It is, perhaps, nothing more than a footnote to a Hall of Fame pitching career, but the remarkable run of 38 year-old Robin Roberts with the Houston Astros in the late summer of 1965 is testimony to his greatness and adds to our understanding of Roberts as a masterful pitcher and fierce competitor. His once sizzling fastball, the one that Pittsburgh slugger, Ralph Kiner, called “the best fastball I ever saw,” was long gone, the victim of too many 300 inning seasons. Roberts now got by on pin-point control, a sweeping curveball and guile.
Roberts began the ’65 campaign as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. After going 5-7 as a part of the starting rotation, Roberts was relegated to long-relief and spot starting. In late July, worried as he said that, “If I continued in my current role… this would be my last year in baseball “, Roberts asked for and was granted his release.
As a free agent, Roberts first offered his services to the team for which he had pitched for 14 seasons and for which he had earned 234 victories. The Phillies, one year removed from the famous collapse of September 1964, were still a good team trying to launch a pennant run, but general manager John Quinn said “Roberts does not fit into our plans.” It was not the first time the Phillies and others had given up on Roberts. In the winter of 1961 after a 1-10 campaign, the Phillies sold their fading ace to the New York Yankees. Roberts never threw a pitch for the Bronx Bombers in the regular season and was released in May. He then hooked on with the Orioles and showed he was far from washed up by winning 42 games for the O’s over the next three-plus seasons.
After being rejected by the Phillies this time, Roberts signed with the Astros, where general manager Paul Richards was famous for his pitching reclamation projects. The Astros promised to use Roberts as a starter. Manager Lum Harris, with an apparent strong sense of irony, assigned Roberts to start against his old mates, the Phillies. And thus began a new chapter for the determined right-hander. Over the next two months Roberts would start 10 games, win five, lose two, throw two shutouts and three complete games while posting an earned run average of 1.89. And these statistics, remarkable as they are, tell only part of the story.
On August, 9, 1965 before a crowd of 31,206 at the spanking new Astrodome, Roberts strode to the mound for his first start in the National League since the 1961 season. He was opposed by another aging veteran, Lew Burdette, closing out his fine career with the Phillies. Roberts mowed down the talented Phils squad with a complete game shutout. He allowed only 4 hits (three to Tony Gonzales), walked one and struck out six. Roberts, always a good hitter, even chipped in a double. His new teammates, including a young Joe Morgan, helped out by jumping on Burdette early and often for an 8-0 victory.
The newspapers had a field day with the story the next day declaring that Quinn had found out that Roberts did indeed fit into the Phillies plans – as an opposing pitcher. Robbie, however, was just getting started. Richards instructed Harris to give Roberts a week off to recover and then run him out there again. Richards appeared to be of the opinion that Robert's old arm needed a bit more rest than a younger pitcher’s. True or not the philosophy seemed to bear fruit when Roberts faced the Pirates on August 16, again in the ‘Dome.
Roberts was dominant once again allowing only four hits along with two walks and seven strikeouts. He retired the last 13 batters in order and did not allow a runner to reach third base. The Hall of Fame tandem of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell went 0-for-7. Roberts and long-time Pirates ace, Bob Friend, managed to complete the game in one hour and fifty-eight minutes. The shutout was Roberts’ 44th.
Five days later, on August 21, Harris abandoned his week of rest plan for his hottest pitcher and ran Robbie out against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Roberts responded with his third consecutive complete game victory. His scoreless inning streak ended at 24 when he gave up 2 runs on an Ellis Burton double and a Don Landrum single, but those runs came after the Astros had built a 6-0 lead on home runs by Jimmy Wynn and Frank Thomas. Roberts final line: nine hits, three walks and three strikeouts.
The Astros traveled to Philadelphia and Connie Mack Stadium for a three game set from August 24-26, with Roberts scheduled to pitch the getaway game. The Astros had already won the first two games of the series, when Roberts took to the Connie Mack mound for the first time in four years. His mound opponent was the new Phillies ace, Jim Bunning. Scuffling through six innings, during which he allowed 11 hits, Roberts non-the-less held the Phils to four runs (three earned) keeping his team in the game. The ‘Stros eventually rallied for the victory aided by some shoddy Philadelphia defense. Reliever Dave Giusti got the win.
In New York on August 31, Roberts continued his outstanding pitching and garnered his fourth win without a loss in five starts. This time out he went 8 and 1/3 innings in a 4-3 decision. The righty allowed seven hits, while walking two and striking out three. Another former Phil, Jim Owens, got the final two outs after Roberts had given up back to back singles to the Mets’ Ron Swoboda and Joe Christopher in the ninth.
Roberts’ first loss in an Astros uniform came on September 5th at the hands of the first place Los Angeles Dodgers and their ace left-hander Sandy Koufax. In this one Roberts matched the magical Koufax pitch for pitch and entered the 9th inning leading 2-1. A leadoff single by Maury Wills and a botched bunt resulted in runners on second and third after errors by Roberts and second baseman Morgan. Robbie almost wiggled out of the jam, popping up Willie Davis and Ron Fairly, but Jim Gilliam won the game for the Dodgers driving in two with a triple.
Roberts’ second loss came 5 days later in Los Angeles. This time Robbie drew the second half of the dynamic Dodger duo, Don Drysdale. Both Roberts and Drysdale allowed only 2 earned runs, but errors by Wynn in center and Rusty Staub in right led to three Dodger unearned runs. Adding insult to injury, Drysdale had two hits including a homerun off of Roberts. Surprisingly, this was the first home run allowed by Roberts as an Astro. The man who gave up more home runs than any other pitcher in history (until Jamie Moyer passed him recently) had given up only one home run in 57 innings. In fact, he would not give up a home run the rest of the way, ending with 1 home run allowed in 76 innings pitched. No doubt working in the pitcher friendly Astrodome had some influence on these numbers.
The next time out, on September 15, Robbie pitched 7 strong innings in a no decision against the Willies, Mays and McCovey, and the rest of the San Francisco Giants. Mays drove in the only earned run Roberts gave up with a fourth inning single. The Giants eventually won the game on a Willie McCovey single off Giusti in the ninth.
Giusti was again the loser in Roberts’ next start on September 25 against Cincinnati. Roberts pitched five shutout innings before being replaced by Giusti, who gave up one run over three innings, but the Astros lost to the Red’s Jim Maloney who twirled a shutout.
Robbie finished out the season by notching his fifth victory with the Astros, pitching seven strong innings against the St. Louis Cardinals. The big hit of the game was Roberts’own two run double in the second inning that put the Astros in the lead for good. Tim McCarver’s double in the 7th plated the only two runs that Robbie allowed.
So there it is; a remarkable run of pitching by a remarkable pitcher in the twilight of his career. Two weeks after the season ended, Roberts had surgery to remove bone chips in his pitching elbow. There can be little doubt that he put up these remarkable numbers with a sore arm. Roberts would hang on for one more season in the bigs, before finishing his career with the Phillies minor league affiliate in Reading, PA. At 40, perhaps still trying to recapture the magic of that late summer of 1965. After putting up good numbers in Reading, Roberts left the club in June and went home waiting for the phone to ring. It never did.
The Bottom Line:
Won - Loss