Tigers’ outfielder Roberts was a two-sport star before it was cool

A talented athlete, Leon Roberts wasn't given much of a chance in Detroit.

A talented athlete, Leon Roberts wasn’t given much of a chance in Detroit with the Tigers.

Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders did it. Among Michigan athletes: Kirk Gibson could have, and Rick Leach probably could have too.

What is it? Play professionally in both baseball and football. Each of these two-sport stars were talented enough to be drafted into Major League Baseball and the NFL.

Leon Roberts was also that good, but like Gibson and Leach, he never snapped on a chinstrap in the NFL, though he came closer to doing it than those Detroit Tiger outfielders did. Roberts was the guy who was going to replace Al Kaline in right field. (Well, no one, not nooobody, could replace Kaline, so let’s say that Roberts was assigned to follow #6.)

Born in Vicksburg, Michigan, Roberts was a multi-sport star at Portage Northern High School  his name is still listed on banners hanging in their gym. He was heavily recruited by several colleges in baseball and football. Bo Schembechler won him over, even though the Michigan coach’s intensity was a little unsettling to Roberts.

“He used to scare me to death,” Roberts told Ed Godfrey of NewsOK.com in 2012. “[Bo] goes, ‘I am going to make you an all-Big Ten tight end’ and they didn’t pass much. He was three yards and a cloud of dust. They never passed, so that’s why I went out for basketball. I was going to play baseball anyway.”

At U of M, Roberts was All-Big 10 as an outfielder and probably could have been a star on the mound too, since he had a powerful right arm. In the 1972 Major League Baseball draft, the Tigers took him in the 10th round. The 6’3, 200-pounder impressed Tiger brass immediately, hitting the ball well in his first professional season at both Lakeland and Rocky Mount. In ’74, an impressive season with the Evansville Triplets (Detroit’s Triple-A club) earned Roberts a late-season summons to Detroit to join the Tigers. Suddenly he was in the same clubhouse with Al Kaline, the man who many in the organization felt Roberts would succeed in right field for the Bengals.

In his first big league game, Roberts started in right field at Tiger Stadium, his eyes wide as saucers as he played in the same spot where he’d watched Kaline be an All-Star. The Tigers were his boyhood team, and Roberts was living a dream. He got his first hit at Yankee Stadium, and he performed well in a month with the team, mostly trying to soak up as much as he could from Kaline, the other veterans, and manager Ralph Houk. The next season, Roberts made the team out of spring training and won the starting right field job after swinging a hot bat in April. He was actually replacing the retired Kaline in a sense. The former Wolverine belted his first major league homer at Fenway Park, a towering drive over the Green Monster. He was hitting over .340 into late May, but then he struggled as the league learned his weakness – the breaking ball.

In addition to his second half troubles, Roberts was also overshadowed by two other young Detroit outfielders in their first full seasons in Motown in ’75: Ron LeFlore and Ben Oglivie. As quickly as Roberts had ascended the Detroit ladder to earn a place in the Tigers’ outfield, he was on the outs. In December, the Tigers bundled Roberts in a mega deal with the Astros that netted them pitchers Jim Crawford and Dave Roberts, and catcher Milt May. It’s hard to see why now, through a retrospective lens, but at the time the trade was celebrated as a steal for Detroit. Even though Detroit GM Jim Campbell had given away the wildly athletic Roberts, experts felt the addition of 25-year old May would solve their catching problems (since Bill Freehan was on his way out). Detroit was trying everything they could to avoid a third straight cellar finish in 1976.

To say that Roberts never settled in with the Astros would be an understatement. Houston had an embarrassing stable of young outfielders in the mid-1970s, and seven of them were vying for 4-5 spots in spring training in ’76, with an average age of 24. Roberts could have gotten lost in that shuffle, but his power stroke separated him from most of the others. Unfortunately, the mammoth Astrodome was too damn big for him to show off his home run swing. In 1976 he served as a reserve outfielder and performed pretty well in 87 games: hitting .289 with seven homers and 33 RBI. The following season, Roberts was left out of the mix and barely played through the first half of the season. His stock was slipping. That’s when he decided to pursue football again.

Roberts walked on the practice field of the Houston Oilers and started running routes, passing the ball, and (most impressively) kicking the pigskin. He booted the football so well that the Oilers offered him a contract as their punter. Roberts accepted and planned to join the Oilers as soon as the baseball season was over, in October. That’s when Astros’ GM Tal Smith stepped in. Smith informed Roberts that he didn’t want him playing football. Roberts noted that his standard baseball contract did not say anything about him playing another sport in the off-season. Smith reluctantly agreed, but he still wanted Roberts to focus on baseball. A few thousand dollars were added to Leon’s contract and the football “folly” was sidelined.

Roberts never came close to playing football again. During the winter meetings in 1977, Smith traded him to Seattle, which was basically baseball’s Siberia at that time. In just their second season in the majors, Seattle found a young star in Roberts, who hit .301 with 22 homers and 92 RBI, the latter figure a franchise record. Roberts had two more good seasons with the M’s, enjoying the best success of his career. He shuffled to Texas, Toronto, and Kansas City in the early 1980s. The Pride of Vicksburg served as a reserve outfielder in the final years of his 11-year big league career. He still had a special wing, though, and in ’84, the Royals let him pitch an inning of mop-up in a lopsided loss. Roberts surrendered four runs, but he also struck out a batter.

After his major league career, Roberts was still only 33 years old. He went on to play a single season at Nashville in the Tigers’ farm system, and then went on to play in the shirt-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association, where he was one of the better players in the league. He later served eight years as a minor league instructor in the Atlanta organization, before serving as a coach with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was back in the Houston system as of 2013, coaching in the minor leagues, still sticking with baseball, more than four decades after taking the game on as a professional.