Michael T. “Mike” Roarke (1930-2019) was born on November 8, 1930 to Walter J. and Mary T. (nee Riley) Roarke in West Warwick, Rhode Island where he was raised through his high school years. Vice President of the West Warwick High School Class of 1948, Mike was a schoolboy star in baseball and football in the 1940s. After graduation, Mike went on to attend Boston College and captained the football and baseball teams for the Eagles. He won the James J Heggie, Jr. trophy at B.C. in honor of his good character, scholastic excellence and outstanding football ability. He graduated with a degree in history in 1952.
Drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1952, Mike decided to stick with baseball over football. The Boston Braves of the National League signed Roarke and his college teammate Joe Morgan who eventually would go on to manage the Boston Red Sox (1988-1991) and assigned Mike to the Evansville (Indiana) Braves of the Three-I (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa) League. He missed the 1953 season due to military service in the Army in Europe during the Korean War and returned in 1954 to play for the Jacksonville (Florida) Braves of the Sally (South Atlantic) League. After toiling in the minor leagues for nearly a decade, Mike made his big league debut as a 30 year old on April 19, 1961 with the Detroit Tigers as the team’s backup catcher. He remained with the Tigers for the 1962, 1963 and 1964 seasons but up and coming catching prospect Bill Freehan did most of the catching in the ’64 season. In his four seasons in the majors, all with Detroit, Roarke hit .230 with 6 home runs and 44 runs batted in. He played in 194 games. Not known for his hitting, he was far above average as a defensive player behind the plate and knew how to guide pitchers through a game. He planned to return to Rhode Island to his offseason job of selling life insurance but instead, Tigers manager Chuck Dressen hired him as the bullpen coach. Thus began Mike’s career and recognition as a pitcher “whisperer” with an uncanny knack for coaching the position and its craft. One of the first things he did was to “fix” Tigers starter Mickey Lolich who was having early season problems on the mound. Lolich would go on to be named the MVP of the 1968 World Series where he won three games including the deciding seventh game against St. Louis Cardinals legend Bob Gibson. Later in his career, Mike “fixed” Cardinals standout reliever and future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter whom he previously had coached and befriended as a member of the Cubs staff in Chicago.
For more than 30 years, Roarke was constantly employed as a coach helping straighten out pitchers. He left the Tigers after the 1966 season and was hired as the Angels bullpen coach. He rejoined the Tigers in 1970 as a pitching coach in a difficult role. Not only was he replacing the popular Johnny Sain but he also started the season without 24-game winner Denny McLain who had been suspended by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for a number of serious behavioral offenses. The Tigers pitching was awful and Roarke only lasted a year in the job.
Mike managed in the minor leagues from 1971-1975 for the Tigers, Brewers and Cubs organizations. He returned to the majors to serve as pitching coach for the Cubs from 1978-80 before deciding to spend more time closer to home. He took a job as the pitching instructor for the Pawtucket Red Sox of the International League which was managed by his old Boston College teammate, Joe Morgan. It was with the Paw Sox that Roarke took his place in the baseball record books. He was listed as the winning manager of the longest game in the history of professional baseball, a 33 inning affair played over several dates where the Pawtucket Red Sox with future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs beat the Rochester Red Wings (Baltimore Orioles AAA affiliate) with future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. Manager Joe Morgan had been ejected in the 22nd inning of the game so Roarke took over in the dugout until the outcome (3-2 Paw Sox) was decided.
Mike Roarke was a gentleman and loyal friend. He enjoyed speaking to school aged youth about the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship and unstructured play. He served on the board of directors of Big Brothers of Rhode Island for more than 20 years. He was an ardent supporter of local charities and community organizations especially those that were focused on giving a helping hand to those in need of one.
Mike was predeceased by his wife of 59 years, Merry Sue (nee Blair). Together they had five children and were the proud grandparents of four. Mike died peacefully with his family by his side on July 27, 2019 in Cranston at the age of 88 and is buried in St. Mary Cemetery in West Warwick. After he was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame on April 26, 2002, Mr. Roarke went on to serve that organization for a decade as a valued and productive member of its Advisory Board.
Lawrence C. Reid