A hard-nosed competitor, Roberts ranks as the winningest righthander in Phillies history. A baseball and basketball star at Michigan State, Roberts was disappointed when assigned to Wilmington of the Inter-State League his first pro season, 1948. He wasn’t there long; the Phillies recalled him in June when he ran up a 9-1 record. In his first full season, Roberts won 15 games. In 1950, he helped pitch the Phillies to their first pennant in 35 years, going 20-11. When he won his 20th on the final day of the season at Brooklyn, in a pennant-deciding, 10-inning game, he became the Phillies’ first 20-game-winner since Grover Alexander in 1917.
Roberts won 20 games six straight years, from 1950 to 1955, with league highs in wins for four straight, starting in 1952, when he went 28-7. Six times he led the NL in games started, and five times in complete games and innings pitched. He once pitched 28 straight complete games in an era when relief pitchers were regularly employed. He was able to get the outs he needed with men in scoring position, and he helped himself as a fielder and at the plate.
His Achilles’ heel was the home run ball, but in his prime he rarely gave one up with men on base. He allowed 46 in 1956, then a major league record. Primarily a power pitcher until late in his career, Roberts had a smooth, flowing motion and threw strikes consistently. Though he pitched over 300 innings in six straight seasons, he never walked more than 77 batters.
All those innings may have taken their toll with shoulder problems that began in 1956. He went 19-18 that season, breaking his 20-win streak. No longer able to muster overpowering speed, he had his worst and most frustrating year in 1957. Though the Phillies were contenders for the first half, Roberts struggled, finishing with only 10 wins, and losing a league-high 22 games.
After going 1-10 in 1961, Roberts was sold to the Yankees, but was released in April 1962, without pitching an inning. But he had made the mental adjustments to become a finesse pitcher. He signed with Baltimore and had a winning record there for three years. Released in mid-1965, he signed with Houston, then moved to the Cubs in 1966, winning his final ML game that September. Roberts was not ready to hang it up at age 40, and joined the Phillies’ Eastern League Reading farm club with hopes of returning to the majors.
In his prime, pitching was easy for Roberts, who used to say, “Too many people try to make it more complicated than it really is.” He was active in the players’ union during his ML time, and served as head coach of the University of South Florida in Tampa and roving minor league instructor for the Phillies. He was made a member of the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA in 1976.