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The Whiz Kids are still going strong

It is almost 15 years since Robin Roberts (top) and Curt Simmons did so much to win a pennant for the Phillies, but they are pitching superbly for different teams now

Dick Sisler, currently a coach for the Cincinnati Reds, was reminiscing last week about the Philadelphia Whiz Kids—a team he has every right to reminisce about. It was his home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers on the final day of the season that enabled those 1950 Phillies to win the National League pennant. "There probably were better teams in the league that year than we were," said Sisler, "but we certainly didn't believe that there were. We all had a feeling of helping one another, and I guess because of that feeling I've kept up pretty well with the guys on that team. Andy Seminick is now managing at Chattanooga, Puddin' Head Jones is an auto salesman in Cincy, Jim Konstanty owns a couple of sporting goods stores in upstate New York, Del Ennis has a big bowling alley in Philadelphia, Eddie Waitkus is a buyer for a department store in Boston and Richie Ashburn is an announcer for the Phillies. Everyone knows where Robbie and Curt are. Somehow they have stayed on top, and it looks like they may go on and on and on forever."

Robbie, of course, is 37-year-old Robin Evan Roberts of the Baltimore Orioles and of 1345 Robin Hood Road, Meadowbrook, Pa.; and Curt is 35-year-old Curtis Thomas Simmons of the St. Louis Cardinals, the man who lives right next door at 1333. Basically because of Roberts and Simmons, the Orioles and Cardinals are off to excellent starts in what now appear to be exciting pennant fights in both leagues. Roberts has started six games that the second-place Orioles have won, and he carries a brilliant earned run average of 1.92. Simmons has a record of 6-3 and an ERA of 2.38 in a National League scramble so hectic that seven of the league's 10 teams played .500 baseball or better during the month of May and one other was just a game under .500.

Once Robin Roberts delivered a classic speech on the thing that has hurt him most over 16 years as a big league pitcher. Addressing a group of high school students on behalf of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Roberts said, "In the long history of organized baseball I stand unparalleled for putting Christianity into practice. I am not prejudiced. I serve up home run balls to Negroes, Italians, Jews, Catholics alike. Race, creed, nationality make no difference to me." This year Roberts is being very unchristian. Although he holds the major league record for giving up homers in a single season (46) and also set a record for the Orioles last year with 35, Roberts has given up only two this year in 75 innings, and his control is once again superb—he has allowed one walk every four innings.

Roberts stuck with his best

Perfect control and the ability to change speeds are what have made both Roberts and Simmons totally different and more interesting pitchers today than they were when they won 37 games for the Whiz Kids 14 years ago. For years Roberts stubbornly resisted throwing anything but his fast ball, on the theory that the fast ball had led him through half a dozen consecutive years in which he won at least 20 games and a dozen in which his total victories were 226. In 1961, however, Roberts had a record of 1-10, and the last-place Phillies cut him loose. The New York Yankees finally picked him up and took him to spring training in 1962, but after he worked 11 innings that spring Roberts was given his release. In a period of less than one month the worst team in the National League decided that it could not use him, the embryo New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s passed him over and the best team in the American League wasn't even willing to hide him in its bullpen. Roberts went back to Robin Hood Road and waited for someone in baseball to call him. The only one who did was Curt Simmons. "I tried to keep his spirits up, that's all," says Simmons.

Finally, early in May, Roberts called Lee MacPhail, the general manager of the Orioles. MacPhail was away from his desk when the phone rang and today admits that he returned Roberts' call mostly out of courtesy. "I can't stress enough how determined Roberts sounded over that phone," MacPhail says. On May 11, during the afternoon before a night game, Roberts worked out secretly in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. The Orioles kept it secret, because they did not want to upset the morale of Art Quirk, a young left-hander who was then stumbling around in the starting rotation. Roberts was impressive, and 10 days later Baltimore signed him and shuffled Quirk off to Rochester. Roberts won 10 games that year, lost nine and had a fine ERA of 2.78; last year he was 14-13.

Tough against the Phillies

Simmons himself had been released by the Phils in May of 1960 but, as he says, "I felt confident even then about my arm and thought that I could win. A few days after the Phils released me Solly Hemus, who was managing the Cards, called me. He asked me about my arm, and I told him that it was fine. He asked if I would be willing to work out and show it off, and I said yes. Later he called me back and said it wasn't necessary, and I signed. I needed work and got some relief assignments. Then I started a game and looked O.K. for a while until I got knocked around. The next game I started was on a beautiful afternoon in Philadelphia, and I beat them 1-0." Since that first win over the Phils, Simmons has beaten them 12 times and lost only twice. With the Cards, through 1963, he is 41-33.

"There has been a lot of talk," says Simmons, "about the time that I got my foot caught in the power mower and that this is what caused me to go bad in Philadelphia. I don't believe that, and I think that too much was made of the whole incident. I was mowing a hill one day at home and pulled the mower back on my left foot. I lost about a half of an inch on my big toe, but it truly didn't bother me that much. When my arm got sore in 1954 and 1955—that is what bothered me. By 1959 I was in real trouble and had an operation on the elbow. Eddie Sawyer, the Philly manager, sent me down to Williamsport. He told me that he needed a starting pitcher for the next year. Actually, I had begun not to rely on my fast ball all the time and had started to change speeds. My strength today is the ability to change speeds and my motion."

There is much more to Simmons' present effectiveness, however. "Curt knows the hitters better than anyone in the league," says Cardinal Manager Johnny Keane. "Every pitcher should study him, and I mean the big league pitchers. He can pace himself. He has the curve, the slider and the change, and he can reach back and get the fast ball. He has the concentration and the maturity, and he challenges the hitters with his mind."

A hex on Aaron

Henry Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves is just one hitter who lately has become bewildered by Simmons. In his last 21 at bats against Simmons, Aaron has had two hits. One of them was a tremendous homer in Busch Stadium, and Simmons is determined not to give Aaron another. "He had us beat this year 6-1," says Henry, "and I came up in the ninth inning. He threw me six pitches. One was a curve ball and the other five were changes. He would not let me see that fast ball. Wouldn't even let me look at it."

Roberts and Simmons must continue to pitch well if Baltimore and St. Louis hope to stay in the thick of the pennant fights. The Orioles have been stirred and rallied by tough Hank Bauer and are winning games now that they probably have no right to win; but that is the way teams win pennants. Last week the Cardinals ran a losing streak to five games, but then steadied themselves. They are beginning to hit—all but Bill White, and he is odds-on to start one day soon. No team in baseball is capable of making so many outstanding plays on defense to help the pitching.

The most pertinent observation about Simmons and Roberts was made last week by Manager Fred Hutchinson of the Reds. "Those two guys are considered old now," said Hutch. "But they are still starting pitchers in front-line rotations. What is going to happen when they get really old and get sent down to the bullpen? What the hell is that going to be like for the rest of us, and how long is that phase of their careers going to last?"