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With ace in hand, game comes alive

Memories are vivid as pitching great Robin Roberts, 77, views the exhibit "Baseball As America."

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
Published December 12, 2003

On the inside of the frame, Robin Roberts is eternal.

Roberts stares ahead, his eyes narrowed, his jaw set, the way it has been for almost a half-century now. There is an element of cockiness to the image, that of a young man who believes so firmly in his youth and his ability that he believes it will last forever. Inside the frame, it will.

On the outside of the frame, where mortals get older, the man with the gray in his hair leans forward and squints.

He is 77 now, the speed of a changeup and closing in on a fastball. Still, the eyes are the same. The ears. The chin. The bearing.

It can be a poignant moment, watching a man look upon the image of what he was. Not with Roberts. He stares for a long moment at the colors of his youth, and he gives you the easy smile, and he begins to talk about time and Time.

"Let me tell you a story," he says.

As easy as that, the moments begin to flow.

It is Wednesday, and Roberts is at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg, walking through the exhibit "Baseball As America." For an hour and a half, he wanders through the displays, talking about the wonderful mix of men and moments, of the names of your youth and your father's, of a game and the way it has attached itself to our lives.

Roberts moves through the place as if it were his living room in Temple Terrace, telling stories the way a patriarch would talk of photos in the family album. And why not? At one point or the other, Roberts' life had intersected that of the men in the exhibit.

He is a Hall of Fame pitcher, a man who won 286 games. For six straight seasons, he won 20 games or more. For 12 straight seasons, he was the opening day pitcher for the Phillies.

And, for the day, he is your tour guide.

Roberts is standing in front of a portrait of himself, painted by Henry Koerner for a 1956 Time magazine cover. At that point in his career, Roberts seemed invincible. He was only 29, and he already had 160 victories.

"It was at Jack Russell (Stadium), out in the bullpen area," Roberts said. "I had to pose for him for four or five days in a row, about 15-20 minutes at a time. I took a lot of grief for it. The rest of the team would just sit and let loose with their catcalls."

Roberts laughs.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw what he had come up with. I guess it turned out all right."

Out of the room, and up the stairs, the exhibits begin. There is Hank Aaron's jersey, and a scrawled letter from a racist next to it. There is a photo of Babe Ruth.

"I met the Babe in '48," Roberts said. "It was in spring training, in March. He was coming toward me with a sportswriter. I reached into the ball bag and grabbed a new ball and asked if he would autograph it for me. He said "Sure, kid,' in this gruff voice.

"He died in August of that year of throat cancer. Someone offered me $10,000 for the ball a couple of years ago, but I didn't sell it. One day, I came in and it wasn't in our living room anymore. I asked Mary (his wife) what happened to it. She said she put it in a safety deposit box."

Roberts moves across the room, toward the Jackie Robinson exhibit. He remembers being in college and driving to see Robinson play in Montreal back in '46, before Robinson broke the color line. That night, Robinson had a single, a triple, a home run and a steal of home.

Later on, Roberts would pitch to Robinson as much as anyone. Robinson ended up with 40 more at-bats against Roberts than anyone else. He hit .271.

The names and the numbers come easily to Roberts, and his anecdotes need no prompt. For instance, when he passes the famous painting Three Umpires by Norman Rockwell, the one where the umps are deciding whether to call the game because of rain, Roberts starts pointing out which ump was which.

"That's Beans Reardon," he said. "That's Lou Jorda. That's Larry Gaetz. The manager is Billy Meyer. I'm not too sure about the Brooklyn manager. Leo Durocher, maybe." (Actually, it was Clyde Sukeforth.)

The umps in Three Umpires were real umps? Who knows that?

Roberts knows. He also can tell you about Eddie Gaedel, the 3-foot-7 batter sent to the plate by Bill Veeck, and the number "1/8" uniform he was wearing. It belonged to Bill DeWitt Jr., a former batboy and now a part-owner of the Cardinals. He can tell you who was pitching (Bob Cain) and who was catching (Bob Swift) and who pinch ran (Jim Delsing). He can tell you that Wrigley Field was originally built for the old Federal League of 1913.

Roberts looks at a piece of memorabilia involving former Tigers great Ty Cobb, a fierce, often disliked competitor. He remembers listening to Cobb talk before a Hall of Fame baseball game. Someone, Roberts said, was impressed with the number of hits Cobb had compiled.

"I wish I had a few more friends and a few less hits," Cobb said.

Roberts talks about home runs, of course. He gave up more than any pitcher who played major league baseball. He gave up 505 over his career, including a then-record 26 in 1956, when he fell one victory short of 20.

"There was a guy in Japan who gave up more than I did," Roberts said. "I always say I send him a Christmas card every year. But I don't."

Roberts turns the corner and laughs out loud when he sees a picture of Max Patkin, the old comic who mistook baseball for Vaudeville. He grins when he sees a mock-up of a Life magazine cover featuring Geena Davis, which was a prop for the movie A League of Their Own.

The exhibit Roberts can't quite get over, however, is the player transfer of Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. Everyone remembers that happened in 1919. How many remember it was Dec. 26?

"Merry Christmas," Roberts said. "Maybe that's why the Red Sox were cursed."

As baseball exhibits go, this one is user friendly. It's not just a collection of old baseball equipment ("Look, there is Bill Dickey's mitt. And Wee Willie Keeler's mitt. And Eddie Collins' mitt.") There are some chuckles here, and some memories, and some questions. How, exactly, did the pop group Culture Club get an invitation?

At one point, Roberts looks into a case containing bats from Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

"That's not a good thing for a pitcher to see," he says, laughing.

Nearby are bats in an exhibit that allows the visitor to pick them up and compare their heft. McGwire's bat, it says, weighs 33 ounces. Ruth's weighs 39. The bat of Edd Rousch, the former Reds' outfielder, weighs 47 ounces. It feels like something that should have barbed wire stretched across it to keep the cattle inside.

"You've got to be kidding me," Roberts says.

Roberts stops in front of another glass case. He grins. "Let me tell you a story," he says.

When he was in Baltimore, late in his career, Roberts was taken out of the game for a pinch-hitter. He went to the clubhouse, as was the custom of the day, and listened as the hitter grounded out to short. A couple of minutes later, the player, a young outfielder, came into the clubhouse.

"How did you do, kid?" Roberts asked, even though he knew.

"I grounded out," the player said.

"Hell, I could have done that," Roberts said.

And that, history should note, was how Roberts said hello to Lou Piniella.

The exhibit isn't just about major league baseball, though. There are nods to movies such as The Natural, Field of Dreams and It Happens Every Spring, which starred Ray Milland, Roberts' old golfing buddy. Roberts stops in front of the Wonderboy bat from The Natural and asks if you knew Robert Redford played high school baseball with Don Drysdale. (No, you didn't.)

He passes another exhibit featuring Ted Williams. Roberts laughs about all the hitting theories Williams' developed during his career.

"I used to tell him: Before you learned how to hit, you hit .401," he said.

He talks about Stan Musial, his old buddy. "He'll never hit with that stance," Roberts said.

Roberts laughs. He repeats one of Musial's old stories. Musial was always in a chipper mood, it seemed. One day, a young player asked him about it in spring training. "Why are you always so happy?"

Musial replied: "If you knew you were going to hit .340, you'd be happy, too."

He kept moving, and talking, and laughing. About the Hall of Fame. About how free agency has lessened the bond between modern-day player and fan. About this player and that one.

Finally, he had seen enough. He moved toward the door.

On the wall in front of him, there was a large portrait of Lucille Ball in a baseball uniform with Desi Arnaz.

"I never pitched to her," he said. "But to Lucy, I would have thrown fastballs."

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