Grave Story: Sherry Robertson (1919-1970)

Here lies Sherry Robertson, a 10-year major-leaguer, a baseball executive and part of one of baseball’s most influential families. He was the nephew of Hall-of-Fame Senators owner Clark Griffith, brother to Twins owner Calvin Grffith and brother-in-law to major leaguers Joe Haynes and Joe Cronin. Robertson played for the Washington Senators (1940-41, 1943, 1946-52) and Philadelphia Athletics (1952).

Sherrard Robertson was born on Montreal, Quebec, on January 1, 1919. His father Jimmy was a professional baseball player who died when Sherry was just a year old. Two of his siblings, Calvin and Thelma, moved to Washington D.C. to live with their uncle, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith. He adopted them both, and they took Griffith as their last name. The rest of the Robertson family would join Griffith in Washington in 1924.

Calvin, who was 8 years older than Sherry, started managing teams in the minors as early as 1937 and stepped in as an emergency catcher when needed. Robertson, on the other hand, spent two years at the University of Maryland and became a Senators’ minor-leaguer in 1939. The Maryland baseball team boasted a number of pro ball connections. Along with Robertson, there was Eddie Johnson (Walter’s son), Fritz Maisel Jr. (Fritz Sr. was a former Yankee) and Hugh Keller (Charlie Keller’s brother).

Robertson played in 73 games for Orlando and Charlotte (where brother Calvin was managing) in 1939 and hit .239. From what I could tell, Robertson didn’t talk about his family ties, but it was pretty much an open secret. Besides, as sports columnist Wilson McGee noted, Robertson was a dead ringer for Calvin, just younger and skinnier. “He walks like Calvin, talks like Calvin and acts like Calvin. He even throws a baseball like Calvin, which may account for that catcher-like peg,” he wrote.

After a pretty mediocre start to his career, Robertson was one of the rookies invited to the Senators Spring Training Camp in Orlando in 1940. If there was any nepotism involved in the invitation, Robertson quickly showed he had real baseball talent. He spent most of the year playing for the Charlotte Hornets of the Piedmont League, again managed by his brother, and hit 23 home runs.

Robertson’s power display in Charlotte earned him a brief call to the majors in September 1940. He played in 10 games at shortstop and hit .212. He was a little shaky in the field but did take part in a triple play on September 10. Robertson spent most of 1941 back in the minors, getting one more game with the Senators and striking out in all three at-bats. He was in the minors for all of 1942 and barely hit over .200 for the minor-league Baltimore Orioles, though he did hit 14 homers and showed a knack for pinch-hit long balls. It was beginning to look like he would have to move up to the front office with his uncle and brother if he wanted to continue in baseball.

In the end, his versatility enabled him to enjoy a nice major-league career. He could play any position in the infield or outfield. That’s not to say he played them particularly well. For his career, he was a below average fielder at every position except for center field, where he had a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage… over 4 innings.

Sherry Robertson is taggout by the Yankees’ Yogi Berra on a close play at the plate. Source: Chicago Tribune, September 11, 1949.

Robertson spent 1943 splitting time at third base with Ellis Clary. He hit .217 in 59 games, with 3 home runs and 14 RBIs. He was playing third base on September 30 when the Senators were facing the Indians at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Ken Keltner hit a ground ball to Robertson, who fielded it and fired the ball toward first baseman Micky Vernon. The ball sailed over Vernon and into the stands, where it struck 32-year-old Clarence Stagemyer in the head. Stagemyer, a federal employee, was rushed to a hospital but died a couple of hours later. He remains the only baseball fan to die from injuries sustained by a thrown ball.

Robertson spent the next two years in military service. He played for a team on the Bainbridge Naval Training Station, and he had some fellow big leaguers like Dick Sisler as teammates. He inadvertently caused his brother-in-law Joe Cronin some strife in an exhibition game. Robertson’s Bainbridge Commodores faced the Boston Red Sox, managed by Cronin, on June 19, 1944. Robertson belted an inside-the-park home run, and when he slid into home, he broke Red Sox catcher Bill Conroy’s thumb. Conroy wasn’t a great hitter, but that must have made for some awkward family gatherings that year.

Robertson returned to the Senators in 1946 without a starting job, but he saw plenty of playing time nonetheless. He played 38 games at third base, 14 at second base, 12 at shortstop and 1 in right field, hitting .200 with 6 home runs and 19 RBIs. Senators’ regular third baseman Billy Hitchcock was a marginally better hitter, but Robertson provided more pop. His batting average began to rise in the ensuing seasons, and he played every position on the field except first base, pitcher and catcher.

The Boston Globe took a mean but funny shot at Robertson in 1949 after Robertson committed a couple of errors at second base. “What’s Robertson’s natural position?” someone asked. A Washington sportswriter replied, “Oh, he plays second, third and short – and he also plays the outfield.”

“But what’s his best position?” the person asked.

“Nephew,” was the reply.

Fielding aside, 1949 was Robertson’s best season. He got into a career-high 110 games, slashed .251/.329/.401 and reached career highs in pretty much every offensive category. His 94 hits included 17 doubles and 11 home runs, and he had 42 RBIs. He even showed a little speed on the bases, with 10 thefts, and he walked 42 times against 35 strikeouts.

The easygoing Robertson admitted that his relationship with the Senators boss made for some tough times. “Wherever I went and whatever I did, somebody would always remind me that I was Griff’s nephew. And when I wasn’t doing so well during one stretch, Washington fans almost rode me out of the league,” he admitted.

(This year, I’ve written about Greg Booker and Chris Duncan, both of whom suffered unwarranted abuse from fans solely because of who their relatives were, so Robertson isn’t alone in this particular indignity.)

His uncle provided moral support and guidance. “Griff would talk to me occasionally and tell me not to get disheartened,” Robertson said. “He’d always give me good advice and his confidence in me helped a lot.”

One article did mention that Griffith had Robertson moved out of the infield due to his fielding, so perhaps he was looking out for his nephew in other ways as well.

Robertson peaked with a .260 batting average in 1950, playing in 71 games for the Senators. After back-to-back good seasons, his batting skills deserted him. He hit .189 in 1951, and after making one appearance as a pinch runner in 1952, the Senators placed him on waivers. He was claimed by the Philadelphia Athletics on May 13 for an undisclosed price, and sports sections across the country didn’t fail to mention that Griffith sold off his own nephew. Robertson hit an even .200 for the A’s, appearing mostly as a pinch-hitter. He was released the following February, ending his big-league career… as a player at least.

In 10 seasons, Robertson had a slash line of .230/.323/.342, with 346 hits, 151 RBIs and 200 runs scored. He hit 26 home runs and drew 202 walks, against 238 strikeouts.

Source: Argus Leader, October 25, 1961.

Robertson joined the family business – the Washington Senators – as an assistant to farm director Ossie Bleuge in 1953. His job entailed some scouting and regular travels to Washington’s farm teams. Clark Griffith died in 1955 at the age of 85, leaving the majority shares to his widow. Those eventually passed equally to Calvin and Thelma (Haynes) Griffith, the adopted children. He succeeded his father as team president, and she was the vice president. Sherry Robertson also received shares in the team, along with brothers James and William, who were executives on the team.

Robertson took on the role of farm director when Bleuge moved to controller. In doing so, he took over one of the smallest and least talented farm systems in baseball. The team cut two of its farm teams in 1958 in an attempt to give the remaining teams a better selection of players. They lost a team in Elmira, N.Y., after too many bad teams and bad players caused city officials to not renew the city’s agreement with the Senators.

Gradually, new talent started springing up, like 1959 Rookie of the Year Bob Allison, shortstop Zolio Versalles and pitcher Jim Kaat. As the Senators became the Minnesota Twins in late 1960, Robertson told The Minneapolis Star that the minor league teams won two pennants, finished second twice, third one and sixth once. The teams had a combined .546 winning percentage, best in baseball behind Cleveland’s .549.

“I think those record show we’ve got as good players coming up as almost any team and better than a good share of them,” he asserted.

The move from Washington to the Twin Cities gave Robertson’s player development department a nice boost. Attendance at Twins games was much higher than the doormat Senators teams, and as revenue poured in, the team invested that money into its operations. “We couldn’t afford to hire good scouts in Washington,” Calvin Griffith said in 1965. “When we moved here, we hired 31 scouts.”

By 1966, the Twins had spent an estimated $7 on new players since the move to Washington, Along with Senator holdovers like Kaat and Harmon Killebrew, players like Cesar Tovar, Tony Oliva and Rich Rollins. The biggest prize of them all, Hall of Famer Rod Carew, was signed as an amateur free agent in 1964 and debuted in 1967.

Robertson mostly stayed out of the limelight, aside from a verbal war of words with Twins manager Billy Martin, who attempted to dictate which level of the minor leagues players should be sent. While maintaining his role in player development, Robertson donned a Twins uniform in 1970 as a part of Bill Rigney’s coaching staff. He hadn’t been on the field in any official capacity for some years, but there was a good reason for it: a boost to his MLB pension.

“If I get another 85 or 90 days in as coach, I stand to make $1,100 a month in pension benefits at age 60 instead of the $450 I’d get under the old plan,” he explained to columnist Jim Klobuchar. “I considered the alternatives – thousands of dollars on one hand and executive dignity on the other – and decided maybe I could help the team after all. Surprisingly, nobody seemed amazed by this decision.”

Robertson never got to enjoy his expanded pension benefits. On October 23, 1970, he was killed in a one-car accident in Houghton, S.D. His car left Highway 10 and struck a tree, causing multiple skull fractures. He was 51 years old. He had been on a hunting trip with former Twins player Bob Allison, former manager Billy Martin and Twins scout Angelo Giuliani. He was on the way to join Twins doctor Leonard Michienzi on another hunting trip.

“It is a profound loss to the family and to the organization,” said Calvin Griffith. “To me he was the key man, largely responsible for building our farm system and scouting system up from very little.

“It seems like Sherry never had an unhappy day. He was always laughing, always good for morale. He really enjoyed this year as a coach for the club. He told me he learned a lot about baseball players this last season. I am really going to miss talking baseball with him.”

More than 500 people attended his funeral services, including many executives from across professional baseball, as well as Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and brother-in-law Cronin, who by then was the American League president. Sherry Robertson is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. In 2007, he was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

I wrote this story feeling pretty good about who Sherry Robertson was as a person, and how he overcame charges of nepotism to have a pretty respectable playing career and a big role in the Twins’ early success. And right as I was finishing it, I got to this story. Since I don’t feel like racism is something that should be covered up and forgotten, I’m going to include it.

In November 1961, Robertson and some Twins executives visited Vancouver, British Columbia, which was to be the site of a new minor-league team for the Twins. They held a luncheon with city officials and media, and it sounded like the usual feel-good speeches that executives give until Robertson stepped up. “We sure hated to leave Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We liked it, in spite of all those [n-word] down there.”

If you know your Twins history, this may sound vaguely familiar. Calvin Griffith gave a speech in 1978 and said that the team came to Minnesota because “I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here.” Griffith didn’t face any repercussions from Major League Baseball for it, but he got plenty of bad press, and Rod Carew almost stormed off the team in protest. Robertson’s comments, though, took place 16 years earlier, made the same claim and used even viler language… and didn’t make a fuss anywhere except in Vancouver.

“… Sherry A. Robertson, the tall dark farm director of the Twins, resplendent in a dark suit with matching prejudice,” is how Vancouver Sun columnist Dick Beddoes described him. “It was a specious remark, dripping with thick old-fashioned bias, a blundering condescension in a time when Negro athletes perform with class on big-league playgrounds.” He noted African-American Twins catcher Earl Battey was one of the finest young catchers in the league, and Lenny Green, an outfielder, played in Vancouver before he made the majors.

Shirley Povich, the veteran Washington sportswriter, spoke with Beddoes on the phone about the remarks. “I’m not surprised at any offhand cracks by certain members of the Minnesota brass. Some of them are very capable of making ignorant remarks.”

Calvin Griffith’s more infamous comments, taken by themselves, could be written off as the drunken ramblings of an out-of-touch executive. Factor in Robertson’s remarks from 1961, and you have to question whether prejudice ran through the whole family. The Senators integrated on September 6, 1954, when Carols Paula, a Cuban, joined the team. That was a full seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and the Senators were the fifth-slowest of 16 teams to put a player of color on their roster. Did they, like other bigoted executives of the day, believe that they just couldn’t find a talented African-American to join the largely talent-free, cellar-dwelling Washington rosters? Were they so concerned about handing out executive roles to family members that they failed to notice their team was getting destroyed by integrated ballclubs? Why would any fan, regardless of ethnicity, pay to see a team lose 100 games every season?

Ironically, while the Griffiths/Robertsons may have believed that the Senators failed to drew fans because of the city’s racial makeup, Beddoes pointed out that nepotism kept the Senators in the second division. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “there’s no future in being your brother’s keeper, especially if he’s a slob.”

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