Saturday, June 23, 2018

Ed Roebuck, one of the last 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series champs, dies at 86

Ed Roebuck, one of the last links to the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 World Series championship team, passed away June 14, 2018 in Lakewood, California. He was 86.

The right-handed relief specialist made his major league debut in 1955 after breaking camp with the Dodgers out of spring training. Manager Walt Alston gave him the heavy task of being the team’s closer and for the first few euphoric months in the big leagues, Roebuck answered the call.

“The first half of the season I was in almost every save possibility there was,” Roebuck told me during a 2010 interview in New York. “I think I led the club in saves that year. You could come in the fifth inning or the ninth inning. There wasn’t [a] right or left hander specialist; you’re in the bullpen and you could go in the first or the ninth.”

1956 Ed Roebuck Dodgers Photo / Author's Collection

By the middle of July, Roebuck was firing on all cylinders. He led the team in saves and held an ERA that hovered around two; however, his good fortunes would change quickly. At the end of the month, he had two consecutive rough outings against the Milwaukee Braves and suddenly he went from Alston’s stopper to mop-up duty.

“[Clem] Labine took over and I didn’t get to pitch after that, and when I did, I got racked up,” he said.

Fortunately, for Roebuck, his rocky start did not exclude him from the postseason roster. He made one appearance in the 1955 World Series, pitching two scoreless innings in Game 6.

“I wasn’t expecting to pitch in the series,” he said. “I was just happy to be there.”

Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, the thought of Roebuck playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers was a remote one. After starring at Brownsville High School, Boston Red Sox local scout Socko McCary followed Roebuck so closely that most felt he would certainly sign with Boston once he turned 18.

“He moved in with us almost,” Roebuck said. “He would come out there every day and it was sort of a known fact that when I became eligible, that I was going to sign with the Red Sox.”

At the urging of his brother, Roebuck reluctantly attended an open tryout while awaiting his 18th birthday. Little did he know that day would alter the course of his professional baseball career.

“There was a tryout camp, and my brother who was sort of my guiding interest said, ‘Let’s go to the tryout camp,’” Roebuck recalled. “I said, ‘Gee, I don’t know, they want you to throw as hard as you can, run as hard as you can, and nothing ever comes out of it.’ He said, ‘Let’s go anyhow.’ So we go up there and apparently, I did pretty well and then I forgot all about it.”

The venerable Branch Rickey had his spies working to uncover baseball talent from every corner of the country. Unbeknownst to Roebuck, while McCary was cozying up to his family, Rickey’s charges had their eyes on the young righty the entire time.

“In 1948 while pitching for the coal mining team at that workout, the Bowen brothers had scouted me,” Roebuck recalled. “I didn’t even know anything about them. They did the hard scouting on me. I didn’t even know they existed because they were secretive about everything. I [never] talked to them before.”

Once he was on Brooklyn’s radar, nothing was going to get in the way of the Dodgers pursuit. They navigated muddy dirt roads deep into the rural community where Roebuck lived to convince him to go to Brooklyn.

“Jim Murray came over to where we lived,” he said. “We really lived in the boondocks. Most times, you couldn’t get a car back there; it was all lanes and muddy and so forth. One day this big Buick drives up there and the man says, ‘I want to take you to Brooklyn.’ I said, ‘It’s all right with me if you get the okay from my brothers and my mother.’ So he drove me there and I worked out at Ebbets Field. I had a good workout, they took me up to the office, and actually Branch Rickey signed me.”

At the tender age of 17, Roebuck had the intimidating task of sitting across the desk from Branch Rickey during his contract negotiation. He called his trusted brother for backup.

“He [Rickey] was a little scary really,” he said. “Actually, they didn’t want to make me a bonus player. The contract they offered me, I told them I’d have to check with my brother, who was going to have to check with the Red Sox to see if they were offering what [the Dodgers] were offering. My brother called back and said that the Red Sox couldn’t do that and to go ahead and sign with them, so that’s how I started.”

Immediately, the Dodgers placed Roebuck with their Class B team in Newport News, Virginia for the 1949 season. Rickey was so confident in Roebuck’s abilities that he debuted in a league where most of the players had a few years of minor league seasoning under their belts. It proved to be a rocky rookie experience for Roebuck, as he posted an 8-14 record with a 4.64 ERA.

“I think because of being signed in Brooklyn by Rickey, they put me in too high of a league to start,” Roebuck said. “There were 30-year-olds in that league and I was only 17. I had a hard time at Newport News.”

Not to be discouraged, Roebuck rebounded from another losing season in 1950 with 14 wins for Class A Elmira in 1951. His steady performance set him to go to their top farm club in Montreal, only one step away, although it was a big one, from the major leagues. For three seasons, Roebuck toiled with the rest of Brooklyn’s prospects eagerly awaiting his call to the show.

The Brooklyn Dodgers minor league system had a wealth of talent, primarily due to Rickey’s keen baseball eyes. With close to 30 minor league teams, their system was often a breeding ground for the rest of the league’s talent.

“There were just so many players in front of you in that organization,” he said. “When I first went with the Dodgers in spring training, there were 636 players. Many shortstops never made it because of Pee Wee [Reese] — Billy Hunter, Don Zimmer, Bobby Morgan, Chico Fernandez, etc.”

One of Roebuck’s Montreal teammates who was in this cluster of players awaiting one of Brooklyn’s All-Stars to vacate their position was Roberto Clemente. Playing together in 1954 after Clemente signed as a “bonus baby” prospect from Puerto Rico, he recalled the antics the Dodgers went through to try to hide his talents so another club would not draft him.

“He was one helluva good looking prospect,” Roebuck said. “They really messed him around because they didn’t want him to get drafted. The Pirates had their top scout follow us around in Montreal all year, Clyde Sukeforth. You knew it was going to happen.”

It happened for Roebuck too, as the Dodgers gave him his start in the major leagues the next season. From his seat in the dugout, the rookie hurler was thrilled just to be able to watch his future Hall of Fame teammate operate from field level.

“I remember in Ebbets Field sitting in the dugout and you would watch guys like [Gil] Hodges hitting, and you would have to look up,” he recalled. “Usually when you are that close to the action in baseball, it’s not all that glamorous, but it was glamorous for me. All those big guys were doing the ballet. There is so much balance and power at the same time. [Roy Campanella] was something to watch from the dugout. It was something to be associated with that outfit at the time.”

Roebuck solidified the Dodgers bullpen for the next three seasons, helping the team to return to the World Series in 1956 against the New York Yankees. An arm injury during the 1958 season put his career in jeopardy and subsequently caused him to miss the Dodgers 1959 World Series victory. The Dodgers sent him to their Triple-A team in 1959 to pitch and play first base while he recovered.

“The major league rule came in and I couldn’t play winter ball,” he said. “I never had a sore arm in my life. … Johnny Podres and I worked over at the Dodgers place and didn’t do any throwing. It was terrible. My arm was so fine-tuned and I hurt my arm by not pitching. I made a comeback and tore all those adhesions loose. The Dodgers told me I would never pitch again because I had too much scar tissue in there.

“A scout, Kenny Myers (who signed Willie Davis) told me that he thought we could do something, but it was going to be painful. By the time the summer was over, I went back to the big leagues. I would just get against the chain link fence and throw as much as it would let me. Then he would twist my arm and stretch it. He was paralyzed in the service and he had some experience with that. It was he who got me back to the big leagues. In St. Paul in 1959, I hit five home runs and gave up [only] four in 200-something innings.”

Roebuck followed the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, eventually making his home in Lakewood. He welcomed the change while other Brooklyn mainstays resisted.

“We as a family wanted to go, my wife and me, because it was new territory and new fertile ground,” he said. “I know Duke wanted to go. I don’t think guys like Hodges and some of the guys who had homes in Brooklyn wanted to go. I didn’t think O’Malley would do it. … My family was happy to go out there.”

While he found the Los Angeles Coliseum favorable as a pitcher, he lamented the challenge his teammates faced trying to hit there, especially Duke Snider.

“It was much tougher to pitch in Ebbets Field,” he recalled. “You saw some fluke home runs in the Coliseum, but you also saw some line drives hit to the screen that would be home runs somewhere else. You would have to bomb the ball to get it out in right field. It was a shame what Duke Snider had to go through when we went out there.”

Roebuck played with the Dodgers halfway through the 1963 season until he requested that they trade him to the Washington Senators. He wanted to join his old friend Hodges in the nation’s capital.

“In 1963, I didn’t pitch that much,” he recalled. “I went to Fred Patterson to tell Bavasi that I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to go with Hodges. Buzzie calls me in the office, tells me that I will always be part of the Dodgers, and the next day I was traded.”

While Roebuck got what he wanted by moving to the Senators to reunite with Hodges and pitch more often, he faced a clubhouse culture unseen with the Dodgers.

“It was a big disappointment going from the Dodgers to the Senators,” he said. “Almost all of the Dodger teams were winners. It dawned on you when you are there, that those guys are going for me. I’m going to have a good year and I don’t have to worry about winning or losing. We get a couple of hits, grab a couple of beers, and get ‘em tomorrow.

“Some of these young teams have a lot of talent but something always happens. They’ve not matured to where they know how to win. The first thing that you noticed was that the Dodgers or Yankees, they knew how to play the game. It was just a feeling. You know how to win or have been winning and take it for granted. The same thing goes the other way when you’re used to losing; you are going to play your best, but the Yankees are going to win.”

Roebuck continued to play in the majors until 1966 with the Senators and Philadelphia Phillies, which included being a part of the Phillies ill-fated collapse during the 1964 pennant race. He spent one more season in the Pacific Coast League with the San Diego Padres in 1967 before finally calling it quits.

He stayed in the game as a scout for the next 30 years, citing his most prized pupil as Bert Blyleven. He helped the Hall of Famer develop his legendary curve ball coaching him in a winter scout league.

“We had a winter team for kids in high school,” he said. “I was managing this team. We would invite all these people graduating the next year to play with us in the wintertime. I helped him. He didn’t have a real good spinning curve ball when he played there. It was more of a slider / slurve.”

Ed Roebuck (r.) with the author in 2008 / N. Diunte
Wrapping up our talk at a Westchester, New York hotel on the evening before a 2010 autograph show appearance, Roebuck admitted that this would be the last show he was going to attend. He was growing weary of the cross-country travel and didn’t enjoy it as much now that most of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates were gone. As he further reflected on his place in baseball history, he humbly admitted that even though he spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, he felt he just blended in his entire career.

“I was just holding on most of the time,” he said. “You know, I never really had time to smell the roses because if you don’t do the job, you’re history. After I finished playing baseball, I realized I was one of the 25 people there.”

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