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Whiz Kids ace dies at 83

Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, a star of the 1950 Whiz Kids who stayed connected to the 21st-century Phillies, died Thursday morning at his home in Temple Terrace, Fla.

Vincent DiMezza of Blackwood salutes the statue of Robin Roberts outside Citizens Bank Park before Thursday's game. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Vincent DiMezza of Blackwood salutes the statue of Robin Roberts outside Citizens Bank Park before Thursday's game. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, a star of the 1950 Whiz Kids who stayed connected to the 21st-century Phillies, died Thursday morning at his home in Temple Terrace, Fla.

Mr. Roberts, 83, died of natural causes. He is best known as the staff ace of the 1950 Phillies, a team that captured the franchise's first National League pennant in 35 years before being swept in the World Series by the New York Yankees. The hard-throwing righthander went 20-11 for the Whiz Kids, including a pennant-clinching victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers on the final day of the season, triggering citywide celebrations.

Mr. Roberts' link to the current Phillies lived on Thursday even after the news of his death saddened team employees and many of the players who got to know him in recent years.

Phillies rightfielder Jayson Werth had the most interesting relationship with Mr. Roberts because both men were from Springfield, Ill.

"I would always go over his house and he'd give me an update on the kid from Springfield," said Jim Roberts, the youngest of Robin's four sons.

When Werth stepped to the plate at Citizens Bank Park in the bottom of the first inning Thursday afternoon against the St. Louis Cardinals, Jim Roberts' 18-year-old daughter, Jennifer, had a premonition.

"She said Werth was going to hit a home run just for Pops," Jim said from his home in Temple Terrace. "And then he did. There were quite a few tears in our living room at that point."

Told about Jennifer Roberts' prediction after the game, Werth rubbed the goose bumps on his arms.

"That's [amazing] right there," the Phillies' rightfielder said.

Mr. Roberts' impact on the Phillies spanned seven decades, but was at its peak in the 1950s, when he emerged as the greatest righthanded pitcher in franchise history. He joined the Phillies in 1948 after spending four years at Michigan State, where he first played on the basketball team.

During his junior season, Mr. Roberts told Michigan State baseball coach John Kobs he also wanted to play the sport for the Spartans. According to a 2002 story in the New Educator, a newsletter published by Michigan State, Kobs asked Mr. Roberts what position he wanted to play, and the response from the basketball player was, "Whatever position you need the most."

Kobs needed a pitcher.

"He hadn't played at Michigan State, but he was a big-time star in high school," said Robin Roberts Jr., the eldest of Mr. Roberts' four sons. "Basketball was by far his favorite sport. He was a basketball junkie. But he thought he could play baseball, too. He was a third baseman most of the time in high school, but I think the captain of the [Michigan State] team was the third baseman, so he told him he could pitch. He had pitched some in high school, but not a whole lot."

Baseball and pitching turned out to be outstanding career moves for Mr. Roberts. The Phillies signed him in 1948, and in 20 starts as a rookie that year, he went 7-9 with a 3.19 ERA. The following season he was 15-15 with a 3.69 ERA in 43 games, including 31 starts.

In 1950, his career with the Phillies took off as he won 20 games for the first time. Manager Eddie Sawyer became so dependent on his ace late in the season that he started Mr. Roberts three times in the final five games. Bob Miller, also a pitcher for the Whiz Kids, said Mr. Roberts had no problem taking on the extra workload.

"His attitude was, 'Give me the ball, we've got to win,' " Miller said. "There was no such thing as a pitch count or a quality start. You either won or you lost. He was the best in the league, so there was no sense in throwing anybody else. He was the best competitor I've ever known. He'd sit on the bench during a game and never talk to anybody. It was total concentration all the time."

Mr. Roberts lost his only World Series start, in Game 2 against the Yankees, surrendering a leadoff home run in the 10th inning to Joe DiMaggio at Shibe Park. The Phillies lost that contest, 2-1, and the Series in four games.

Although the Whiz Kids were the youngest team in the National League during their World Series run, they never finished above third place after that 1950 season. Mr. Roberts, however, continued to be among the best pitchers in baseball. He won 21 games in 1951 and had arguably his best season the following year, going 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA. In each of the next three seasons, he won 23 games.

"He threw probably 90 percent fastballs," Miller said. "He could have won every damn game he pitched if they'd have scored more runs."

Mr. Roberts remained with the Phillies through 1961, when he went 1-10 with a 5.85 ERA. That marked his third straight losing season, but not the end of his big-league career. His No. 36 was retired by the Phillies the following year.

"He would never tell you this, but as sure as I'm sitting with you here right now, I know the last four or five years he pitched with a bad arm," said Dallas Green, who was a teammate of Mr. Roberts' in 1960 and 1961.

Even with an aging arm, Mr. Roberts went 52-46 in his final five seasons with Baltimore, Houston, and the Chicago Cubs before he ended his 19-year career at the age of 39. He finished with a 286-245 career record, a 3.41 ERA, and 305 complete games. His 242 wins were the most in Phillies history.

Mr. Roberts was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976 and never missed an induction at Cooperstown after that. He also briefly joined the Phillies' broadcast team that year, working Sunday games on the radio with Andy Musser.

Eventually, he went to work in the business sector, working for Janney Montgomery Scott and Lehman Brothers.

David Montgomery said his life in baseball could be traced to a serendipitous meeting with Mr. Roberts in 1971. At the time, Montgomery was coaching Mr. Roberts' two middle sons - Dan and Rick - at Germantown Academy. The meeting led to Mr. Roberts' introducing Montgomery to Bill Giles, who was working in the Phillies' promotions department at the time.

Montgomery is now the Phillies' president.

"That meeting gave me a chance to work in baseball," Montgomery said. "My mother and Robin exchanged Christmas cards for years, and I think she thanked him every year for taking me off the streets and getting me employed."

Mr. Roberts got back into baseball as the head coach at the University of South Florida in 1977. His youngest son, Jim, started for him all four years, but one of his best memories from that time of his life had nothing to do with the South Florida baseball team.

It had to do with a trip to downtown Tampa.

"In 1980, he and I drove from our house [in Temple Terrace] to downtown Tampa because there was a radio station in Clearwater that carried the Phillies' games and we couldn't get it at our house," Jim Roberts said. "The Phillies were playing the Expos with the division on the line and we drove down so we could hear it."

In 1985, Mr. Roberts retired from the job at South Florida, and in recent years he really reconnected with the Phillies organization, attending spring-training games, talking to players, and religiously watching the team on television.

"He never stopped being a Phillie," Robin Roberts Jr. said. "I don't think he missed a game. When they were in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I knew better than to call him because he was staying up until 2 a.m. watching the game."

In addition to his four sons - Robin Jr. of Blue Bell, Dan of Temple Terrace, Rick of Athens, Ga. and Jimmy of Temple Terrace, Mr. Roberts is survived by brother John of Springfield, Ill., seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild. The funeral will be Monday at 6 p.m. at the Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Temple Terrace. Donations can be made to the Baseball Assistance Team or Gold Shield Foundation.