'Whiz Kid' Roberts dies at 83

Updated: May 6, 2010, 10:28 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Long before pitch counts, setup men and closers, Robin Roberts usually finished what he started.

Roberts, the tireless Hall of Fame pitcher who led the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1950 National League pennant as part of the famed "Whiz Kids," died Thursday at his Temple Terrace, Fla., home of natural causes, the Phillies said, citing son Jim. He was 83.

"He was a boyhood hero of mine," team president David Montgomery said. "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."

The right-hander was the most productive pitcher in the National League in the first half of the 1950s, topping the league in wins from 1952 to 1955, innings pitched from '51 to '55 and complete games from '52 to '56.

He won 286 games and put together six consecutive 20-win seasons. Roberts had 45 career shutouts, 2,357 strikeouts and a lifetime ERA of 3.41. He pitched 305 complete games, but also gave up more home runs than any other major league pitcher. Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer is on the verge of breaking that mark. The 47-year-old Moyer has given up 498 homers, seven fewer than Roberts.

Roberts played in an era when pitchers expected to go the distance. Put it this way: In the past 25 years, Phillies pitchers threw a total of 300 complete games -- five fewer than Roberts all by himself. Roberts made 609 career starts, finishing more than half.

"Robin was one of the most consistent, competitive and durable pitchers of his generation and a symbol of the Whiz Kids," commissioner Bud Selig said. "Robin truly loved baseball and always had its best interests at heart."

Long after his career ended, Roberts followed the Phillies closely and was still popular in Philadelphia, drawing boisterous applause from fans each time he came back. A statue of him outside the first-base gate at Citizens Bank Park was adorned with a wreath Thursday, one of several tributes the Phillies planned.

Roberts' No. 36 jersey, which the team retired in 1962, was hung in the dugout before an afternoon game with St. Louis. It will remain there the rest of the season, at home and on the road. Players will wear No. 36 on their sleeves, starting Friday night.

"He was still really close to the organization and he loved this current team," said Larry Shenk, the vice president of alumni relations. "He was a special human being."

Phillies All-Star right fielder Jayson Werth was Roberts' favorite player because he also came from Springfield, Ill. Fittingly, Werth hit a three-run homer in the first inning against the Cardinals.

"Robin would always tell me stories about people in my family being that he was from my hometown, but especially about my grandfather and my great-grandfather," said Werth, the grandson of former major leaguer Dick Schofield. "He would make it a point to tell me good things about them. 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."

Roberts was the leading pitcher on the 1950 squad that won the franchise's first pennant in 35 years. Roberts put together a 20-11 season with a 3.02 ERA and five shutouts.

The team, with several 25-and-younger stars such as Roberts, Richie Ashburn and Del Ennis, was dubbed the "Whiz Kids." It marked the end of a three-decade span in which the Phillies were mostly awful.

The Phillies led by 7½ games with 11 to go but struggled to hang on as injuries -- especially to the pitching staff -- took their toll. On the final day of the season and just after his 24th birthday, Roberts made his third start in five days and pitched the Phillies to a 4-1 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers to clinch the pennant.

Roberts started Game 2 of the World Series against the Yankees and held New York to one run on nine hits through nine innings. With the score 1-1 in the top the 10th, Joe DiMaggio led off with a home run, giving New York a 2-1 win. The Yankees would go on to sweep. Roberts, who pitched in relief in Game 4, finished the series with a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings.

Roberts spent 14 of his 19 seasons in Philadelphia and was the stalwart of their rotation from 1948 to 1961. His 234 wins as a Phillie are even more impressive considering the team lost more games than it won in that stretch. His best statistical season came in 1952, when he went 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA.

"Probably the best fastball I ever saw was Robin Roberts," said Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, who connected for three of his 369 career homers off Roberts. "His ball would rise around six or eight inches, and with plenty on it. And he had great control, which made him very difficult to hit."

He signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Orioles and spent 1962-64 there before winding down his career with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs.

Roberts was a control pitcher who relied heavily on his fastball. He threw strikes, sometimes to his detriment. He gave up only 1.3 walks per game over his career, but also gave up at least 40 home runs in three straight seasons.

"I had a high fastball and I either overpowered them or they overpowered me," he once said.

Roberts started five All-Star games and was placed on the team seven times. His best years came before the Cy Young Award, but Roberts twice was chosen pitcher of the year by The Sporting News. He also was the publication's player of the year in 1952.

Roberts was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976. He remains the franchise's career leader in games pitched, complete games and innings pitched. He was the leader in wins and strikeouts until Steve Carlton eclipsed those marks.

Robin Evan Roberts was born Sept. 30, 1926. His parents, Tom and Sarah, had moved to central Illinois from Wales in 1921. His father was a coal miner and Roberts grew up listening to Cubs games on the radio.

Roberts played baseball, basketball and football at Lanphier High School in Springfield before going to Michigan State, where he starred in basketball and baseball.

"I went out for the baseball team at Michigan State," Roberts once said. "They asked me, 'Well, what do you play?' And I said, 'What do you need?' And they said, 'Pitchers.' So I said, 'Well, I'm a pitcher.' "

During the summers of 1946 and 1947, Roberts pitched in the semiprofessional Northern League for Montpelier, Vt. He signed with the Phillies for $25,000 following his college graduation in 1947. He spent little time in the Phillies' farm system before being called up.

After retiring from baseball, Roberts was a stockbroker and baseball coach at the University of South Florida.

Best-selling author James Michener, who lived outside Philadelphia, once summed up Roberts' career in The New York Times.

"For two generations of fans, he symbolized the best in athletic competition," Michener wrote. "Day after day he went out there and threw that high, hard one down the middle, a marvelously coordinated man doing his job. If he had pitched for the Yankees he might have won 350 games."

Roberts is survived by four sons, one brother, seven grandchildren and one great-grandson, the Phillies said. His wife, Mary, died five years ago.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press