at the museum that evening ("Here I am!" he said when I first saw him). We walked around the museum for a couple of hours, looking at the various photographs and exhibits, and I listened to Robin Roberts tell stories. He was 77 then and remembered everything. I will cherish that night for the rest of my life.
What was it like? Roberts saw a photograph of
What he remembered most, though, was going up to Paige years later and telling him about that hit.
"Roberts," Paige said back, "I got a big black book of all the great hitters who got a hit off me. And you ain't in it."
All the stories Robin Roberts told me that night were like that: self-effacing, funny, warm, touching. He talked about the first time he saw
At one point, he saw a display for
The first story was about the Whiz Kid Phillies of 1950. While people often talk about the collapse of the 1964 Phillies, they tend to forget that the 1950 Phillies tried to do it first. Those Phillies were up 7 1/2 games on the Brooklyn Dodgers on Sept. 20. They were still up five games a week later, on Sept. 27. But then they lost five straight games, and that Sunday they had to beat the Dodgers in Brooklyn or be forced into a playoff. Roberts was 24 years old and was sent out to lead the Phillies to their first pennant in 35 years. He was pitching on two days' rest.
He pitched 10 innings. The only run he allowed was on a
After the game, Roberts was sitting there on his stool, champagne dripping from his hair, when he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He looked up. It was Jackie Robinson. "Congratulations," Robinson said.
"Think about that," Roberts told me. "Think about how much class that took. I couldn't have done it, I'll tell you that."
Of course, Robin Roberts would have done it. He was like that. And that leads to the second Jackie Robinson story. In 1951, everyone remembers that the New York Giants came back from oblivion to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers and then beat them on
In the Sunday game, Robinson started off terribly. He hit into a double play, booted an easy ground ball that allowed two runs to score, took a called third strike, threw wild on another play. He would make up for it. In the eighth inning, the Phillies led 8-5, but the Dodgers pulled within a run. And Roberts was put into the game even though he had pitched the day before. He gave up a single to
Then, Roberts pitched five gutsy scoreless innings. It looked like the Phillies were going to win in the bottom of the 12th inning -- they loaded the bases and then
Two innings later, with curfew just a shade of dark away, Robinson hit a home run off of Roberts to give the Dodgers the lead and force the classic playoff with the Giants. Robinson would call it the biggest hit of his career.
You may have already known all that, or at least the basics of it. But what struck me that day in the Museum was how Robin Roberts remembered it. He was, well, proud of it. He was proud of his whole career. He pitched hard. He gave his all. And Robinson beat him. No shame in it. Sometimes he pitched the game-winner. Sometimes he gave up the big home run. And it was all part of his beautiful journey in baseball.
"If I don't give up that home run to Jackie," he told me, "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?"
And then, he smiled: "Of course, one thing I could do was give up home runs."
That's how I remember him. That smile. That humble line. Robin Roberts died on Thursday at his home in Florida. He was 83 years old. I had talked to him a few times since we met at the museum, and he was always the same: Humble, kind, eager to avoid hurting anybody's feelings. He lived a big life. He was in the Army air corps. He was a star college basketball player at Michigan State. He was a great big league pitcher. He was one of the pioneers of the baseball players association -- he, along with
But I still tend to remember him most as the modest man who could not help being proud of the home run he had allowed to Jackie Robinson, the one that set up perhaps the greatest moment in baseball history. "You want to be proud of your successes," he told me, "but you want to be proud of your failures, too. The important thing is try hard." And Robin Roberts always did.