Obituary: Tom Robson (1946-2021)

RIP to Tom Robson, who had a brief career as a designated hitter and first baseman in the 1970s before becoming a hitting coach for several teams in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s. He died on April 20 of natural causes at Memory Care Facility in Chandler, Ariz. He was 75 years old. Robson played for the Texas Rangers in 1974 and ’75. His nephew, Mike Moustakis, currently plays for the Cincinnati Reds, which was one of the teams where Robson coached in his career.

Thomas John Robson was born in Rochester, N.Y., on January 15, 1946. He and his family moved to Arizona, where he attended Camelback High School in Phoenix. He started out as a catcher before elbow problems kept him from playing ball for two years. When he returned to the field, it was as a first baseman. He spent a couple of years at Phoenix College before transferring to Utah State University. He was a dangerous hitter at both schools.

“His homers are all phenomenal shots of 400 feet or better to center field,” marveled Jim Raley, his baseball coach. Robson was a fine defensive first baseman, on top of that.

Tom Robson at Phoenix College. Source: The Arizona Republic, March 30, 1965.

The New York Mets drafted Robson in the 50th Round of the 1967 June Amateur Draft. He was sent to the Mankato Mets of the Low-A Northern League. After about a month, Robson was hitting over .400 with 8 home runs and was promoted to Durham. That higher league proved to be a challenge, but Robson found Class-A California League pitching to be no challenge in 1968. While with the Visalia Mets, Robson slammed 35 homers and drove in 102 runs, while batting a solid .283. It would be the first time Robson won a minor-league home run title, but not the last.

Also during the 1968 season, Robson and Jeanette Ivie were married at home plate. The ceremony took place on August 24, before the Mets played the Modesto Reds. It was a traditional baseball wedding; they said their vows at home plate, with Robson in his Mets uniform and the couple walking under an archway of raised bats, courtesy of both teams. The bride then moved to her spot in the stands to cheer on the Mets with the rest of her family. Robson went 1-for-4 on the day with 2 RBIs. The very next day, he homered twice in a doubleheader win over Modesto. The Robsons were married for 52 years and had two sons, Adam and David — both of whom played professional ball.

Even after that monster season, the Mets didn’t seem to be in a hurry to promote Robson. He stayed in Visalia to start 1969 and continued his fine play. He was promoted to AA Memphis, but he suffered a thumb injury after colliding with a teammate and was unable to grip to bat properly. Manager Johnny Antonelli wouldn’t take Robson out of the lineup, and he ended up with a sub-.100 average. “I was practically swinging with one hand most of the time,” Robson said. He was demoted back to Visalia and regained his form, working with manager Roy McMillan.

The Mets attempted to make Robson a switch-hitter in the Florida Instructional League (he was a right-handed hitter with some lefty experience), and when that experiment didn’t pan out, the organization sold his contract to the Montreal Expos in the spring of 1970. After a so-so year, he was released and became a minor-league free agent. He was 24 years old, had yet to play above AA and had a history of injuries. Robson signed with the Reds and spent 1971 with the Trois-Rivieres Aigles of the AA Eastern League. He appeared in a career-best 136 games and hit .274 with 16 homers and 72 RBIs. After the Reds assigned him to a team in Mexico City to start the 1972 season, Robson asked for and received his release.

Robson and his wife Jeanette were married at home plate in Visalia, Calif. Source: Tulare Advocate Register, August 26, 1968.

Robson joined his fourth organization when he signed with the Texas Rangers in May of 1972, and it was the one that worked out. He joined AA Pittsfield and homered 18 times — 19 if you count the one he got off Hall of Famer Bob Feller during a home run derby. He returned to Pittsfield in 1973 and led the Eastern League with 38 home runs, easily outdistancing runner-up Jim Rice and his 27 long balls. He was named the Eastern League MVP.

In 1974, Robson turned in one of the greatest offensive performances in his career, and it finally got him a promotion to the major leagues. While playing for the Spokane Indians, he hit .322 with 41 home runs and 131 RBIs, setting franchise records in the latter two categories. Robson was named MVP of the Pacific Coast League and homered twice more in the championship series, where Spokane defeated Albuquerque to become PCL champions. The Rangers brought the 28-year-old to the majors after the championships.

Robson debuted as a designated hitter on September 14, getting a walk in two plate appearances. He had his first hit, a double off California’s Andy Hassler, in the first game of a September 18 doubleheader. He picked up 2 RBIs in the second game with two singles off Frank Tanana. Robson appeared in a total of 6 games with a .231/.412/.308 slash line.

The Rangers brought Robson to spring training in 1975, and he was a last-minute cut after rookie Roy Lee Howell made the team. “That’s the tough part of this business,” Robson said about his spring training audition for a roster spot. “You’ve got to do good in just a few spring exhibition games to have any chance at all, and I’m simply not a good springtime hitter. I’m a big guy and it takes me a little longer than the others to get my timing down.”

Source: Arizona Republic, May 5, 2002.

Robson was brought up by the Rangers in July and played in 17 games, as a pinch-hitter, DH and first baseman. He had 7 hits, all singles, in 35 at-bats for a .200 batting average. After the season, Robson was selected by the New York Yankees in the Rule V draft. He missed spring training in 1976 with a back injury suffered during an intra-squad game. When he got out of traction, Robson went to Japan to play for the Nankai Hawks. He barely hit over .200, and his stay in Japan ended after 37 games. It also marked the end of his professional playing career.

In 2 seasons with the Rangers, Robson appeared in 23 games and had 10 hits for a .208/.278/.229 slash line. He had the 1 double, drove in 4 runs and scored 5 times. He did not commit an error in 32 innings at first base. In nine seasons in the minors, Robson hit .292 with 197 home runs. Add in the 3 he hit with Nankai, and that makes for an even 200 home runs in professional baseball.

Robson earned a degree in physical education at Arizona State University, but after coaching a semipro team in Arizona, he found his way back into the pros. Even during his playing days, Robson was known to give hitting advice to his teammates, even if it was to his own detriment. He helped Roy Lee Howell when they were teammates in Spokane, and Howell ended up sticking with the 1975 Rangers instead of Robson. It comes as no surprise, then, that Robson would make coaching his career after he retired as a player. He managed for three seasons in the minor leagues, starting with the Wasau Timbers of the Midwest League in 1979. The team lost 22 of its first 28 games before going on a tear to win the second-half championship. It was a co-op team, and Robson used a combination of prospects from the Rangers, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners to make a winning team. He was named the Midwest League Manager of the Year.

Robson then spent a couple of seasons managing the newly formed Asheville Tourists of the Sally League in 1980 and ’81. He saw himself as a hitters’ manager, letting his pitching coach handle the pitchers. “I like to work one-on-one with a hitter, to tell him why he’s not hitting a curve, instead of telling him to take more batting practice,” he said.

Texas used Robson as a minor-league hitting instructor for several seasons. He returned to the major leagues as a bullpen coach for the Texas Rangers, working under manager Bobby Valentine. That started a long partnership and friendship between the two. “As a hitting coach, Robbie was ahead of his times. He used kinetics and launch angle before anyone else did,” Valentine said in a statement about Robson’s death.

One of Robson’s biggest accomplishments in Texas was helping to make Ruben Sierra one of the American League’s most dangerous sluggers. Sierra joined the Rangers’ organization as a 17-year-old with little power and a lot of rough edges to his game. Robson, though, saw something in him that few others did. “Even when he was a young pup — stinking up the place — I gave him the highest grade I ever gave anyone,” Robson said. “There was just something about him. He wasn’t making much contact. He wasn’t showing much power. He could run. But you could see what his body did, and the way he carried himself. And the bat speed.”

Robson had similar words of praise for slugger Rafael Palmeiro, whom the Rangers acquired in a trade with the Chicago Cubs. He showed more power with the Rangers than he ever did with the Cubs. “Raffy has great kinetic links,” Robson said in 1991. “Hitting is a rotational skill. Raffy’s body rotates around its axis with maximum efficiency, thus giving his swing maximum at the point of impact.”

Valentine made Robson his hitting coach from 1989 until 1992 with the Rangers. Valentine was fired midway through the ’92 season, and the Rangers cleaned out their coaching staff at the end of the year. When Valentine was named manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines for the 1995 season, Robson returned to Japan as his batting coach. He was a part of Valentine’s coaching staff with the New York Mets as well, off and on from 1997 through 2002. He was fired a couple of times by the Mets’ upper management, but Valentine kept bringing him back. Robson was credited with turning John Olerud from a consistent hitter to a batting title contender, with power. Olerud referred to Robson as the best hitting coach he had ever had.

Robson spent the 2003 season as the Reds hitting coach but was dismissed in July when Reds manager Bob Boone was fired. He later returned to Japan to join Valentine’s coaching staff with the Marines once more. Robson also authored a book, The Hitting Edge, which detailed his hitting philosophy. “My approach is to make the player understand how the body works. If they understand how the body works, they can create their best bat speed,” Robson said. “My main thing is that I don’t change much of anything. I use what the player has, with a goal to have the player get better.”

Robson also made a pretty substantial by bringing his nephew to the ballpark while he was a Mets coach. Mike Moustakas grew up around baseball stadiums and developed his love of baseball at a young age. He has since become a three-time All-Star and a World Series champ, and it all started with Edgar Alfonzo giving him a bat and glove, and Bobby Valentine jokingly telling him to go fetch the keys to the batters box.

“I knew I wanted to play in the major leagues when I was two years old. So being able to have that experience and hang out with those guys, it was amazing,” Moustakas said.

For more information: The Spokesman-Review

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