By Don Leypoldt
The NECBL does not give out a Cy Young Award. It bestows the Robin Roberts Award to the League’s Top Pitcher, a fitting tribute to one of baseball’s greatest pitchers and one of the League’s best allies.
Robin Roberts was honored posthumously at the 2010 NECBL Hall of Fame dinner… 34 years after he was inducted into that “other” Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Arguably the greatest right-handed pitcher of the 1950s, Roberts amassed 286 wins, seven consecutive All-Star selections and six 20-win seasons in an incredible career.
“Robin Roberts was one of my heroes as a young baseball fan in Philadelphia,” recalled Chris Wheeler, who has spent 42 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, the last 36 in the broadcast booth. “I've learned since working in the game that many times it's best never to have someone meet their idol.
“Nothing could be further than the truth with Robin. Until they day we lost him, Robin remained a role model and a first class man. He always was accessible and loved to talk the game.”
Roberts led the Phillies, for whom he played the majority of his career, to their first pennant in 35 years as the ace of the 1950 Whiz Kids. “Bad” doesn’t do justice to some of Roberts’ Phillies’ predecessors. From 1933 until 1947, the year before Roberts’ rookie season, the Phillies never finished above .500 and won less than 36% of their games. Roberts didn’t just win a pennant; he helped to change a culture.
“He was like a diesel engine,” Roberts' teammate and fellow Phillies starter Curt Simmons commented to Phillies.com in May 2010. “The more you used him, the better he ran. I don't think you could wear him out. The end of the 1950 season, I was in the Army and I think Bob Miller had a bad back. I know Robin had to throw almost every day.” 1950 was the first of six straight years in which Roberts threw at least 300 innings.
The Springfield, IL native and Michigan State Spartan- Roberts was probably a better basketball player than pitcher as a collegian- was second in wins, second in strikeouts and ninth in ERA in the decade of the 1950s. Roberts did this despite playing on just four above .500 ballclubs in his first 14 seasons and routinely facing folks named Musial, Mays, Aaron, Mathews and Snider.
The Phillies retired his number 36 in 1962, while he was still playing in the Majors. Seven years later, Philadelphia fans voted him as the Greatest Phillie in History.
But before all that, Roberts had to be a farmhand. Just after World War II, Roberts spent the 1946 and 1947 seasons with the Twin Cities Trojans in Montpelier, VT. Robbie’s home park, Montpelier Recreation Field, is the same one the Vermont Mountaineers use today.
“Robin’s connection to Vermont was kind of a fluke. He was a walk-on baseball player after playing two seasons of basketball for Michigan State,” relayed Vermont GM Brian Gallagher. “He was the basketball team captain and led them in field goal percentage.”
Continued Gallagher, “The Michigan State baseball coach asked him what he was doing at the field. He said ‘I’m trying out and I can play your game coach.’ When asked what he could play, Robin asked back, ‘What do you need?’ He was told pitching and Robin said he could pitch. He pitched well and on the last day of the ’46 season he faced rival Michigan in the final game. Michigan coach Ray Fisher also coached in Montpelier in the Northern League in the summer and after the game, Ray sent another player to ask Robin if he wanted to come to Vermont.”
Needless to say, Roberts was lethal in the Northern League, throwing a no-hitter in both seasons and reaching the Majors in 1948, one season after he went 18-3 with a 2.33 ERA for Twin Cities. Roberts received $175 a month while in Vermont “and had a phenomenal time. We didn’t have any outside jobs,” he wrote in his book My Life in Baseball. In the same book, Roberts lavishly praised Twin Cities pitching coach Ray Fisher for helping him get to the Majors.
Perhaps it was paying it forward while learning from Fisher. Perhaps it was just his love for the game. Either way, Roberts served as the head coach of South Florida’s baseball program from 1977 to 1985. He took the Bulls to their first NCAA tournament.
“When I hear from the guys who played for me and they say that they had a positive experience, then that is great. Baseball was wonderful for me, as you can imagine,” Roberts told USF’s website in an April 2009 interview. “We had a great time together. I have had four of them make the Major Leagues. It was obvious that when I saw them that they had that potential. It was wonderful that it worked out for them.”
“Robin remained current and was void of the bitter feelings that sometimes emanate from athletes of another era about today's players. Robbie loved baseball and followed the game religiously,” Wheeler noted. “We would have him on the air and he knew today's players, plus he was spot on about their strengths and weaknesses.
“You could never draw him into a conversation that's today's pitchers are less talented than those of his generation because they don't pitch deeper into games. Robin was a complete game machine. But that was the way they played when he pitched,” Wheeler continued. “Today's game is dominated by bullpens and he understood and respected that times had changed.
“He also felt like he was compensated fairly when he played and didn't spend a minute thinking about what he would have made in today's game.”
“I met Robin over induction weekend in Cooperstown in 2002 and told him that a group of Vermonters were hoping to renovate the ballpark he played in to try and get into the NECBL,” recalled Gallagher. “I asked if he would come to Vermont if we were successful and he agreed to come up from his home in Florida for a game.
“He did way more than that as he made many return trips over eight years,” Gallagher said. “He donated his time on our board of directors, participated in fundraisers like autograph signings, golf tournaments, banquets and at the ballpark. Each year he would attend a game and would sit in the dugout with the team and get to know the players. Robin throwing out a first pitch to his grandson Curt from the same mound he pitched at 60 years before was a special sight.”
On July 21, 2003, the Mountaineers held Robin Roberts Night in front of 3,000 people. Robbie had his number retired on the evening where he made his first appearance in Vermont in 56 years. Governor Jim Douglas proclaimed Robin Roberts Day in Vermont and Roberts began his service as an Honorary Director of the Mountaineers. In 2010, the year he passed away, the NECBL renamed its Top Pitcher Award after Roberts. The Mountaineers have had a Robin Roberts Award, given to the Vermonter making strides to the Big Leagues, for several seasons.
Roberts made 472 starts for the Phillies and Philadelphia native Don Leypoldt, Sr. followed just about every single one of them. “Two things came to mind about Roberts,” Dad would always say. “He was a tremendous control pitcher. And he was always a gentleman and a class act.”
Stats support the first item. A power pitcher with simple and flawless mechanics, Roberts threw almost 4,700 Major League innings and barely walked 900 batters. Anecdotes galore support the second. Roberts was universally liked and respected: a true “Stand Up Guy” so honored by the NECBL posthumously in 2010.
“Robin was a hero of mine and I had the thrill of competing against him a little bit at the start of my career and the tail end of his,” remembered 25 year veteran Jim Kaat. “(Control and gentleman) are very accurate. He conducted himself like a real professional and the things he accomplished with a last place team- 28 consecutive complete games and six seasons of 20 wins or better.
“He was very influential in the foundation of our Players Association,” Kaat noted, “and getting the pension benefits and others today enjoy. I don’t know how many players today realize the influence that Robin Roberts had with that.”
“He was one of the finest men I've ever met, period,” former South Florida coach Eddie Cardieri told the Tampa Bay Times when Roberts passed away. “I was blessed, so blessed to have those years on his staff. A great baseball man, totally first class, very humble and very baseball bright.”
“Robin Roberts was a Phillies treasure, a Hall of Fame pitcher and a Hall of Fame person," added Phillies president David Montgomery.
“It is really difficult to put into words what Robin meant to his adopted state of Vermont and to all of us that got to know him in the eight years he worked with us on the board,” described Gallagher. “He was so down to earth and his family is the same way. When I went to Florida for Robin's service, they invited me to join the family at his house before and after the ceremony. They treated me like one of them and we all shared great memories about Robin.
“What many people don’t know is that Robin seemed to collect people like some people collect baseball cards. He always took time to get to know individuals and learn about them and make you feel like you were his best friend. On his last trip to Vermont he went out of his way after a long flight to see and sit with an old friend at Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington. The friend was unresponsive in a coma at the hospital but Robin was there at age 83 to give comfort to his family. Robin was a devoted husband and family man and often talked about what his kids and grandchildren were doing.”
Former Phillies owner Bill Giles said it best to Phillies.com in eulogizing Roberts: “When I think of Robin, there is definitely one word that comes quickly to mind -- class. He was a class act both on and off the field. He was definitely one of the most consistent quality pitchers of all time, and the way he lived his life was exemplary. Every young baseball player should model their life after Robin.”
Robin Roberts was a great friend to the NECBL… and a Hall of Famer in all aspects of life.