If a ball had anything to do with it, Jack Roberts was naturally great at it.
That was the sentiment of Gainesvillian Walter Byrd, who as quarterback for Gainesville High School’s football team in the late 1940s, threw passes and handed the ball off to Roberts.
Roberts, who died last week at age 86, is considered by many as one of the greatest all-around natural athletes in Red Elephant history, statewide as well.
Byrd said the high school didn’t have a baseball team until late Coach Drane Watson got together some boys to play mill village teams. Watson even had the players work on the ball diamond at City Park to start the season. That launched the Gainesville High team that Roberts starred on as a pitcher or whatever position he played.
The 1949 team, behind the pitching of Roberts and Bobo Smith, won the state championship. On the way Roberts pitched a no-hitter against Fulton and struck out 22 against North Fulton. He threw a one-hitter against Albany and scored Gainesville’s only run, a home run into the woods.
Roberts turned down a bonus from the Brooklyn Dodgers after high school, preferring to pitch for the University of Georgia, where he was named All-Southeastern Conference. He set a Georgia record with 103 strike-outs in 112 innings.
After serving the military, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and played minor league ball, including the Atlanta Crackers.
Byrd and Roberts, who lived in Peachtree City, kept in touch with each other over the years, talked on the phone occasionally, and they had lunch together a few months ago.
Larry Pardue played catcher on the high school team when Roberts pitched. “He liked to have drove me crazy,” Pardue said. Roberts, he said, had the best breaking ball he had ever seen and what he called a “drop ball” that would sink toward the plate just before it reached the batter’s bat.
Citing his versatility, Pardue recalls a basketball shot Roberts made from near the center line that won the region championship by one point against then-rival Canton.
Curtis Pethel played tackle for the Red Elephants when Roberts was running back. Asked how it was to block for him, Pethel said, “Well, not so much, because he was always reversing his field, and I’d have to catch him coming back by.”
Roberts not only ran the ball, but at only 150 pounds was a top-rated receiver and kicker and played on defense. In 1947, the Red Elephants were co-champions of the NGIC (North Georgia Interscholastic Conference), champions of the North Georgia Football Association Eastern Division and state runner-ups. They lost only to Valdosta and tied Griffin and Decatur. GHS shut out 10 teams that year, yielding a total of only 36 points.
Roberts captained the 1948 team that won seven games, lost two and tied one. Against Winder that year, he scored all 48 points for the Red Elephants. Roberts went on to play running back for the University of Georgia in addition to playing baseball for the Bulldogs.
During high school, he was an all-state selection in football, basketball, baseball and track. Roberts won the state high jump in 1949.
Phil Jackson, the late sports editor of The Times, who was in school with Roberts, once wrote that Roberts pitched a nine-inning baseball game in the morning and in the afternoon won the district high jump, broad jump and ran anchor on the winning relay team.
Jackson and others who played with Roberts recall a much-hyped high school pitching match-up with Thomaston’s Hugh Frank Radcliffe. Roberts struck out 20 and Radcliffe 24, but Gainesville won 7-6.
The first time Roberts touched a golf club, Jackson once wrote, he shot in the 80s. He was Gainesville’s swimming and diving champion in 1948. Jackson also used to tell the story of Roberts playing tennis for the first time and beating his high school opponent.
After his professional baseball career, Roberts coached on both the high school and college levels and taught building construction at Jonesboro High School. He is in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame for football, basketball, baseball and track.
Gainesville High School retired his No. 2 football jersey in 2008.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.