My Friend Doc

The passing this week of a truly wonderful human being and a man I was honored and lucky to have called my friend brought a flood of memories back to me of my times with the man we all affectionately called simply “Doc.”

During 2006 and 2007, I had the privilege of calling the press box my home and reporting on each home game and interviewing Ottawa Lynx players and their nightly opponents. Prior to those seasons reporting for the team, my time was spent in the stands sitting with and chatting to a group of dedicated and devoted fans who rarely, if ever, missed a game.

If truth be told, I began to prefer Triple-A to the majors for many reasons. The tickets were very affordable and there was not a bad seat in the park. I was able to see many future major league stars up close and personal and the outcome of the games really didn’t matter that much– everyone there was trying to get to the show, and we fans were having too much fun. Naturally we wanted our guys to win but loses were usually taken with an “Oh well get them next game” attitude.

Many of the managers and coaches were ex-major leaguers I had grown up watching on television or in Montreal and the vast majority were more than happy to sign an autograph or chat about their playing days. The fun was in the ribbing and my comments about watching them play when I was a kid were met with a good hearted laugh or a feigned disgust at how old I had made them feel.

I began my member of the press experience in April 2006, sitting in the press box with all the veteran local scribes and trying to work my way into their acceptance and confidence. Many had been there from the beginning and had their own routines which not all were at first, willing to share with me. Who had time to help a rook when there were stories to write and deadlines to meet? But eventually they seemed to accept me and I became part of the good hearted ribbing and other press box rituals which went on each game.

The first to take me under his wing, and I still don’t know quite why to this day, was a man everyone simply called Doc. I never knew his real name and back then I don’t know if anyone else did either.

Doc would arrive each game about the second or third inning, always wearing a short sleeved collared shirt with shorts, white socks and running shoes. No matter how cold or rainy it might be, Doc always wore those shorts. He would borrow my scorecard to get up to speed and then we would chat about anything and everything. I found out eventually that he had been a surgeon and had delivered countless babies as well.

Some nights he would delight in describing in much more detail than I wanted a complicated surgical procedure with detailed illustrations and a question period afterwards. My comments of “Gee Doc that was more than I needed to know” were met with a sly grin and a feigned apology.

Doc would usually follow us down to the clubhouse and while we conducted our post game interviews, would answer questions from the players about this ache or that pain and recommend various solutions.  The team doctor never seemed to mind and Doc knew every player in the league it seemed.

His advice always seemed to be simple, logical and to the point and usually successful.

Doc’s first love was boxing and he had spent many years as a corner cut man. He had seen all the greats fight, and we were always asking him for a story about this great boxer or that one. Although he certainly knew his baseball, that was rarely a topic of conversation between any of us when he was around. He lit up the room and made the rounds chatting with everyone but he always spent the majority of the game with me.

I’ve thought of him often in those four years since we lost our team but I never saw him again.  He’s surely up in heaven fixing some broken wings or telling God about the greatest Ali fight ever. The phrase great human being is often tossed around in these days of overhype and lowered standards and the truly great often gone unsung. Not in Doc’s case.

Any player/Any era: Hugh Casey

What he did: Hugh Casey and his contemporaries belong with Deadball Era home run champions or anyone who won a stolen base crown before 1950. Relievers like Casey, Joe Page, and others in the days before high-powered closers transformed late-inning pitching are like a prehistoric breed today. Casey’s National League-leading saves totals of 13 in 1942 and 18 in 1947 might not even rate in the top 10 these days. It certainly wouldn’t make him one of the most feared hurlers in baseball before and after World War II, able to pitch the Dodgers to two World Series, though it’s rumored a spit ball of his got by catcher Mickey Owen in the 1941 Fall Classic and lost it for Brooklyn.

I have to admit I wonder how much better Casey might fare in the modern game, when he wouldn’t have to be a maverick out of the bullpen and could learn from established relief artists. Baseball’s come a long way since Casey’s time when the bullpen was a secondhand consignment shop for arms not good enough to crack the starting rotation. Casey regularly posted far from mediocre numbers, though, and I like to think a man who went 75-42 lifetime with a 3.45 ERA over nine seasons might do ever better in a more favorable era for his talents.

Era he might have thrived in: Casey was a Southerner by birth who ended his professional career in 1950, a year after leaving the majors, helping his hometown Atlanta Crackers to a Southern Association pennant. I’d like to see what Casey could do for the modern Atlanta Braves, and with his ability to both start and finish games in multi-inning stretches, he might have been Atlanta equivalent of Rollie Fingers or Sparky Lyle in the 1970s or ’80s when great closers routinely went three or four innings.

Why: In a lot of ways, Casey was a victim of his times. Besides coming up in a less-sophisticated era for relievers, he lost three prime seasons in the middle of his career to World War II. He of course played at a point in baseball history decades before the abrogation of the Reserve Clause might have made him a millionaire. And Casey’s strikeout average, 3.3 for every nine innings which would seem to preclude him from closing today, might have been a facet of his time as much as anything– prior to the 1950s, I don’t think batters struck out nearly at the rate they do today.

In any event, he’d appear to be well-suited to close in the ’70s or ’80s, and while this might not be enough to get him in the Hall of Fame, since closers from those days like Lyle, Dan Quisenberry, and Mike Marshall remain under-recognized, it might help Casey’s life play out differently. A year after he last pitched for the Crackers, he committed suicide at 37, unable to return to the majors and apparently distraught over a paternity test. Reportedly, the death came after years of heavy drinking and womanizing. Along with Donnie Moore’s suicide and Rod Beck’s drug overdose, it’s one of the saddest ends I can think of for a once-great closer.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

Double The Fun: Walter Johnson Debuts in a Twin Bill Opener

When Walter Johnson took the mound for the Washington Senators on August 2, 1907 to pitch the first game of a double header against the Detroit Tigers, he embarked on a baseball journey that before it ended would see him win 417 games, 110 by a shutout including 38 by a 1-0 score, strike out 3,507 and post a 2.07 earned run average. But since 10 of Johnson’s 21 seasons were with losing Senators’ teams, his overall record was hampered by hard luck losses. On 65 occasions, Johnson and the Senators were on the short end of 1-0 scores.

Some of Johnson’s other outstanding achievements include winning five games (three shut outs) during nine days in 1908, recording 16 straight wins in 1912 and pitching 56 scoreless innings in 1913 when he went 36-7 with a 1.09 ERA.

About those nine days…W. W. Aulick from the New York Times, after Johnson’ third shut out, wrote:

We are grievously disappointed in this man Johnson of Washington. He and his team had four games to play with the champion Yankees. Johnson pitched the first game and shut us out. Johnson pitched the second game and shut us out. Johnson pitched the third game and shut us out. Did Johnson pitch the fourth game and shut us out. He did not. Oh, you quitter!

But, as witnessed by the 3-2 defeat Johnson suffered in his debut, he did not become an overnight success. Even in Johnson’s first game, however, his teammates and opponents recognized his greatness.

Before the double header began, and with Washington abuzz with baseball fever brought out by rumors of young Johnson’s wicked fastball, Senators’ manager Joe Cantillon went to the Detroit bench to boast that his starter was “a great big apple knocker” who would dominate the Tigers with his “swift”. That was bold talk since the Tigers, led by 20-year-old rookie Ty Cobb and future Hall of Famer Sam “Wahoo” Crawford, was the best hitting American League team and the eventual pennant winner.
According to the box score, Johnson allowed only six hits in eight innings before being taken out for a pinch hitter trailing 2-1. Three hits were bunts including two by Ty Cobb who felt that bunting was the only effective counter to Johnson’s blazing hard stuff. The Tigers also knew that Johnson, a raw rookie, would have a tough time fielding bunts.

Right after the game, Tigers’ manager Wild Bill Donavan predicted that within two years Johnson would be greater than the best pitcher of the day, Christy Mathewson. And years later Cobb admitted that the Tigers knew that Johnson would be one of the most powerful pitchers ever to enter the league. About Johnson’s “swift,” Cobb said: “The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him.”

Tigers’ outfielder Davy Jones, the first batter to face Johnson, explained why. In an interview with Lawrence Ritter for The Glory of Their Times, Jones told the author that Johnson’s arms which “were the longest ones he had ever seen” and were “like whips” which helped his effective sidewinder delivery.

Although Johnson ended the 1907 season with a 5-9 mark, his 1.88 ERA was a sign of great things to come.

After Johnson’s career ended in 1927, he managed the Senators and Cleveland Indians before settling on his Germantown, MD farm where he raised purebred cattle and prize birds. Johnson also became a Dr. Pepper spokesman and in 1940 nearly a U.S. Representative. Only a FDR landslide kept Johnson out of Congress.

When at age 59 Johnson died an untimely death from a brain tumor, he had many friends in and out of baseball. The consensus among those who knew the “Big Train” is that he was the finest man to ever wear a uniform.
“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one notable doubleheader in baseball history each week.

Delay on “Any player/Any era”

I’m a little behind on this week’s edition of “Any player/Any era” and will try to have something up this afternoon or evening. Barring that, I should have something up no later than Sunday.

My apologies!

Paul Fagan: The Owner Who Banned Peanuts From the Ball Park

During the 1950s, San Francisco Seals were the most fortunate players in baseball. Paul Fagan, their generous owner, spared no expense to make his squad comfortable. During that era, the Seals had stars-to-be like Ferris Fain, Gene Woodling, Lew Burdette and Larry Jansen to name a few.

Under manager Lefty O’ Doul’s direction, the Seals often (though not always) fielded competitive teams. Fagan, hoping to make the Pacific Coast League the third major league to join with the American and National, kept an eye out for the best players. When he took over the Seals in 1946, Fagan said to previous owner Charlie Graham, “I only know two baseball names—Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio. I don’t know what they will cost. I want ‘em.”

One of the most innovative minds in baseball, Fagan introduced concession stands, upgraded the Seals Stadium ladies room with a million dollar investment and built a spring training facility on Maui. Fagan, whose personal fortune came from his family’s banking businesses and Hawaii real estate made sure his players always traveled first class. The Seals even had large sleeping quarters, a spacious dining area and a soda fountain where they could get ice cream at any time.

On Maui, Seals’ pitcher Cliff Melton developed his famous “Aloha” pitch, a variation of his outstanding sinker that once helped him win 20 games for the 1937 New York Giants.

Given Fagan’s well known propensity to spend money lavishly, the baseball world was shocked when one day in 1950 he declared that peanuts would no longer be sold at Seals Stadium. Apparently overcome by his banker’s green eye shade approach to profit and loss, on February 16, 1950 Fagan issued this announcement:

We lose five cents on every bag of peanuts sold in the ballpark. That’s $20,000 a year. It costs us 7 1/2 cents to pick up the husks and our profit on a dime bag is just 2 1/2 cents. The goober has to go.

Irate fans lit up the Seals’ phone lines with their protests. Some threatened to bring their own peanuts and drop the offending shells everywhere. Newspapers along the West Coast jumped to the peanut’s defense. The Los Angeles Herald Express editorialized:

To many deep, dyed-in-the-wool fans, it was just like ripping the heart out of baseball itself. The privilege of buying, shelling and eating peanuts at the ball game is just too sacred.

Fagan’s only support came from entrepreneurial types who saw an opportunity to sell peanuts outside the stadium to disgruntled fans.

In the end, the objections overwhelmed Fagan. Within 24 hours Fagan issued his second peanut-related press release:

I give up. Mr. Peanut wins. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been beaten and it had to be by a peanut.

By opening day, the peanut had been restored to Fagan’s good graces. Fagan even appeased the president of the National Peanut Council who had charged him with manufacturing a peanut publicity stunt to generate free media for the Seals.

In an interesting non-peanut note, the 1950 Seals ended up its season with one of the most curious records in baseball history: 100-100.

The 10 most memorable strikes in sports history

1. 1994-95 MLB strike: Still the gold standard for labor disputes in organized sports, if mainly because the costs were staggering: work stopped for eight months, no 1994 World Series, and a sport with fan appeal so decimated that steroid use was tacitly condoned thereafter. Tell me what this was all about again.

2. 1998-99 NBA lockout: While basketball players and management were midway into a dispute that forced an abbreviated 50-game schedule for the 1998-99 NBA season, Rick Reilly penned a column for Sports Illustrated referencing the plight of striking Peterbilt truck workers. Reilly wrote of blue collar strikers getting by on a few hundred dollars a week compared with basketball players sweating insurance for their fleets of sports cars. “There are two major labor disputes in America right now,” Reilly wrote. “One of them is a joke.”

3. 1982 NFL strike: Besides the 1994-95 baseball strike or 2004-05 hockey lockout, this ranks as the longest work stoppage for a major American sports league, at least proportion-wise. The NFL wound up with a truncated nine-game season that year and 16-team playoff format.

4. 1981 MLB strike: Baseball lost nearly two months of its 1981 season, and though I don’t hear it talked about as conspiracy, popular union leader and Cy Young-winning relief pitcher Mike Marshall couldn’t get a team to sign him until after the strike ended.

5. 1987 NFL strike: This work stoppage lasted a month and featured one week of cancelled games and three weeks of games with replacement players (together with a few picket line-crossing stars like Joe Montana and Steve Largent.) All in all, this ran a bit like the film The Replacements, only without Keanu Reeves.

6. 2004-2005 NHL lockout: This actually led to the cancellation of an entire hockey season, though I’m not sure anyone cared. I don’t know if that merits higher or lower placement on this list.

7. 1972 MLB strike: This was the first strike in the history of major American sports and The Sporting News called the day it began the darkest in the history of sports. Some teams lost six games from their schedules, others seven, and because of the discrepancy, the Boston Red Sox lost the American League East title by half a game to the Detroit Tigers.

8. 2011 NFL lockout: This could’ve been a lot worse.

9. 1990 MLB lockout: Baseball’s equivalent of the recent football lockout in that some training games got cancelled but things fell far short of nightmare doomsday scenarios folks may have envisioned.

10. 1912 Detroit Tigers strike: American League president Ban Johnson suspended Ty Cobb indefinitely in May of 1912 after he beat a fan in the stands for calling him a “half-nigger.” Supportive Tiger teammates struck in solidarity, and to avoid forfeiting its next game, Detroit management fielded a team of replacements, some with baseball experience, others not so much. Any work stoppage that results in a Catholic priest (Aloysius Travers) taking to the mound and surrendering 24 runs, still a modern day record, deserves mention here.

The Dog Days

Here it is the first week of August and already we see evidence that all heck is breaking loose in Major League Baseball. From incidents of “sweating” on umpires to multiple ejections to head hunting, baseball is once again living up to the old axiom that August brings out the worst in some players. The dog days, here we are.

Major League Baseball is often a grueling long distance race leaving many players on the Disabled List and some unemployed or in the minors. The promise of the first gentle, warm April days often gives way to the cold hard reality of another long and unsuccessful season wrought with failure, injury and harsh criticism from the media. Even seasoned veterans can fall victim to this seemingly most trying of all baseball months. With each passing day, time to overcome any obstacles seems to be slipping faster and faster away. Time to turn an individual’s season around now seems to be the enemy. For some, the whispers of wait until next year are becoming louder and more direct.

It’s not only the players and coaches who succumb to emotional outbursts. Umpires tend to have a shorter fuse and are less tolerant of questions concerning their competence or general rule interpretations.

Such questions or comments which might have been ignored in the previous four months seem more personal and confrontational now. As umpires seek to maintain control, players seek more and creative ways to bargain their way out of situations or bend the rules. Both seem to be walking that proverbial tight rope when there is only room for one.

One would imagine that the distractions of the July 31 trade deadline might have lessened or even been eliminated for some. The uncertainty of will he or won’t he have to uproot his family, get used to another city or league and fit in with new teammates should have come and gone, having been decided one way or another. Either a new happiness and sense of excitement has set in (going to a contender), disappointment in staying with a hopelessly out of the race team, or a huge sense of relief at not changing teams is now setting in. Certainly the July 31st deadline doesn’t mean the end of player movement as we have so often witnessed in the past. Some players will continue to look over their shoulders, wishfully or otherwise, until the conclusion of the regular season.

The pressure keeps building and something has to give. Players who are normally quiet and businesslike can suddenly explode over previously shrugged off borderline calls. The “gee ump that looked a bit low from here” is now replaced by various colorful metaphors and the questioning of an umpires mothers standing in the community. Such actions which in April, May, June, or July would be dutifully ignored or greeted with a knowing smile, become personal and inflammatory in August. The pen may be mightier than the sword but an umpire’s thumb is the mightiest of them all and if the manager doesn’t like it, he is more than welcome to quickly join his offending player in the showers.

The admiration of a long home run, however brief, is not tolerated in the dog days. The phrases unwritten rule and payback are used to justify mid 90’s fastball aimed specifically at the batter responsible for such a now-dire oneuppance. Naturally this action will justify and cause a retaliatory reaction from the opposition and so forth and so on resulting in warnings/rejections or the meeting near the mound of all players from both teams for an exchange of opinions and suggested solutions.

Normally docile fans can also fall victim to the dog days. The frustration of their team’s failures, the success of the opposition or an umpire’s failure to decipher the strike zone or a missed tag can ignite behavior which wouldn’t be tolerated at the biker bar down the street. Even the gentler sex has been known to become an all seeing and all knowing expert umpire, correcting on field decisions with passionate and explicative filled reports and body language.

Grandmothers and little children beware, lock your doors and turn off the lights. At least until September. At least until the dog days are done.

Triple Your Fun: Pirates Play Three, Lose Two

Every week in this space, I write about a doubleheader that either played an important part in a pennant race or had some other historical significance.

Today, I’m ratcheting it up a notch. My subject is the last tripleheader ever played. The amazing event took place at Forbes Field on October 2, 1920 when the Pirates hosted the Cincinnati Reds.

What forced the triple dip was a rain out of the Friday night game. Apparently, little was at stake. The Brooklyn Robins had sewed up first place, the Giants were comfortably in second ahead of the soon-to-be-displaced World Champion Reds with the Pirates in fourth trailing Cincinnati by 3-1/2 games.

The rain out canceled one of the four remaining games on the schedule and meant that the Pirates were dead in their quest for third place: 3-1/2 games back with only three left to play.

But Pirates Hall of Fame owner Barney Dreyfuss recognized that third place was “in the money”.  If his team could sneak into third, his players would qualify for a small World Series share.

Dreyfuss appealed to National League president John Heydler who agreed, over the vigorous protestations of Reds’ manager Pat Moran, to replay the rain out.

Suddenly, the Pirates were alive again. The standings still showed the Corsairs 3-1/2 behind Cincinnati but now with four to play.

With three games on the bill, the opener started at the unusually early hour of 12 noon. Corsair manager George Gibson picked his ace and 24 game winner Wilbur Cooper for the crucial first game. The drama didn’t last long. The Reds bombed Cooper with 10 hits and 8 runs in 2-2/3 innings and won handily, 13-4 thus finally and officially locking up third.

Games two and three were frill. In the second, the Reds shellacked the Corsairs again, 7-3. As evidence of his indifference, Moran started four pitchers as position players. In the third and final contest, cut short by darkness after six innings, the Pirates finally prevailed, 6-0.

The game times are worth noting: the first, 2:03; second, 1:56; third, 1:01. Fans saw three games in exactly five hours or 1:39 less than the Pirates 19-inning marathon on July 26 in the team’s 4-3 loss to the Braves in Atlanta.

Any player/Any era: Vada Pinson

What he did: If baseball awarded the equivalent of Oscars, Pinson would have been a perennial Best Supporting Actor nominee. One of the quintessential role players of the 1960s, Pinson did many things well, hitting for average and power, stealing 305 bases lifetime, and finishing just shy of 3,000 hits. He was never really a star, overshadowed by Cincinnati Reds teammates like Frank Robinson and Pete Rose, though Pinson placed as high as third in MVP voting in 1961 when he led Cincinnati to the World Series. In another era, a fellow blogger told me, Pinson might have been more.

Era he might have thrived in: Arne Christensen of Misc. Baseball suggested Pinson could make a good pick here, noting in a recent email:

His game of speed and some power would have really shined in the astroturf ’70s and ’80s.

Arne may be on to something. Astroturf is something of a bygone novelty in baseball, seen less and less these days, but in the era Arne suggests, speedy sluggers like Andre Dawson, Barry Bonds, and Eric Davis were regular threats in carpeted stadiums and beyond to hit 30 home runs and steal north of 30 bases. Pinson might have figured aptly into their ranks.

Why: First of all, count Pinson as another great hitter who may have missed out on the Hall of Fame because his prime years happened to fall in the 1960s. Like Jimmy Wynn, Frank Howard, Bob Watson, and maybe a few others from this decade, Pinson might have had a better shot at Cooperstown had he not peaked at a time that so clearly favored pitchers. As it stands, he went the full 15 years on the writers ballot for the Hall of Fame, and if he’s not a viable Veterans Committee candidate today, he at least rates an honorable mention.

Maybe the ’70s and ’80s weren’t the 1920s or ’30s or late 1990s, able to add 40 batting average points and 50 to 100 home runs to Pinson’s lifetime totals. But it’s likely his .286 batting average and 256 home runs would rise enough in any other time in baseball history since the Deadball Era to get him enshrined. He might not approach Dawson’s 438 home runs, but he’d surely increase his .327 to .323 advantage in on-percentage and have a chance at 3,000 hits (and near-automatic enshrinement.) And one can only wonder how many more bases Pinson would have stolen than Dawson’s 314.

Pinson played from 1958 through 1975, and I suspect if he’d debuted even 10 years later, he might have had 100 more steals lifetime, minimum. Almost simultaneous to Pinson’s best seasons in the early and mid ’60s, speedsters like Luis Aparicio and Maury Wills were helping make the stolen base popular again in baseball. Perhaps Pinson had the talent to steal 20 to 30 bases a year whatever his era, though I’d like to think that in the ’70s or ’80s, he’d have been around coaches who could have refined his craft. And the Astroturf would have surely sped his step.

Pinson died of a stroke at 57 in 1995 and is buried in Richmond, California, not far from where I currently sit writing this post in Berkeley. I suspect that as more time passes, Pinson will be increasingly forgotten. That’s a shame.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

Robin Roberts Before and After the Philadelphia Phillies

Last week, I wrote about how Robin Roberts carried the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1950 National League championship.

For most baseball fans, with the exception of old timers who live in the Philadelphia area, Roberts is linked to the Phillies forever and all time.

But, in truth, Roberts had a rich and rewarding life long before and long after he wore a Phillies jersey.

Born in Springfield, IL., Roberts arrived in East Lansing, Michigan as part of Army Air Corp training program. After World War II, Roberts returned to Michigan State College to play basketball where he led the Spartans’ in field-goal percentage in 1946–1947, captained the team during the 1946–1947 and 1949–1950 seasons and earned three varsity letters.

After his second basketball season Roberts tried out for the Spartans’ baseball team as a pitcher because it was the position that coach John Kobs needed most. After playing for Michigan State and spending his second summer in Vermont with the Barre–Montpelier Twin City Trojans, Roberts signed with the Phillies in 1947 for $25,000. With the money, Roberts bought his mother a house.

Roberts repaid the Phillies handsomely. Between 1950 and 1955 Roberts won 20 games each season, leading the National League in victories from 1952 to 1955. Six times he led the league in games started, five times in complete games and innings pitched and once pitched 28 complete games in a row. During his career, Roberts never walked more than 77 batters in any regular season. In addition, he helped himself as a fielder as well as with his bat, hitting 55 doubles, 10 triples, and five home runs with 103 RBI.

His 28 wins in 1952, the year he won The Sporting News Player of the Year Award, were the most in the National League since 1935 when Dizzy Dean also won 28 games.

Roberts followed up his 28 wins with another outstanding season. In 1953, he posted a 23–16 record and led NL pitchers in strikeouts with 198. In a career-high 346⅔ innings pitched, Roberts walked just 66 batters and his 2.75 ERA was second behind Warren Spahn’s 2.10.

A memorable Roberts’ career highlight came on May 13, 1954 when he gave up a lead-off home run to the Cincinnati Redlegs’ Bobby Adams but then retired 27 consecutive batters to win 8–1 on a one-hit game.

Roberts stayed with the Phillies until 1961. The following year Roberts signed with the New York Yankees but was released during spring training. Noting that April is bad time to get cut because other squads are set, Roberts said: “I didn’t know what to do. I was thirty-four years old.”

At the urging of his old friend and scout, Cy Perkins, Roberts signed on with the Baltimore Orioles. Perkins had once told Roberts that he would pitch a shutout when he was 40. Roberts pitched effectively for the Orioles; for parts of four seasons, Roberts went 42-36, 3.09 ERA.

From Baltimore, Roberts went to Houston were he continued to pitch well; 8-7, 2.77 during two seasons. Now 40, the end was approaching for Roberts. At the end of his last season with Houston, Roberts recalled: “I found my arm swelling up and had an arm operation to correct the problem.”

In 1966, Roberts joined the Chicago Cubs as the team’s pitching coach and spot starter. At the end of the year, Roberts elected not to return to the Cubs but instead chose to pitch in Reading of the Eastern League. In a bargain he made with himself, Roberts agreed to pitch until June 1st. If no team picked him up, he would retire. Although Roberts pitched well by notching a 5-3 mark that included the shutout Perkins predicted, he had no major league suitors.

After Roberts retired, many asked if he was sorry that he never reached 300 wins (286).  Roberts answered that “What I really was striving for was to pitch until I was forty-four or forty-five. I knew if I could do that, the wins would take care of themselves.”

The Phillies never gave Roberts much help. After 1950, the team was consistently at the bottom of the standings. After his professional baseball career ended, Roberts worked in an investment firm, did sports radio broadcasting and coached at the University of South Florida.

In 1976, six years after he became eligible, Roberts was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.