SABR

Aaron Robinson

This article was written by Mark Stewart.

The leading member of the 1947 Yankees’ catchers-by-committee group, Aaron Robinson was behind the plate in seventy-four games, more than any of his fellow backstops. But perhaps his most important role that season was helping groom his eventual successor, future Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.

Aaron Andrew Robinson was born on June 23, 1915, in Lancaster, South Carolina, a small town an hour or so south of Charlotte, North Carolina. Both his father, Charles Augustus “Gus” Robinson, and his mother, Jennie (McAteer) Robinson, were descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers. Gus died in 1953, at age sixty-nine, but Jennie lived to 104, outliving her son by a quarter-century.

Aaron grew to be tall and powerfully built, at six foot two and 205 pounds. A left-handed batter, with a strong throwing arm and a good head for baseball, he played catcher and third base during his school days and sandlot career. Robinson began his professional career in 1937, after the New York Yankees signed him just before his twenty-second birthday. He reported to his first spring camp as a married man, having wed Myrtle McManus on February 6. The couple would produce six children: Sybil, (1938-2004), Joanne, Mary Ann (born and died 1941), Gerald (1946-2008), Charles, and David. They eventually divorced, and Robinson later married the former Eva Ransom.

Robinson’s first stop on his way to the Major Leagues was with the Snow Hill (North Carolina) Billies of the Class D Coastal Plain League. He climbed up the Yankees farm system, hitting above .300 at almost every stop. He played third base in 1937 and 1938, after which the Yankees decided to move him to catcher. In 1942 he became the regular catcher for the International League Newark Bears and in 1943 he got the call to the big leagues. He soon became known for shouting a resounding “Where was that ball?” when he felt an umpire had missed a call.

Robinson played his first game on May 6, 1943 and struck out in a pinch-hitting appearance. He went into the Coast Guard before playing another game with the Yankees, and did not return until 1945. After being discharged, Robinson rejoined the Yankees at the end of July and played in fifty games in 1945. He batted .281 with eight home runs while sharing catching duties with Mike Garbark.

In 1946, with more players coming out of the service, the catching situation for the Yankees continued to evolve. Manager Joe McCarthy, unimpressed with his options in spring training, tabbed veteran star Bill Dickey as his starting backstop, at least to begin the year. The thirty-nine-year-old Dickey, back after two years in the navy, caught the bulk of the games in April and May. Robinson was picked to spell Dickey in the early going, and hit .300 in this role. When McCarthy abruptly resigned in May, Dickey replaced him as manager and benched himself. Robinson became the starter.

Though injury-prone, the thirty-one-year-old Robinson did the bulk of the catching the last four months of the ’46 season. Gus Niarhos came up from Kansas City in June and in late September twenty-one-year-old Yogi Berra joined the team from Newark. Robinson continued to hit with authority, finishing with sixteen home runs and sixty-four RBIs. He belted two of those homers in successive innings off Bob Feller on July 11 in New York. The second one was a grand slam—the only one of his career.

Robinson’s .506 slugging percentage was the highest of his big league career. He also became the answer to a trivia question that no doubt won countless bar bets over the years: On the third-place Yankees of 1946, a team that included Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Joe Gordon, Phil Rizzuto, Bill Dickey, and Tommy Henrich—who led the regulars in batting? The answer is Aaron Robinson, at .297.

Robinson garnered a handful of Most Valuable Player votes, finishing higher than any other catcher in the American League. He came to camp in 1947 solidly ensconced as the Yankees’ number-one catcher. Bucky Harris had been hired to restore order to New York’s managerial situation, while Dickey set about teaching young Berra the finer points of big league backstopping.

Meanwhile, Robinson did a creditable job handling the improved Yankees pitching staff. He was named to the All-Star team, but spent the entire contest on the bench. In the season’s second half, Bucky Harris and Bill Dickey felt Berra was ready to handle half the catching duties, so Robinson and Yogi split the job the rest of the way. Sherm Lollar, a prospect acquired from the Indians, also saw action down the stretch. Berra was clearly the superior offensive player. Robinson finished the year with a .270 average, but had only twenty-one extra-base hits and a mere thirty-six RBIs.

Robinson hit home runs in both games of a June 4 doubleheader against the Tigers in Detroit, and he had a three-hit, five-RBI game in the second game of an August 24 doubleheader against the White Sox at Chicago. He had a strong finish to the season, fashioning an eleven-game hitting streak in September.

During the World Series against the Dodgers, Harris used all three of his catchers. Robinson started twice—Game Five in Brooklyn and the Game Seven finale in the Bronx. The Yankees won both. In Game Five Robinson worked a two-out walk off Rex Barney and then came around to score the game’s first run when pitcher Frank Shea singled to left. The Yankees went on to win, 2–1, behind rookie Shea’s complete-game performance.

Robinson subbed for Lollar in Game Six, an 8–6 Dodgers victory. He entered the game in the top of the fourth inning and singled to center to lead off the bottom of the frame. Berra, in the game as an outfielder, subsequently singled him in to give New York a 5–4 lead. The Yankees failed to hold Brooklyn and found themselves trailing 8–5 with three outs to go. Robinson singled to load the bases with one out against reliever Hugh Casey. Pinch-hitter Lonnie Frey hit into a force play, erasing Robinson at second as a run scored. Casey then got Snuffy Stirnweiss to hit a comebacker for the final out.

Game Seven found Robinson behind the plate and Shea on the mound again. The Yankees spotted Brooklyn two early runs but it could have been much worse. In the first inning Eddie Stanky led off with a single. With Pee Wee Reese at the plate, Stanky took off for second. Robinson threw him out by so much that the umpire didn't even bother to give an out signal. Shea ended up walking Reese, who tried to swipe second, too. Once again, Robinson fired the ball to Stirnweiss, who tagged Reese out.

Robinson contributed to New York’s first run-scoring rally by drawing a second-inning walk off Hal Gregg. He struck out in the fourth, but New York scored twice to take a 3–2 lead. Joe Page came in to start the fifth inning and blanked the Dodgers the rest of the way. Robinson gave the Yankees an insurance run in the seventh inning when he followed Billy Johnson’s triple with a long fly ball to left fielder Eddie Miksis. Johnson scored after the catch with New York’s final run in a 5–2 victory.

Game Seven was Robinson’s last in pinstripes. The following February, New York packaged him with young left-hander Bill Wight and Minor League pitcher Fred Bradley in a trade that brought Eddie Lopat from the Chicago White Sox. Pitchers Wight and Bradley were coveted by Chicago, as was Robinson, whom it saw as an improvement over their catcher, Mike Tresh. Robinson played just one season in Chicago, a season in which the White Sox lost 101 games. He batted .252 and was second on the club with eight home runs.

At thirty-three, Robinson, already one of the slowest players in the league, was beginning to slow down as a hitter, too. Apparently this did not concern the Detroit Tigers, who traded pitcher Billy Pierce for Robinson and kicked in an extra ten thousand dollars to seal the deal. Detroit was in a win-now mode and needed a catcher with championship experience to handle its veteran pitchers. New Tigers manager Red Rolfe, a former Yankee, probably liked Robinson's Yankee pedigree, too.

Pierce went on to win 211 major league games (208 after leaving the Tigers) and Detroit fans would bemoan the Robinson-for-Pierce trade as one of the most lopsided in franchise history. Yet Robinson did everything the Tigers could have asked in 1949. He played in more than 100 games, threw out more than 40 percent of the runners who attempted to steal, batted .269, and regained his power stroke with thirteen homers and fifty-six RBIs. His on-base percentage was .402—a superb number for an aging catcher. Robinson worked well with the veteran pitchers and coaxed quality innings from youngsters Ted Gray and Art Houtteman. The Tigers fell short of a pennant, but finished twenty games over .500.

Although Robinson’s offensive production fell off in 1950, the Tigers won ninety-five games and spent almost all of July and August in first place. A quartet of losses to Cleveland and St. Louis in late September doomed them to a second-place finish behind the Yankees.

When Tigers fans looked back on the season, many focused on Robinson’s role in a loss to the Cleveland Indians on September 24. In the tenth inning of a 1–1 game, Cleveland’s Luke Easter hit a ball to first base with the bases loaded. First baseman Don Kolloway touched the bag and fired home to Robinson. Because his view was blocked by Easter, Robinson did not see his teammate touch first and assumed a force was on at home. He did not bother to tag Bob Lemon as he slid across the plate with the deciding run.

All three Detroit catchers in 1950—Robinson, veteran Bob Swift, and rookie Joe Ginsberg—hit below .235. Robinson’s main contribution on offense was his stellar discipline at the plate. He finished the year with sixty-four hits but seventy-five walks.

Enemy pitchers weren’t so kind in 1951. They challenged Robinson more and he literally hit his weight—.205. The Tigers waived him in early August and the Boston Red Sox claimed him. He finished the year as part of an ineffective catching jumble that included Buddy Rosar, Les Moss, Mike Guerra, Al Evans, Sammy White, and Matt Batts.

Robinson failed to catch on with a big league club the following spring. He took a job with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League and played there for two years. In 1954 he headed across the country to play for the Charleston (West Virginia) Senators, a White Sox affiliate in the American Association. Later in the season he joined the Fayetteville (North Carolina) Highlanders of the Class B Carolina League, where he caught, coached, and managed. He returned to the Highlanders in a similar capacity in 1955 but was replaced before the season ended.

Robinson stayed in baseball as a Minor League coach. In his last season, 1961, he managed the Shelby (North Carolina) Colonels, who won the Western Carolina League title despite a losing record in the regular season.

Robinson earned a World Series ring, some good memories, and one of baseball’s most inauspicious records. After his 2,189th and final plate appearance, for the Red Sox in 1951, Robinson had not stolen a base in the big leagues. It established a record that lasted until 1965, when fellow catcher Russ Nixon bumped him from the top spot. Robinson finished his career with a .260 batting mark—better than average for catchers of his day—with sixty-one homers and 272 RBIs.

Robinson died of cancer on March 9, 1966, at the age of fifty in his hometown of Lancaster. He was survived by his wife, Eva, his mother, Jennie, his first wife, Myrtle, and children, Sybil, Joanne, Gerald, Charles, and David.

 

This biography is included in the book "Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.

 

Acknowledgements

A special thank you to Gary Harris, Genealogy Assistant, Lancaster County Library, Lancaster, S.C.

 

Sources

Barber, Red. 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.

Barra, Allen. Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Gallagher, Mark. The Yankee Encyclopedia. Champaign, Illinois: Sagamore Publishing, 1996.

Gentile, Derek. The Complete New York Yankees. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2001.

Madden, Bill. Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee. New York: Warner Books, 2003.

Spatz, Lyle. Yankees Coming, Yankees Going. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2000.

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