Wilbert Robinson (1863-1934) was a famous player and manager from baseball's early period who is a Hall-of-Famer. He was one of the "old Orioles" of the 1890's, a rough and tumble team that played hard and lived the same way. Robinson was a close friend and colleague of John McGraw until they had a falling out, to be reconciled only shortly before McGraw's death. He went on to become manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in an era when they were sometimes known as the "daffy Dodgers" for their antics on the field. Robinson endeared himself to the Brooklyn fans and became a kind of baseball icon while always enjoying his family and friends. The story of "Uncle Robbie's" life is told here in lively fashion by Kavanagh and Macht in this delightful portrait.
John Kieran of the New York Times captured Robbie's image:
It is doubtful that baseball ever produced a more colorful figure than the esteemed Wilbert Robinson. Like Falstaff, he was not only witty himself but the cause of wit in others. His conversation was a continuous flow of homely philosophy, baseball, lore, and good humor. He knew baseball as the spotted setter knows the secrets of quail hunting, by instinct and experience.
Robbie's rotund figure, jovial manner and good humor characterized the man who on the baseball diamond, however, could be a fierce competitor.
He was born the son of a butcher in Bolton, Massachusetts. After his father's death, Robbie inherited the butcher shop but by 1885 was off to try his hand at baseball with the Haverhill club in the Eastern New England League. His manager, William F. Prince recounted: "I remember when Robbie came into our midst. He was a young, fat butcher boy and he came to us looking like a choice cut of sirloin, fresh as a peach, and he won his way into our hearts with his loving characteristics, which always make up a large part of his makeup." This was the "uncle Robbie" that "the baseball world would come to know and love."
Robbie was a born leader who as catcher got to direct much of the action on the field. He signed on with the Philadelphia A's of the American Association for $2,000 in 1887 and in his early years became a daring baserunner. When the team went broke and the league folded, Robbie became part of the "original Orioles." In 1891 he was joined by McGraw and in the same year Baltimore became part of an expanded twelve-team National League. In 1892, he set a record by going 7 for 7 in a nine-inning game (six singles and a double), a feat that has not yet been duplicated. With McGraw, Robbie and company, the Orioles through the '90's played a rowdy form of baseball employing the hit and run, bunts, and the newly-invented "Baltimore chop" to add excitement to the game. Robbie became the most popular Oriole player with the fans who raised money to buy a lot and build a house for him. But at Robbie's urging, the funds were divided among the players. Robbie was part of the legendary Orioles who were a dominant team and from 1894-1897 have the reputation for being "the toughest, rowdiest, dirtiest, most foul-mouthed team in history, unhampered by rules, disdainful of umpires and authority." The Orioles peaked in 1896 with a 90-39 record and defeating the second-place Cleveland club (and Cy Young) in the Temple Cup, the precursor to the modern day World Series.
Our authors tell us of Robbie's business venture with McGraw establishing an "emporium," the Diamond Café, for sporting gentlemen that featured a bar, dining room, bowling alley, reading room, pool and billiard tables, a gymnasium, meeting rooms for social clubs and an electric scoreboard in the dining room that conveyed a play-by-play account of the Orioles' games while they were on the road. The ticker service provided results of other games and the results of various racetracks.
When the Baltimore franchise of the new American League was begun, McGraw and Robinson gained the franchise. But their opening season was a disappointment and neither of the two owners made any profits. Controversies ensued and when the wars between the two major leagues ended in January, 1903, the A.L. Orioles were moved to New York where they became the Highlanders (later the Yankees). McGraw jumped ship to join the New York Giants and Robinson, who had been managing the team that had gone 24-57 under his leadership, announced his retirement. A gathering was held in his honor and a silver loving cup presented.
In 1909, McGraw asked Robinson to work with the Giants pitchers in spring training. His abilities to know exactly how to treat each hurler was of great value and by 1911 Robinson was invited to join the club, helping to develop a pitching staff that led the Giants to pennants in 1911, 1912, and 1913. However, quarrels between McGraw and Robbie erupted through the 1913 season coming to a head at a party after the Giants lost the last game of the Series at the Polo Grounds. McGraw got drunk, angry, and fired Robbie. It would be seventeen years before the two men were reconciled.
Robbie's reputation was high and he was hired as a coach by Charlie Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. On November 17, he became manager. "The jovial, rotund Robinson, everyone's 'Uncle Robbie' fit comfortably into the Brooklyn baseball scene. He was like a favorite relative come to live with the family," report Kavanagh and Macht. In those days, the Dodgers were often called "The Robins" in Robbie's honor.
Robbie went down in baseball lore for his attempt to catch a ball dropped from an airplane. In 1908, Gabby Street had caught a ball dropped from the Washington Monument. Robbie scoffed that this was all that difficult a feat and so Ruth Law, a famous aviatrix, was enlisted to fly a plane higher than the Washington Monument and drop a ball for Robbie to catch. There are several versions of what happened next-one version of which put Dodger Casey Stengel in the plane to make the drop. But Law flew alone. When Robbie, the old Oriole-now 53 years old-caught the object he saw falling from the plane, he was splattered with warm juice from a grapefruit. The impact knocked him to the ground whereupon he exclaimed: "Help me, lads, I'm covered with my own blood." Law explained in 1957 that she had forgotten the baseball back in her hotel room and when she discovered the situation it was too late to retrieve the ball. So she took a grapefruit from the lunch of one of the ground crew and dropped it instead.
The Dodgers won the pennant in 1916 ahead of McGraw's Giants but lost the Series to Boston. Yet, "Charlie Ebbets and most fans realized that [Robbie] had performed a baseball miracle, bringing Brooklyn a pennant with a team cobbled together from spare parts." The next few years brought reversals to the Dodgers' fortunes with finishes in seventh and twice in fifth place. 1920 was different and the Dodger's won the pennant, this time, however, to be bested in the Series by Cleveland. It turned out to be the last pennant won by a Brooklyn team until 1941 with the Dodgers having to wait until 1955 to win a world championship.
With the arrival of Dazzy Vance, the "Daffy Dodgers" 1920's reputation began to take shape. Emblematic of the zaniness was Robbie's leading his team to play an exhibition game with the Indians in spring 1923. When he arrived, manager Tris Speaker asked why they were there. "Come to play you a ball game," answered Uncle Robbie. "The game's tomorrow," laughed Speaker.
The personalities of the period such as Vance and the greatest Dodger hitter Babe Herman stand out. In the 1920's, Charlie Ebbets died and Robbie was named President and manager. The pressures of both offices were tough on Robbie and under it "Robinson's easy self-assurance, resourcefulness, patience, and guile transmogrified into a sort of bizarre inconsistency. Players lost confidence in his judgment and, perhaps most important, the press pursued this angle so unrelentingly that Uncle Robbie and the Daffy Dodgers became one of baseball's enduring legends." By 1929, two warring factions within the Dodger organization reached a compromise which had Robbie stepping down as president and offered a managerial contract for two more years. The Dodgers finished fourth in Robbie's last two campaigns.
Finally, Robbie and McGraw made up in New York City at the winter meeting of the National League in December 1930. It was a "spontaneous reconciliation. With miraculous suddenness, the frigid feelings of the past seventeen years melted in the warmth of an embrace between two aging warriors-both, perhaps, feeling a sense of their own mortality and a desire to put behind them the acrimony that had disrupted their friendship for so long."
After his last season in 1931, Robbie and his wife retired to Dover Hall, Georgia where Robbie had always loved to hunt in the off-season. He managed the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association in 1932 and 1933 and was shaken by news of McGraw's death on February 25, 1934. In August, at a meeting of the Southern Association, Robbie became dizzy and fell, striking his head on the bathtub in his hotel and broke his arm. When the medics wrapped it he joked, "Don't worry about it fellows. I'm an old Oriole. I'm too tough to die."
But Robbie was wrong. He had suffered a brain hemorrhage. He fell into a coma and died on August 8, 1934 with his wife at his bedside holding his hand. Robbie was buried in Baltimore in what is now New Cathedral Cemetery, not far from the grave of John McGraw.
No finer tribute can be offered to this knowledgeable, colorful figure so interestingly portrayed in this fine book, than that of Casey Stengel, 1934 manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Stengel said of Wilbert Robinson:
He was the finest man I ever knew in baseball and I felt his loss almost as much as if he had been a close relative. I served under Uncle Robbie for seven years. He not only taught me how to play the outfield but he taught me how to live. I regard my after-game conversations with Robbie and his evening fanning bees as the most enjoyable moments of my career. Baseball was its pleasantest with Robbie around.
Kieran said in the New York Times that Robbie was "a jolly old gentleman and as honest as the sunlight." Will we ever see his likes again?