Wilbert Robinson

The jovial Robinson came from New England and played baseball for a living as soon as he could sign on in the New England League. He became the catcher of the storied Baltimore Orioles, where he joined forces, under manager Ned Hanlon, with Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, and John McGraw, the scrappy third baseman who was the dominant force of the team. Robinson was the cornerstone of the team, its catcher, directing the play of the others. He was one of Baltimore’s better hitters, once making seven hits in a game, and he was durable enough to catch a rare triple header in 1896 and a double header the next day.

Robinson became John McGraw‘s partner, off the field and on; the pair owned a billiards parlor in Baltimore. When McGraw took over the New York’A-h)”Giants, Robinson came along to run the pitching staff. The men remained close friends until a sudden, bitter parting of the ways. Why they split is not known. Robinson became the Dodgers’ manager in 1914 and left a larger than life imprint on the team, which was called the Robins during much of his 18-year managerial tenure. Yet, Uncle Robbie won more than a place in the hearts of players and fans. He won ball games, and twice won pennants (1916 and 1920) with teams not given a pre-season chance. He remained through 1931, running his club far differently than the despotic McGraw ran the Giants. The Dodgers were known for their easy-going ways. Because Robinson gave his roster of cast-offs and characters freedom, the team was a constant source of oddities and anecdotes. He had a gift for cadging winning performances from discarded pitchers, preferring hard throwers over curveball pitchers. Dazzy Vance, a fireballer who only achieved stardom after age thirty, was Robinson’s ace during the 1920s after Robinson gave him more rest between starts than was the norm in those days. Robinson asked his pitchers to hold the other team in check until his own hitters could win the game. He looked to Babe HermanJake Daubert, Zach Wheat, Casey Stengel, Jack Fournier and other batters to get a key hit. This simple approach kept the team in contention for many years and made them always entertaining.

Robinson is perhaps best known for a spring training incident. He vowed to outdo Gabby Street’s stunt of catching a ball dropped from the Washington Monument. He would catch a ball dropped from an airplane. The stunt was set up, but someone (many say it was Casey Stengel) substituted a grapefruit, which exploded on impact. With his eyes shut and his chest wringing wet, Robinson believed himself covered with his own blood until he heard his team laughing.