Ed Roebuck: Fungo hitter extraordinaire

Relief pitcher Ed Roebuck, who spent two months of the 1963 season and another one in ’64 with the Senators, was one of the game’s greatest fungo hitters. As a child, according to Paul Hirsch’s SABR bio essay, Roebuck liked to pass time hitting stones with a stick. The pitcher became so good at making contact with the long skinny fungo bats that he was called upon in 1962 to help determine how high to make the roof of the Astrodome in Houston.

My ’64 Topps card

Once he made the majors with the Dodgers, Roebuck began to practice hitting long fungo flies in whatever direction he chose. He first began to try it after the Braves’ Joe Adcock had blasted a homer off him that went over the roof at Ebbets Field, Larry Merchant of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote in 1964. The next day, Roebuck, with his fungo bat, duplicated Adcock’s feat.

As the Dodgers traveled to the other National League cities, Roebuck would try to launch balls as far as he could. “He drove one over the distant right field roof at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field,” Merchant wrote. “He got one over the scoreboard at Connie Mack Stadium” in Philadelphia. “And of course, he had to put one in the bleachers at the Polo Grounds” in New York.

But D.C. Stadium frustrated Roebuck. “There’s no way you can hit one out of that park,” he told Merchant. “My best shot is high in the upper deck” – an area that Frank Howard’s blasts visited often after Roebuck had moved on. Before an April 1999 exhibition game in D.C., Mark McGwire hit a fair ball in batting practice that hit the facing of the left field roof.

Roebuck had another complaint about fungo hitting in Washington. “In L.A. I could usually sneak a few balls after a workout…. But this club … well, we’ve got a budget on baseballs. I can’t get the practice I need on hitting for distance,” he said.

In 1964 at the Senators’ camp in Pompano Beach, Florida, Roebuck also was stymied. “The wind blows so much at Pompano that you can’t hit them real long…. I definitely didn’t have a good spring” fungo hitting, he told Merchant.  

The Nats had traded infielder Marv Breeding to the Dodgers for Roebuck at the deadline in 1963 and used him in 26 games over 57.1 innings in August and September. On a team that lost 106 games, Roebuck was 2-1 with four saves and a 3.30 earned run average. After two appearances in 1964, the Phillies purchased Roebuck, who went on to have one of his best seasons: 5-3 with a 2.21 ERA and 12 saves in 60 games.

In 1962, before the architects decided how high to make the roof of what became the Astrodome, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was consulted. He enlisted his team’s super fungo hitter, Roebuck, to put on a demonstration. “On the breakfast line at Vero (Beach, the Dodgers’ Florida spring training camp), O’Malley approached me and asked me how high I could hit a fungo. I said, ‘I guess about 200 feet in the air, sir.’”

Then, when Roebuck was with Philadelphia in 1964, he was asked by the then-Colt .45s to try to hit the roof of the new doomed stadium under construction in Houston. “Considered the greatest fungo hitter extant, (Roebuck) swung himself arm weary,” wrote Bob Stevens of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1964, but “never did reach the 208-foot-high center roof.”

“But he came within 15 or 20 feet of it,” Bill Giles of the Colt .45s told Stevens, “and did slam a couple of balls off the lower roof curve in foul territory.”

 Right-hander Roebuck came up with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, earning a ring as a rookie when the Dodgers won their only world championship. He pitched two scoreless innings in Game 6. He appeared again against the Yankees in the 1956 World Series, pitching in three games. The only run he yielded came on a tape-measure homer by Mickey Mantle. Overall in the two series, Roebuck pitched well, walking nobody and fanning five (including Mantle twice).

After a strong season in 1958, Roebuck developed a sore arm. The right-handed batter had always been a decent hitter, so the Dodgers let him go to the team’s AAA affiliate in St. Paul to play first base. Overcoming his arm trouble, Roebuck ended up throwing 196 innings as a starter.

 Back with the Dodgers, he pitched well in 1960 and 1962, overcoming more arm trouble in 1961. Off to a bad start in 1963, he asked to be traded to – believe it or not – Washington. The reasons were clear: Former teammate Gil Hodges had taken over as manager and one of Roebuck’s closest friends, Don Zimmer, was now with the Senators.

Roebuck earned a second World Series ring in 2004 as a scout for the Boston Red Sox, the year before he retired.

“The nice thing about being a fungo hitter, although the pay is low,” Roebuck joked to Merchant back in 1964, “is that you can go on doing it forever. It is practically slump-proof.”

Ed Roebuck, a man who clearly enjoyed the game, died in 2018 at age 86 at his longtime home in Lakewood, California.

A version of this appeared in the daily Here’s the Pitch online newsletter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association in the fall of 2021. 

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