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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Throwing Hard Easy: A Review of Robin Roberts' Memoires

Baseball fans often get lost in the recollections of former players retelling their life journey through the game. A great example of this hardball trip down memory lane is Throwing Hard Easy: Reflections on a Life in Baseball by Robin Roberts with C. Paul Rogers III (University of Nebraska Press).

First published in 2003, the memoires of Roberts, a National Baseball Hall of Fame right-handed pitcher who had a 19-year major league career with four teams (most notably the Philadelphia Phillies), is now available in paperback.

Roberts, who passed away in 2010, was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball during his career, which spanned from 1948 through 1966. He posted a career record of 286-245 with a 3.41 ERA. Needless to say, this book is not short on stories and analysis of some of his more memorable experiences.

Throwing Hard Easy is in Roberts’ voice and he does an excellent job of describing his rise from humble origins to a professional pitcher who once won 20 or more games in a season for six consecutive years (1950-1955). Attributing his success to hard work, passion for the game and good fortune, he displayed a modesty not often associated with athletes who attained the kind of success he did. However, the last few words of the book are a wink and a nod to the fact that he recognized his physical talents, as he asked, “Surely it wasn’t all luck, was it?”

A highlight of Roberts’ recollections is the description of his relationships he made throughout his career. In particular, his closeness with former teammates like Richie Ashburn and Curt Simmons, and coach Cy Perkins, display the kind of deep connections that can be forged in team sports.

Interestingly, on the other side is the revelation that Roberts had a decided lack of connection with managers throughout his career, claiming he rarely had anything other than simple “Hello” conversations with his skippers. He doesn’t go into great detail explaining why, but there is the general sense he always believed his job was to take the ball when asked and get out batters. To him, something so simple didn’t require elaborate discussion

Even though Roberts professes he barely acknowledged statistics like ERA until late in his career, numbers are an important part of this book. Not only are his own stats recounted in close detail, but so are those of teammates, opponents and important games. This is both good and bad, as the numbers provide important context but are so plentiful they sometime slow down the narrative.

Roberts’ tenure in baseball coincided with the early days of integration in the game. Although he touches on the topic throughout Throwing Hard Easy, he doesn’t goes into the type of detail that would have been intriguing to see from a former player of his caliber.

Perhaps the most compelling revelations from Roberts are regarding former Baseball Players Association head Marvin Miller. Roberts was active as a player representative during his career and then became an integral part of strengthening the union after he retired. One of his biggest contributions was supporting the candidacy of Miller as union chief even though he was not the consensus first choice, or even a necessarily popular choice initially with the players.

Although Miller went on to revolutionize the union and set salary and benefits in a whole new stratosphere, Roberts was very open in stating he didn’t always agree with the methods. As a baseball man through and through, he wanted players to be compensated fairly while also maintaining the integrity of the game. He described Miller in one passage by saying, “He often acted like he was just a hired union gun who had a very narrow view of his job and was not at all concerned about the welfare of the game of baseball.”

Roberts also talks about the 1994 MLB strike and how he got involved in contacting many throughout the game in an effort to aid negotiations to bring about its end. He believed the work stoppage was a black eye for the game and while the advances made by the players over the years were good, they also diminished the game in some ways. A realist, he acknowledged, “Of course, baseball will continue on its current path because of the way it is structured… The owners and players will continue to slug it out through collective bargaining every time the labor agreement is up for renegotiation, each side seeking only its own selfish interests and ignoring the fans.”

Throwing Hard Easy is an excellent baseball narrative. This paperback edition has additional features from the original version, including new photos, a foreword by Roberts’ son James, and a new introduction by Rogers.

Roberts wasn’t as flashy and well known a star as some of his contemporaries like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, but he became one of the all-time greats and had the incredible insight and stories one might expect from a player of his status and longevity. Any baseball fan interested in finding out more about them would benefit from reading Throwing Hard Easy.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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