Ed Roebuck was on top of the world. Well, maybe in the penthouse of the Sears Roebuck Tower, if he can stand another department-store joke. He had realized his dream of making the big leagues and was the only rookie member of the 1955 world champion Brooklyn Dodgers.
Touted for Rookie of the Year honors in that championship season, Roebuck combined with Clem Labine to make up one of the best relief tandems in baseball.
Two more Fireman of the Year-type years, in 1956 and '57, and Roebuck had accomplished much more than his original goal of just staying in the big leagues and collecting a paycheck.
In July 1958, however, the Dodgers' first year in Los Angeles, he suffered an undiagnosed shoulder injury. In those days, there were no arthroscopes and no machines, and surgery was a last resort. "Every time I threw, I felt a sting, a really bad one in my shoulder," Roebuck said.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 24, 1985 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 16 Column 3 Sports Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
In the chart in Sunday's paper listing the whereabouts of players from the 1955 and 1959 Dodgers, Frank Howard was listed as a coach for the New York Mets. Howard is a coach with the Milwaukee Brewers. Karl Spooner, listed as a manager of a citrus packing house in Vero Beach, Fla., and Bert Hamric, whose whereabouts were unknown, are deceased.
What was next for Roebuck--the disabled list, a witch doctor, the end of a career? Good pitchers rarely seem to regain their form after a shoulder injury.
But Roebuck, who spent some time on the voluntarily retired list, underwent his own rehabilitation plan. He happened to be an excellent hitter and believed he could make the team at first base while resting his pitching arm.
Roebuck tried it with the Dodgers' Double-A farm club in St. Paul, and it turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. On a close play as a first baseman, Roebuck had to make a quick throw. Snap! The adhesions broke loose, and he had his shoulder and sinker back.
"He had what you call a frozen shoulder," Dodger trainer BillBuhler said. "It isn't too common anywhere, even in baseball. It was a miracle cure. That quick throw just did it for him."
Even with the recovery, Roebuck spent the 1959 season at St. Paul, where he had a 13-10 record and a 2.98 earned-run average, and missed another World Series ring. Then, facing a problem that few ballplayers today worry about--he needed money for his new house payments--Roebuck opted for winter ball in the Dominican Republic.
"I wanted to keep my arm in shape, and they paid good money," he said. Roebuck earned the money, posting an 11-0 record.
The Dodgers had casually forgotten that Roebuck was frozen on the St. Paul roster and could be claimed by any club for the minimum of $25,000. No one wanted to take the chance on an injury-plagued pitcher, but Buzzie Bavasi, then the Dodger president, must have shuddered at the thought of someone claiming Roebuck, who when healthy was one of the top relievers in the National League.
"All the scouts were looking at the hard throwers," Roebuck said. "I really didn't expect anyone to sign me."
But the Dodgers brought him back, and in 1960, Roebuck had an 8-3 record and a 2.78 ERA.
"He was one of the best short relief men I've seen in baseball," said Bob Lillis, current manager of the Houston Astros and a member of the 1960 Dodgers.
In 1961, though, Roebuck's shoulder went out again. It was so tender that he could hardly lob the ball, and his arm ached all over. Roebuck tried, with extreme pain, to throw it back into shape. The only result was inflammation and some internal bleeding. He was later diagnosed as having acute and chronic adhesive capsulitis of the right shoulder.
Roebuck was placed on the disabled list and then assigned as a scout, and it seemed that his playing career had ended. But he wouldn't stop. It had taken three spring trainings to make the Dodgers, and he had come back from a shoulder injury before, so why not again?
"They didn't really explain to me what I had then," he said. "I just kept throwing with pain and used my own judgment."
Dodger scout Ken Myers worked with Roebuck on stretching exercises and throwing. "I didn't want them to operate," Roebuck said. "Once they cut into your shoulder, it's tough to return. The scar tissue just keeps on coming back."
Just ask Wayne Garland, Don Gullett or Steve Stone how tough such a comeback is. "The prognosis is never good on those types of injuries," said Dave Labossiere, the Astros' trainer. "You're probably never going to pitch again."
Somehow, Roebuck, at age 30, did in 1962 what few pitchers--if any--in baseball have done: He came back successfully from a disabling shoulder injury.
"I owe all of the credit to Myers," Roebuck said. "Without him, I never would have done it."
Roebuck pitched in 64 games with a 3.09 earned-run average. "I've never seen a guy work so hard to come back," said Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda, a former teammate of Roebuck's.
Roebuck was traded to the Washington Senators in 1963 and continued his pitching career with the Philadelphia Phillies though the 1966 season. He continued to be one of baseball's best relivers, specializing in the sinker. For Roebuck, a man who never called it quits, it was tough to finally face retirement.
"When I was sent down to the minors in '67 by the Phillies, I knew it was over," he said. "I tried to put it out of my mind, but I felt good because I'd worked so hard to come back."