Obituary: Eddie Robinson (1921-2021)

RIP to Eddie Robinson, who was the oldest living ballplayer and an All-Star first baseman, scout, general manager, author and podcaster. He died on Monday, October 4, at his ranch in Bastrop, Texas. At the time of his death, he was 100 years and 293 days old and was one of two centenarians. Robinson played for the Cleveland Indians (1942, 1946-48, 1957), Washington Senators (1950), Chicago White Sox (1950-52), Philadelphia/Kansas City Athletics (1953, 1956), New York Yankees (1954-56), Detroit Tigers (1957) and Baltimore Orioles (1957). He also served as the general manager of the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers in a career that spanned seven decades

Robinson was the last surviving member of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. That means that there isn’t a single person in the world today who ever won a World Series with Cleveland. The oldest living ballplayer is now George Elder, who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1949. He turned 100 years old on March 10, 2021. There are now just three ballplayers who were active in baseball’s pre-integration era (Eddie Basinski, Chris Haughey and Tommy Brown). There are eight surviving ballplayers who were active in the 1940s. (Information courtesy of Baseball Almanac.) The earliest game in which includes a ballplayer who is still alive as of this writing was on October 3, 1943. Haughey, celebrating his 18th birthday, was the starting pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers in a 6-1 loss to the Reds. It was his only major-league game.

Source: The Evening Sun (Baltimore), June 12, 1942.

Shortly after celebrating his 100th birthday, Robinson decided to become a podcaster. “The Golden Age of Baseball” featured Robinson discussing his life, the people he met and the places he played. The audio quality isn’t always great, but it was a wonderful look into an era of baseball that few people today ever experienced. Robinson’s mind was sharp right up to the end of his life. There are a little over 30 episodes available, and they’re definitely worth checking out. Some of the information I’m using is taken from those recordings. Robinson also wrote his own autobiography, Lucky Me: My Sixty-Five Years in Baseball, in 2015, if you prefer your podcasts in written form.

William Edward Robinson was born in Paris, Texas, on December 15, 1920. His parents divorced when he was young, so when the Great Depression hit, Robinson was living with his mother and her brother. He spent a few hours every day before going to Paris High School working for his uncle’s freight business, loading and unloading trucks He would get Sundays off to go play baseball. He started playing semipro ball in 1936. Just a couple of years later, a baseball scout from the Knoxville Smokies watched Robinson play with a Coca-Cola Bottlers team and offered him a contract. He was also offered a full baseball scholarship to the University of Texas, but the contract with the Smokies came with a $300 cash bonus. Robinson took the Smokies’ offer and used some of that bonus to buy his mother a washing machine with a hand-dryer attachment.

The Smokies trained in Valdosta, Ga., in the late 1930s. Robinson failed to stick with the Smokies in 1939, and they optioned him to the brand-new Valdosta Trojans of the Georgia-Florida League. His first professional season was a tough one, as he batted .249 with 7 home runs. He also had to work on his defense, specifically catching low throws that bounced in the dirt in front of him. His defense became much better, and he raised his batting average to .323 in 1940. Between those seasons, his contract was acquired by the Baltimore Orioles, which was a minor-league team in the International League. After his second season in Valdosta, he was sent to Elmira of the Eastern League and continued to hit for a good average, but without much power. That changed in 1942, when he joined the minor-league Orioles. He batted over .300, slammed 27 homers and drove in 104 runs. One of his many good performances happened to be on a day when Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau was in attendance, along with scout Burt Shotten and scout Oscar Melillo. Cleveland was looking for young players, and they purchased Robinson’s contract to bring him to the major leagues.

Source: The Boston Globe, December 14, 1948.

Robinson joined Cleveland in September and made his debut as a pinch-hitter on September 9 against the Philadelphia Athletics. He was used sparingly, appearing in 9 games as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. His only hit was an RBI single against Washington on September 17, and he ended the year with a hit in 8 at-bats and 2 RBIs.

For the next three years, Robinson did his playing for the U.S. Navy. He missed the 1943 through 1945 seasons to serve during World War II. He was a standout for the Norfolk Naval Station Bluejackets baseball team, which also featured big-leaguers Phil Rizzuto at shortstop and Benny McCoy at second base, along with Fred Hutchinson, Tom Earley and Charlie Wagner in the pitching staff. The Bluejackets and the Norfolk Naval Air Station Airmen, led by Pee Wee Reese, faced off in a Naval World Series in 1943. Given the depleted nature of Major League Baseball at the time, you could make the argument their both the Bluejackets and Airmen were better than some of the pro teams.

“We had the best gloves and all the bats we wanted. We had what amounted to a major league operation. In fact, it was better than what the major league clubs had at the time because they couldn’t get good equipment. We had it,” Robinson wrote in his book.

Robinson’s baseball career nearly ended in the Navy, when doctors discovered a bone tumor in his leg. It took a couple of surgeries to fix his leg — one to remove the tumor and one to fix the nerve damage caused by the first surgery. Robinson was able to resume his baseball career after the second surgery, but the damage wrecked his chances of rejoining Cleveland right away after his discharge. Instead, He returned to Baltimore of the International League for the 1946 season. He batted .318 with 34 homers and 123 RBIs, and he had 72 walks for a .405 on-base percentage. He was named to the IL All-Star team and was the league’s MVP, earning 16 of the 24 first-place votes to finish ahead of runner-up Bobby Brown. Another Robinson — Jackie — picked up seven first-place votes for his groundbreaking 1946 season with Montreal.

Cleveland again brought Robinson to the majors in September, and this time, he was made the starting first baseman. He had hits in eight of his nine games and hit his first major-league home run on September 20, off Detroit’s Fred Hutchinson — his former Bluejackets teammate. He homered twice more in Detroit on September 28 to give him 3 long balls on the year, to go with his .400 batting average.

Robinson stayed in the majors for good, and Cleveland owner Bill Veeck wasn’t about to let him go, despite many suitors. “Robinson is as popular with other owners as Sinatra is with the soxers,” he said. “Five teams have brought up his name in talks about trades. The answer to all of them is a thousand times no.”

Source: Des Moines Tribune, December 21, 1951.

Robinson began 1947 as the starting first baseman and held the job until he broke his ankle on a foul tip in August, ending his season. In 94 games, he batted .245 but homered 14 times. As a result of the injury, he came into the 1948 training camp as the team’s biggest question mark. He was 27 years old and had not played a full season in the majors, and nobody knew if he could stay healthy or hit consistently in the big leagues.

As it turned out, Robinson could more than hold his own. He slashed .254/.307/.408 in 134 games, with 16 home runs, 83 RBIs and excellent defense at first base. He started the season with a 6-game hitting streak and homered twice against the White Sox in a 12-11, 14-inning win. He had 3 hits in the game, drove in 3 runs, and walked 4 times, and it was his solo homer in the top of the 14th against Earl Caldwell that put Cleveland on top for good. Robinson had a few hitless stretches in the second half of the season to drop his batting average, but he was a big part of the Indians’ offense. That continued into the World Series against the Boston Braves. Robinson had 6 hits for a .300 average. His RBI single off Warren Spahn in Game Six proved to be the deciding run of the clinching game. His hit made the score 4-1, and a late Braves rally fell short as Cleveland won 4-3 to be crowned World Champs.

Just a few months later, Cleveland traded Robinson and pitchers Ed Klieman and Joe Haynes to the Washington Senators for first baseman Mickey Vernon and pitcher Early Wynn. In doing so, the big Texan went from the champs to an eighth-place team, as the Senators lost 104 games in 1949. Robinson had a great year, though, and slashed .294/.381/.459, with 27 doubles and 18 homers. He was named to the AL All-Star team for the first time in his career and drove in Joe DiMaggio in the first inning with a single off Spahn in the All-Star Game. In 1950, Robinson got off to a slow start with the Senators and was traded to the White Sox on May 31, along with Al Kozar and Ray Scarborough for Bob Kuzava, Cass Michaels and Johnny Ostrowski. At the time of the deal, Robinson was hitting .233 with a single home run. In his second game with the White Sox, he hit a solo homer off the Yankees’ Vic Raschi and added a 2-run double to break a tie, resulting in a 6-4 Chicago win. From there, Robinson just kept hitting for the White Sox, and belted 20 homers in 119 games while hitting .314. A grand slam homer on the second-to-last day of the season gave him 85 RBIs and bragging rights over teammate Dave Philley and his 81 runs driven in. Both men were from Paris and grew up playing semipro ball, and they both ended up on the same White Sox team.

Robinson had two of the best seasons of his career with the White Sox in 1951 and 1952. In 1951, he set career highs with 29 home runs, 117 RBIs and 85 runs scored while hitting .282. In ’52, he had a career-best .296 batting average and 33 doubles. He drove in 7 runs in a July 3, 1952, game against the St. Louis Browns, with a pair of 3-run homers. Robinson was an All-Star in each season and picked up a few MVP votes as well.

After two-and-a-half great seasons in Chicago, Robinson was one of the most popular players on the Sox. Still, the team traded him to the Philadelphia A’s in January of 1953, along with Joe DeMaestri and Ed McGhee, for a minor-leaguer and Ferris Fain. He was still a productive hitter, with 22 homers and 102 RBIs, but his batting average fell to .247 with the A’s. That December — the day after his 33rd birthday — Robinson was traded to the New York Yankees in a massive deal that saw 11 players moved between the two teams. It marked the end of Robinson’s time as a starter, as the Yankees had veteran Joe Collins and rookie Bill Skowron at first base. The team saw Robinson as a replacement for Johnny Mize, who was a valuable bat off the bench for the Yankees until his retirement in 1953. They even gave him Mize’s uniform number, 36.

Robinson was ecstatic about the move nonetheless. “It’s a very wonderful birthday and Christmas present rolled into one. That’s a nice [right field] wall to shoot at, but more important you don’t have to face that Yankee pitching. I hope I can help them as much as they think I can.”

Robinson did a great job in the Mize role in 1954, with a .261 batting average in 85 games. The Yankees reached the World Series but fell to the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games. Robinson had six at-bats in 4 games, with 2 hits and an RBI. Each time he reached base, he was replaced by pinch-runner Tom Carroll, who made history by becoming the youngest Yankee to play in the World Series. It was Robinson’s last good season. He barely hit over .200 while playing in his reserve role in 1955, though 16 of his 36 hits left the ballpark. It left him with a very odd .208/.358/.491 slash line. He spent the last two seasons of his playing career on the move. The Yankees traded him back to the Athletics (now located in Kansas City) in June of 1956, and the A’s dealt him to Detroit that December in an 8-player deal. In 1957, he played a total of 36 games with the Tigers, Indians and Orioles, acting as a player-coach for Baltimore. Robinson was 36 years old at the end of the ’57 season and decided to call it a career.

Robinson played a total of 13 years in the majors, with a .268/.353/.440 slash line. He had 1,146 hits, including 172 doubles, 24 triples and 172 home runs. He knocked in 723 runs, scored 546 times and drew 521 walks against 359 strikeouts. He was named to four All-Star teams and received MVP votes in 3 seasons. He never lead the league in a major offensive category, though he had a few Top Five finishes. He was tops in putouts at first base 3 times, fielding percentage once and double plays turned twice. He was also a .348 hitter in the World Series, with 8 singles and 2 RBIs.

Robinson was in the midst of signing Christmas cards when he was notified that he had been traded to the Yankees. Source: Decatur Herald, December 17, 1953.

Robinson stayed with the Orioles as a coach through 1959. He then moved upstairs to the executive office, working as the field director of Baltimore’s farm system. He left Baltimore after the 1961 season to work for Paul Richards in the new Houston franchise, as his assistant general manager. It was his first chance to work in his home state, but it would not be his last. He took over the Colts/Astros farm system in May of 1963, following the resignation of Hal Smith. He stayed with Houston until the end of 1965, turning in his resignation after Richards was fired from his role.

Robinson moved to the Kansas City A’s for a time before he rejoined Paul Richards in Atlanta, working as the Braves farm system director. He maintained that role until June of 1972, when Braves President Bill Bartholomay shook up the front office by reassigning GM Richards to the role of consultant/scout. Robinson was named “director of player personnel,” which essentially made him the general manager. Regardless of the title, he remained the Braves GM through March of 1976. It was under his term that the Braves drafted Dale Murphy, one of the team’s all-time greats. He also made a trade in December of 1974 with the Chicago White Sox to bring All-Star outfielder Dick Allen to Atlanta, only to have Allen refuse to play in Atlanta. Robinson eventually traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies in May of 1975, with Allen never once donning a Braves uniform.

Robinson was moved out of his position in 1976 after new owner Ted Turner decided to shake up the front office of his last-place team. He left the Braves altogether that September and joined the Texas Rangers as an executive vice president. He took over the reins from Dr. Bobby Brown, who had decided to return to his private practice. Robinson fired manager Frank Lucchesi after the team got off to a 31-31 start in 1977, replacing him with Eddie Stanky. Stanky, however, resigned after one game, leaving Robinson scrambling for another new manager. He found Billy Hunter, who guided the team to a second-place finish in AL West. It was a rough period for Robingon and owner Brad Corbett, who took so much criticism from fans and the media that he threatened to sell the team. Robinson, for his part, was the happiest man in Texas when Hunter got the team on the right track, so he could fade into the background where he wanted. “I’m glad that’s over,” Robinson said. “We don’t have to think about that anymore… This team is now playing like we always believed it could.”

Source: Texas Rangers

The Rangers remained a competitive team for several years, coming close but never winning a division championship. When the team really hit on hard times in 1982, Robinson was blamed for it. He was fired in June. He wrote in Lucky Me that he was offered the Yankees GM job by owner George Steinbrenner, but Robinson, aware of Steinbrenner’s reputation as a boss, opted to work as a Yankees scout instead. During the remainder of his career, he served as a scout or consultant for three World Champion teams — the Minnesota Twins in 1987 and 1991, and the Cincinnati Reds in 1990. He finished his career as a Red Sox scout, retiring from baseball in 2004. While he never took another job in baseball, he was never that far removed from the sport. He attended spring training camps, reunions, old-timer’s days and other events. He was a guest of the Cleveland Indians during the 2016 World Series, when they fell a game short of breaking the franchise’s championship dry spell. He attended a ballgame at Texas’ Globe Life Field this June. His 100th birthday brought him some new recognition and appreciation, as there have been fewer than two dozen MLB ballplayers to reach the century mark.

In 2016, when he traveled to Cleveland, he was asked about the modern game. Like many old ballplayers, there were changes he liked and changes he didn’t. He was asked if he could imagine the size of the contract that a Bob Feller or a Bob Lemon could get today. He laughed and said, “I think about Eddie Robinson, what he could have got.”

Robinson is survived by his wife, Bette, and four sons.

For more information: New York Times

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