Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, center, is greeted at home plate… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
Though he pitched for the Orioles in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, Robin Roberts was remembered by teammates Thursday as an accomplished right-hander whose savvy and work ethic helped shape the young staff that would one day carry Baltimore to two World Series championships.
Roberts, born in 1926 on a farm outside Springfield, Ill., died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Temple Terrace, Fla. He was 83.
Long a star with the Philadelphia Phillies, whom he led to a National League pennant in 1950, Roberts won 20 or more games in six straight seasons during his heyday. But fame, and his fastball, were behind him in 1962, when the aging castoff signed with the Orioles as a free agent for $30,000 — about half his top salary with the Phillies.
At age 35 and coming off a season in which he had won one of 11 decisions, Roberts wasn't expected to anchor the Kiddie Korps, a rotation of 20-somethings that included Milt Pappas, Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada and Jack Fisher.
But Roberts did just that.
He went 10-9 that season with an ERA of 2.78 — second-best in the American League — for the seventh-place Orioles. Roberts' success in 1962 earned him the Associated Press Comeback Athlete of the Year Award.
Orioles pitchers took note.
"Us young guys hung around Robin and listened to him and watched him," Pappas said. "What a fantastic human being. His work ethic just melted into you."
Rejuvenated, Roberts won 14 games in 1963 and 13 the next year.
"I wasn't surprised at his turnaround," said slugger Jim Gentile, the Orioles' first baseman. "We knew we were getting a premier pitcher who'd go out there and go nine for us.
"Robin knew how to pitch, and he was a great teammate and a gentleman to boot."
Gentile recalled that as a rookie with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he had hit his first home run off Roberts in 1957.
Five years later, when Roberts joined the Orioles, Gentile said, "He came over, handed me a pencil sketch of himself and said, 'Just so you don't forget who you hit your first homer off of.'"
Roberts' ego failed to match his Cooperstown credentials (286 victories and 45 shutouts), teammate Dick Hall said.
"He was down-to-earth, a lot like Brooks [Robinson]. Success never went to Robin's head," Hall said.
Pitchers weren't the only ones to benefit from Roberts' knowledge. Boog Powell recalled a road trip in 1964 when the two were up until 4 a.m. talking about hitting. Powell, then 22, listened intently.
"The next day, I hit three home runs," Powell said. "I told Robin, 'Hey, old man, you're stuck with me for the rest of your life.'"
A night owl Roberts was not.
"I roomed with him once on the road," Pappas said. "I wanted to watch 'The Tonight Show,' but Robin turned off the TV at 10 o'clock and said he was going to bed.
"I turned it back on. He turned it off. We went back and forth a couple of times until, finally, Robin got up, pulled out the plug and tore it off of the cord."
Pappas' response: "I told him, 'Maybe I'll do the same thing when I get to be your age.' And we laughed."
In mid-1965, the Orioles released Roberts, then 38. By then, he had won 42 games for the club and left his mark on another set of fledgling arms — pitchers such as Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Wally Bunker — who would take the club to its first world championship a year later.
"All of the young guys picked Robin's brain," Robinson said. "He had a nice, smooth, effortless delivery. It was classic Jim Palmer."
Or vice versa.
Time and again, Robinson said, the graying Phillies' Whiz Kid told Palmer, "'Use your fastball. It's the best pitch you've got.' And Palmer listened."