Spotlight on Dodgers' History: Uncle Robbie

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Spotlight on Dodgers' History: Uncle Robbie

The Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers have a long, illustrious history.

 

True, the “Bums,” as they are still sometimes lovingly called, did not win a World Series until 1955, but baseball was first played in the borough in 1856, when the Brooklyn Atlantic first took the field.

 

Since 1913, when Ebbets Field opened at 55 Sullivan Place, at the corner of Sullivan and McKeever in the Flatbush section of New York, the Dodgers have had a rich history of colorful managers.

 

In fact, the captain’s chair of the Dodger franchise has been, except for the years 1932-38, 1947-53, and 1996—present, astoundingly stable at Ebbets Field and Dodger Stadium.

 

Casey Stengel stopped by for a disastrous three year period (1934-36), finishing a combined 78 games behind the league leaders.

 

Leo Durocher won 100 games and a pennant in 1941...yet won 104 games and was in second place the following season.

 

Walter Alston famously amassed over 2,000 wins in 23 seasons with the Blue Crew, despite never having more than a one-year contract.

 

A multi-year pact for their managers simply was not the Dodger way.

 

Tommy Lasorda won two World Series titles (1981 and 1988, making the Dodgers the only major league franchise to win two WS in the 1980's) and became famous the world over for “bleeding Dodger blue.”

 

Yet through it all, perhaps the most beloved and colorful of all the Dodger field generals was Uncle Robbie, Wilbert Robinson, from 1914 until 1931.

 

Robinson was born June 29, 1863 in Bolton, Massachusetts. After a little more than a year on the farm, he was called up to the majors in 1886 with the Philadelphia Athletics. He remained in the bigs until 1902.

 

He was a catcher by trade, and renowned as a good one.

 

During his playing days, he was known for bleeding the absolute maximum out of his pitchers, and for being an important member of the triumvirate (along with fiery third baseman John McGraw and shortstop Hughie Jennings) that led one of the earliest baseball dynasties (the three-time NL pennant winning Baltimore Orioles of 1894-’96).

 

Through it all, Robinson was a hard-charging competitor on the field, but a congenial teammate and ice-breaker off it.

 

William Prince, who had the pleasure of managing Billy Rob, as he was then known, at Haverhill in the Eastern New England League in 1885, had this to say in a 1913 interview about his 22-year-old catcher:

 

“Robinson was a great catcher from the first day we placed him behind the bat, but to my mind his greatest quality was, and is, his personality," Prince began. “His good nature was a sure remedy to drive away all the blues.

 

“No cliques could last while Robbie (as he was known by 1913) was around. He taught us to look at all such things as a joke, and drew us together as a sociable, harmonious club.”

 

A strapping 5’8” and 215 pounds, Robinson came into his own after being acquired by the Orioles. Though Wee Willie Keeler—known for his battle strategy of “hit ’em where they ain’t”—and Jennings were the offensive stalwarts, McGraw and Robinson were the heart and soul of the team.

 

Robinson hit .312 in his seven years with the O’s, including a career-high and league leading .353 in 1894. Through it all, he kept the pitching staff together, and often directed the goings-on of his teammates, acting as a manager on the field.

 

He had perhaps the greatest single day in baseball history on June 10, 1892, when he slashed seven hits in as many at-bats, and drove in 11 runs.

 

The single-game hit record remains to this day (tied by Pittsburgh’s Rennie Stennett in 1975), though Sunny Jim Bottomley of the St. Louis Cardinals has since broken the RBI record (12 on September 16, 1924, ironically enough against Robbie’s Dodgers).

 

Robbie managed the Orioles for half of one season, 1902, and retired.

 

After his retirement from the game, Robbie was out of baseball for several years, before his old friend, McGraw, came calling for a part-time pitching coach in 1909. He accepted a full-time coaching gig with the Giants in 1911, and was responsible for developing Rube Marquard, Joe McGinnity, Jeff Tesreau, and Al Demaree, among others.

 

McGraw and Robinson had a bitter falling out after the Giants lost the 1913 World Series to the A’s. McGraw got drunk and blamed Robbie’s work as third-base coach for the defeat in Game Seven; Robbie shot back that McGraw’s managing had been equally as lousy.

 

“This is my party. Get the hell outta here!” McGraw snarled.

 

Robinson left, but not before depositing a glass of beer on his estranged friend’s head.

 

When Brooklyn inked him as their field manager about a month later, a blood feud was born.

 

Robinson managed a National League Pennant in 1916, going 94-60, and his second and last in 1920 (93-61). For the most part, he simply did not have enough talent on the field to compete with the Giants, Cardinals and the rest of the Senior Circuit.

 

His teams actually finished fifth-place or worse 12 times in his 18 years at the helm, including 10-of-11 seasons from 1921 to 1931 (except 1924, when they shockingly went 92-62 and only finished 1.5 games out of first).

 

Yet, more than once the Robins (as the Dodgers were often called during Robinson's years at the helm, in homage to their manager) played spoiler to the Giants’ hopes.

 

Robbie’s easygoing ways were transferred to his team. It is generally conceded that his laid-back style led to lax discipline and sloppiness. By the end of his tenure as Dodger skipper, the team was derisively referred to as “Uncle Robbie's Daffiness Boys.”

 

However, he still knew how to work a pitching staff, and he often won big with discards, over-the-hill has-beens, and unproven young talent.

 

Dazzy Vance, who had been a bust for both Pittsburgh and the Yankees, suddenly became Robbie’s ace in 1922—after three years languishing in the minors and out of baseball—at the age of 31. He won 187 games in 11 years with Robinson as his manager.

 

Spitballer Burleigh Grimes experienced a career renaissance pitching for Robinson.

 

Uncle Robbie adopted a minimalist approach to winning games, one which has been revisited countless times over the ensuing decades: he expected his pitching staff to hold the opposition in check, and his hitters to scratch out just enough runs to win.

 

In retrospect, given the paucity of talent he had to work with, it is remarkable that he ended his career one game over .500, 1,399-1,398. At the time, he was the third-winningest manager in NL history.

 

Robinson might be best known for a spring training stunt in 1915, his second season as manager of the Dodgers.

 

Catcher Gabby Street, on his 13th try, had caught a baseball hurled from the top of the Washington Monument. In tandem with Ruth Law, an aviatrix attempting to make a name for herself, Robbie agreed to catch a baseball thrown from her plane, some 500-plus feet away.

 

Law purportedly left the baseball at her hotel room, and had to hastily substitute a grapefruit taken from a ground crewman’s lunch. Robinson was none the wiser.

 

When the “ball” was released, the former catcher circled around until he was in a good position to catch it. When the citrus fruit made impact with his glove (at the ridiculous velocity of about 126 miles per hour!), it disintegrated, splattering juice all over Robbie.

 

He was knocked to the ground, and kept his eyes closed tight, assuming he was covered in his own blood.

 

When he heard his team’s uproarious laughter, he opened his eyes and discovered that he had been had.

 

For many years, Casey Stengel, one of his outfielders, accepted the blame for the switch, but Ruth Law debunked the idea in a 1957 interview.

 

Robinson spent two seasons as the manager and president of the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association, from 1932 to 1934. In August of '34, Robbie, then 71, slipped in his bathroom and slammed his head against the bathtub.

 

At the hospital, he uttered the immortal words, “Don't worry about it, fellas. I’m an old Oriole. I’m too tough to die.”

 

Sadly, this was not the case, and good ole Uncle Robbie succumbed to the complications from a brain hemorrhage on Aug. 8, 1934 in Atlanta, with his wife at his bedside. His old friend McGraw, with whom Robbie had reconciled in December of 1930, had died just under six months before.

One of baseball’s favorite characters, Wilbert Robinson was posthumously elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Committee on Baseball Veterans in 1945.


Sources: acmewebpages.com, baseball-statistics.com, baseballlibrary.com, bioproj.sabr.org, and Wikipedia.com.

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