ON MAY 13, 1954, Robin Roberts gave up a leadoff home run to Cincinnati Reds third baseman Bobby Adams at Connie Mack Stadium. He then retired the next 27 batters he faced.
Warren Giles was the National League president at the time. His 19-year-old son, Bill, was listening to the game on the radio. Among the crowd of 6,856 at 21st and Lehigh was 7-year-old Dave Montgomery.
Years later, Giles was working in the Phillies organization. Montgomery was coaching football at Germantown Academy, whose roster happened to include two of Roberts' sons. Roberts eventually introduced Montgomery, a recent Wharton School graduate, to Giles, who hired him on the spot. Montgomery later succeeded Giles as Phillies president.
It's not really surprising that Roberts, who passed away of natural causes yesterday morning at age 83 at his home in Temple Terrace, Fla., would be the link to that piece of Phillies history. For more than 60 years, he was not only the greatest righthanded pitcher in franchise history but a thread that ran through the organization and baseball, first as a player and later as a beloved ambassador.
He is one of just four former players with a field named after him at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Fla., and a statue honoring him at Citizens Bank Park. Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Rich Ashburn are the others. He was the ace of the 1950 Whiz Kids rotation, the only Phillies team to appear in the postseason between 1915 and 1976. The team retired his number. He was the first inductee to the Phillies Wall of Fame in 1978. He was an occasional visitor to the clubhouse both in spring training and during the regular season and avidly followed the Phillies.
"He would call numerous times. 'Did you see that play Jimmy made last night? That was unbelievable,' " recalled longtime media relations director Larry Shenk, now vice president of alumni relations. "He was a special human being, very special."
Montgomery called him a "Phillies treasure" and added: "I'm very proud of the relationship that Robin had with this club. Yes, he was a Hall of of Fame pitcher and his stats speak for themselves. But first and foremost for all of us here, he was our friend. We will miss him."
He came back to Philadelphia every year to help the organization by meeting and playing golf with sponsors and suiteholders and was scheduled to be in town next month.
He was such an integral part of the organization that he was given a championship ring after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. "I'm ready for another ring," he told director of team travel Frank Coppenbarger this spring.
He also had a wider impact in the game. Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, he served on the board of directors and returned without fail to Cooperstown, N.Y., for induction weekend each year. He was also instrumental in helping hire Marvin Miller as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966.
"Known as one of the greatest pitchers of his era, Robin's legacy extends far beyond the diamond," current executive director Michael Weiner said in a statement. "Robin played an important role in establishing the Major League Baseball Players Association as a bona fide labor organization by helping the players of his day understand the benefits to be gained by standing together as one."
Yet he was also respected by ownership. "Robin truly loved baseball and had its best interests at heart," commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "We will miss him."
Schmidt thought of him as a friend. "Robin will always be remembered for his Hall of Fame pitching career, but those closest to him will remember him more for his dedication to his family, the players association, the Hall of Fame and his coaching influence on young men at many level," he said. "He was a special guy. Anybody who knew Robin or had a chance to work with him in any way knows what a kind man he was."
Opposing players admired him as well. St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon remembered facing him in 1966 when Roberts was with the Chicago Cubs and in his final season.
Shannon was on his way to being named the National League's Player of the Month for July but, on this day, he went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly. "He stopped my [10-game] hitting streak. He was finished at the time, but the old man showed the kid who was boss that day, I can tell you that," he said with a laugh.
Baseball is a story told through statistics and Roberts certainly had eye-popping numbers. He made 609 big-league starts and completed almost exactly half of them (305), including 28 straight at one point. He had at least 20 wins and 300 innings pitched for six straight seasons (1950-55). He made the All-Star team 7 straight years. He won 286 games. He pitched 19 years in the majors, the first 14 with the Phillies, before finishing with the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros and Cubs.
Roberts was both durable and tough, remembered senior adviser Dallas Green.
"I watched Robbie a long time, and the thing I can remember more than anything is with a man on third and less than two outs, he'd kick it up another notch and they didn't score. That's what made him real special," Green said. "And he stayed in the game. He was a pretty good hitter, an excellent fielder. He did everything a pitcher had to do to stay in the game, and, of course, the manager kept him in there.
"Back in those days, that's what you were paid to do. You were paid to go nine innings. These five or six innings we have today . . . Robbie pitched a lot of years with a bad arm. We didn't have the medicine and stuff we have today, so he grit his teeth and did what he did."
Even if he had done nothing else in his career, he would have secured his place in Phillies history for what he did in 1950 when he made three starts in 5 days at the end of the season, including beating the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game to send his team to the World Series.
"One in a million," said Whiz Kids teammate Bob Miller.
Said Phillies lefthander Jamie Moyer, who graduated from Souderton Area High School and attended Saint Joseph's: "He's meant a lot to the city. He's meant a lot to this organization. When things happened, in pregame ceremonies, he was always included. People always appreciated him. People knew a lot about him and his career. It wasn't like, 'That was the guy who pitched back then.' He was very well-respected in all walks of life."
Added centerfielder Shane Victorino: "Everybody knows how good he was. He wasn't a Hall of Famer for no reason. People know. We lose another legend in Phillies history. It's unfortunate again. I saw him in spring training. It seemed like he was fine.
"I look up on the scoreboard. I see the Phillies' all-time leaders. In fact, I was looking [Wednesday] when I went out for stretching. You look at some of the numbers and it's like, jeez, just everything he did. Everything around here is him, Schmitty, Richie Ashburn, Harry Kalas. These guys are legends in Phillies history. These are guys who made the Phillies who they are."
The organization has planned a variety of tributes. A moment of silence was observed before yesterday afternoon's game and Phanavision played a video highlighting his remarkable career during the second inning.
His No. 36 jersey will hang in the dugout both at home and on the road for the rest of the season. Beginning with tonight's game against the Braves, a No. 36 patch will be worn on the right sleeve of the team's uniform tops.
The Phillies' 1950 National League pennant will fly at half-staff. A black drape will be hung on his Wall of Fame plaque in Ashburn Alley and his portrait in the Hall of Fame Club; his statue at the First Base Gate will be adorned with a wreath.
Roberts was a standout basketball player at Michigan State and became head baseball coach at the University of South Florida after he retired. He also was a roving minor league pitching instructor for the Phillies.
Giles told a story about the day, 60 years ago, when his father was still running the Cincinnati Reds and invited him to drive from the team's training site in Tampa to Clearwater. "He said, 'I want to show you a young pitcher. He just got out of Michigan State University.' It was Robin Roberts. He said, 'He's going to be a great one, Bill,' " Giles said.
"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. The way he lived his life was exemplary."
Roberts' wife, Mary, passed away in 2005. He is survived by four sons: Robin Jr., of Blue Bell; Dan and Jimmy, both of Temple Terrace; and Rick, of Athens, Ga.; one brother, John, of Springfield, Ill.; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandson.