By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
He belted three home runs in Game 2 of the 1971 National League Championship Series hitting behind Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
And he’d club two more during the 1971 World Series to help the Pittsburgh Pirates defeat the Baltimore Orioles in seven games.
For his postseason heroics, Bob Robertson remains a hero in the Steel City 50 years later.
“Bob Robertson could hit a ball out of any park — including Yellowstone,” Bucs announcer Bob Prince once quipped.
But did you know that the “Mount Savage Strong Boy,” as Prince used to call Robertson, played his final 15 major league games with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1979?
Early in the 1979 season, the punchless Blue Jays, coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons, were looking for an experienced right-handed hitter to spell John Mayberry at first base and Rico Carty at DH. Robertson had been employed in a similar role by the Seattle Mariners in 1978 and the 32-year-old infielder had gone to spring training with the Kansas City Royals in 1979 but was released near the end of camp.
Hobbled by back and knee woes, Robertson was clearly in the twilight of his big league career, but the Blue Jays decided to take a flier on the veteran who could still sock the occasional moon shot home run.
Born in Frostburg, Md., in 1946, Robertson was raised in Mount Savage, Md. In high school, he showcased prodigious power, once belting a home run that travelled 500 feet.
His talent caught the eye of the Pirates who signed the red-haired, thick-armed slugger on June 10, 1964. From there, he quickly established himself as one of the most promising power hitters in the minors. During his ascent up the Bucs’ ranks, he socked 30 or more home runs at three different levels, which had scouts comparing him to Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner.
Robertson began his pro career at the hot corner but was converted into a first baseman in 1967, the same year he made his major league debut. It was initially difficult to find a spot for him on the Bucs’ roster. The Pirates had Willie Stargell and Al Oliver, both young and excellent hitters who were also destined to be first basemen.
After batting just .208 with one home run in 32 games for the Pirates in 1969, Robertson enjoyed a breakout big league campaign in 1970, hitting .287, while smacking 27 home runs in 117 games.
He’d wallop 26 more home runs in 1971 and finish 10th in the National League with a .484 slugging percentage. But he’d saved his best for the postseason.
In Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants, Robertson, batting fifth behind Clemente and Stargell, connected for three home runs and a double in the Pirates’ 9-4 win. With that performance, he became the first Pirate to have a multi-home run game in the postseason and he also set a record for most total bases (14) in a playoff game. St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols equaled that mark in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series.
Robertson’s power outburst helped the Pirates down the Giants in four games and advance to the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles.
The O’s took the first two games of the Fall Classic and the Bucs faced an all but must win in Game 3. With the Pirates clinging to a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh, Robertson walked to the plate with Stargell on first and Clemente on second and nobody out. Bucs manager Danny Murtaugh flashed Robertson the bunt sign. The right-handed hitting slugger, who rarely bunted, missed the sign. From his vantage point at second, Clemente sensed this and tried to call time, but it was too late. O’s left-hander Mike Cuellar was already in his windup. In full swing mode, Robertson proceeded to belt the pitch over the right-centre field wall at Three Rivers Stadium for a three-run home run. Even Murtaugh could be seen chuckling in the dugout after what had transpired.
Many credit that home run with turning the tide in the series, which the Pirates ended up winning in seven games.
That postseason would be the peak of Robertson’s career. Hampered by a bad back and sore knees, his batting average and home run output tumbled to 12 in 1972 and he was reduced to part-time duties by 1974.
At the end of spring training in 1977, the Pirates released him and he sat out that season before he was signed by the Seattle Mariners for the 1978 campaign. With the M’s, he’d hit .230 with five home runs in 64 games.
Following that season, he signed with the Royals but was cut just prior to the start of the regular season. This opened the door for the Blue Jays to come to an agreement with him on April 23, 1979. He made his debut with the club two days later when he grounded out in a 10th inning pinch-hit appearance against Rangers closer Sparky Lyle in a Blue Jays’ 4-3 loss.
On April 28, he’d belt his only home run with the Blue Jays. In that contest, he entered the game as a pinch-hitter for Ted Wilborn (who had run for DH Rico Carty) in the fifth inning and struck out on a breaking ball from Brewers starter Bill Travers. Robertson’s strike out drew boos from the normally placid Exhibition Stadium crowd.
But Robertson redeemed himself later in the game. Heading into the bottom of the eighth, the Blue Jays trailed 3-2 and Rick Bosetti lead off with a solo home run to tie the game. Robertson then walked to the plate and smashed a fastball over the left field fence to give the Blue Jays a 4-3 lead.
Robertson’s first hit and home run with the club would drive in the winning run in the Blue Jays’ eventual 5-3 win. But the veteran slugger wasn’t pleased with the Blue Jays fans after the game.
“I was disgusted the way the fans reacted because I don’t think they really understood my situation,” Robertson told reporters. “I heard some boos which I didn’t feel very good about.”
“I’ve only been here a few days and I haven’t had that much batting practice,” continued Robertson. “They threw me a breaking ball that I just happened to miss (in the fifth inning strikeout). I thought it (the fan reaction) was quite unfair. But I came up (in the eighth) and figured, well, I’ll go up this time and look for the fastball. I got a good one and hit it.”
That home run would be the highlight of Robertson’s short tenure with the Blue Jays. He would only record two more singles with the club, both coming off Baltimore Orioles lefty Mike Flanagan in a 7-6, 11-inning Blue Jays’ loss at Exhibition Stadium on May 18.
Ironically, in the bottom of the eighth inning of that contest, Robertson was asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt (similar to Game 3 of the 1971 World Series) after Bosetti and Otto Velez had singled to start the frame. This time, Robertson got the bunt down, but O’s first baseman Eddie Murray quickly fielded it and threw Velez out at third base.
Over the next month, Robertson saw spot duty at first base and as a pinch hitter, but didn’t register another hit. In June, he would go 18 days between appearances, so it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise when the club released him on June 27.
In all, Robertson batted .103 (3-for-29) in 15 games with the Blue Jays. Those 15 contests would be his last in the major leagues. In total, in his 11-season big league career, he hit .242 with 115 home runs in 829 games.
After hanging up his playing spikes, Robertson returned to Maryland, but would later serve as a hitting coach in the Houston Astros’ organization for four seasons with the Columbus Mudcats (double-A, 1990), Asheville Tourists (class-A, 1991-92) and with the Osceola Astros (High A, 1993).
Robertson and his wife, Carolyn now reside in Lavale, Md.
In 2015, Allegany County commissioners honoured him in a ceremony at the county office. He was presented with a framed photo from his three-home run game during the 1971 NLCS and the politicians announced that the Opening Day of the 2015 major league season (April 6) would Bobby Robertson Day in Allegany County.
The ceremony made it clear that the “Mount Savage Strong Boy” was still a hero in his home county, much like he is in Pittsburgh, 50 years after his postseason heroics. But what few remember is that this legendary Pirate ended his major league career north of the border, as a Blue Jay.