After stagnating at the bottom of the National League for much of the 1950s, the Pittsburgh Pirates showed some life toward the end of the decade, finishing in second place in 1958 and in fourth place in 1959.
They began the 1960 season with an Opening Day loss at Milwaukee. They began the home portion of their schedule with a four-game series against Cincinnati starting on April 14. After splitting the first two games, the teams closed out the set with a doubleheader on the 17th, Easter Sunday. Bob Friend pitched a four-hit shutout in the opener as Pittsburgh won, 5-0. In the nightcap, Reds pitchers Don Newcombe and Raul Sanchez pitched their team to a 5-0 lead heading into the ninth inning. But the Pirates battled back in the bottom of the frame. They scratched for a run and after Hal Smith’s pinch-hit three-run homer, the deficit was just one run. Then shortstop Dick Groat singled to center field and left fielder Bob Skinner homered to right off Reds reliever Ted Wieand, giving the Pirates a most improbable victory. Besides providing the winning margin in the second game, Skinner enjoyed a wonderful day at the plate, going 4-for-9 with two runs scored and two runs batted in. Those Pirates fans who remained among the announced Easter Sunday attendance of 16,196 left Forbes Field happy after witnessing a different type of resurrection before their very eyes.
For many baseball fans the arrival of spring brings the promise of warm weather and hopes for a pennant in the autumn for their heroes. But even the most astute Pirates fan could not have imagined how Skinner’s game-winning blast would foreshadow how the Bucs’ season would end in October.
Robert Ralph Skinner was born to Ralph and Lula Skinner on October 3, 1931, in La Jolla, California. At La Jolla High School he earned two varsity letters in baseball and was named to two all-star teams. Ralph, his father, was a Spanish teacher at the school and coached track and field. After high school, Bob enrolled at San Diego Junior College, where he played basketball as well as baseball.
Pittsburgh scouts Tom Downey and Art Billings signed Skinner to a contract with the Pirates in 1951. Sent to Mayfield, Kentucky, of the Class D Kitty League, the 19-year-old Skinner played in 29 games and smacked 50 hits in 106 at-bats for an amazing .472 batting average. Moved up to Waco of the Class B Big State League, he cooled off, batting .283 in 98 games. His combined average was.326 with 87 runs batted in, 107 runs scored, 15 home runs, and 31 doubles. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound left-handed hitting first baseman showed patience at the plate, accumulating 86 walks against 52 strikeouts.
The US was fighting in the Korean War and Skinner was drafted into the Marines. He spent two years at the San Diego Recruiting Depot, where he played for the base team. Toward the end of the 1953 major-league season Pirates general manager Branch Rickey told manager Fred Haney to check Skinner out when he got back home to the West Coast.1 Haney’s report on Skinner prompted Rickey to invite the young player, who was about to be discharged, to the big-league camp the following spring.
On January 4, 1954, Skinner and Joan Phillips were married. The next month he reported to spring training at Jaycee Park in Fort Pierce, Florida. In 1953 the Pirates had finished in last place, 55 games behind pennant-winning Brooklyn. (In ’52 they had also finished in last place, 54½ games out.) Whatever the team’s goals were, Skinner, in his first spring training camp, hoped to make the Pirates’ top farm team. “I hoped to do well enough to be assigned to New Orleans,” he said.2
The Pirates were high on Skinner’s ability. Rickey called him “absolutely the best natural hitter I’ve seen in many years. . . . who gets an awful lot of power into his swings. He does not seem to go for too many bad balls. Rickey predicted: “The boy has a tremendous future.”3
Manager Fred Haney concurred with his boss. “He’s destined to be one of the great hitters in baseball,” he said. “He has a wonderful attitude too. He doesn’t try to be fancy. I asked him the other day how he got so much power in that swing and he said, ‘I dunno, I just go up there and swing.’”4
Though all he had hoped for in his first big-league camp was to be assigned to Triple-A, Skinner performed well enough to make the Pirates roster. On the team’s way north he received a call informing him that Joan had been in a head-on car accident in Oklahoma. Bob went to Oklahoma to be with her, and was relieved to find out that. It turned out that she had not been badly injured, and he was able to rejoin the team the day before the season opened.
Skinner started 116 games at first base in his rookie year, hitting .249 with eight home runs and 46 RBIs. Just over a week into the season, on April 22, he got four hits in a 7-4 victory over the New York Giants, the first of several four-hit games in his 12-year major-league career. At season’s end the Pirates found themselves in last place for the third season in a row, 44 games off the pace.
In 1955 the Pirates decided Skinner needed more seasoning and sent hin to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Double-A Southern Association. After 86 games he was leading the league with a .346 batting average but his season ended when he broke his left wrist. When he reported to spring training in 1956, Bobby Bragan was the manager; he had replaced Haney after another last-place showing by the Bucs in 1955.
Skinner made the team in 1956 but was supplanted at first base by Dale Long. He played only 24 games at first, 36 games in the outfield, bouncing between left field and right field, and even played two innings at third base. Skinner, who had never played in the outfield before, spent the season learning the nuances of being an outfielder. Because of that defensive focus, and as is common with many part-time players, he was unable to establish a smooth flow to his offensive game. He hit .202 for the season as the Pirates left the cellar and moved up to seventh place.
Left fielder Lee Walls was traded to the Chicago Cubs at the beginning of the 1957 season, and Skinner replaced him against right-handed starters. Although the Pirates were still struggling in the standings, they were forming a good nucleus of ballplayers. Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat were becoming a terrific keystone combination, Bill Virdon was solid in center field, and Bob Friend and Vern Law were leading a young pitching staff. But the player who brought it all together for the Pirates was Roberto Clemente. He could run, throw, and hit for power and average; the complete player. The Pirates were on the cusp of being a pennant contender.
The 1957 Pirates were 36-67 when Bragan was fired on August 4 and replaced by third-base coach Danny Murtaugh, who would enjoy a long managerial career in Pittsburgh. The new manager informed Skinner, “You’re playing left field until you play your way out of it.”5 And 1957 became Skinner’s breakout year. Showing he was the hitter Rickey and Haney predicted he would be, Skinner batted,.305 and hit 13 home runs. Almost half of his 118 hits came after the patient Murtaugh took the reins of the club.
The Pirates had slipped back to the cellar in 1957 but finished the 1958 season in second place, eight games behind Milwaukee. Skinner led the team in batting average (.321), on-base percentage (.387), and walks (58), and was second to Groat in doubles (33, to Groat’s 36). He shined in his left-field position at Forbes Field, leading the league with 17 outfield assists. Skinner was the starter in left field for the National League in the All-Star Game, in Baltimore. He went 1-for-3 with an RBI in a 4-3 loss to the American League.
Skinner was earning respect from his teammates for his hitting. He was being compared to St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial as the best left-handed hitter in the league. Teammate Dick Groat rated him the best left-handed hitter in the league after Musial. “And I’m not so sure he isn’t about up with Stan,” said the Pirates shortstop.6
Skinner said his approach at the plate was simple: “My objective is to meet the ball in a level swing. Then it has a chance to go some place whether you hit it in the air or on the ground.”7 Murtaugh, true to his word, penciled Skinner in the lineup and left him there. It didn’t matter to Murtaugh which arm the opposing pitcher used to pitch. “He’s a hard-working kid,” said the manager. “He took up handball to help him get the angle of playing balls hit off the wall and that big scoreboard in left field in Pittsburgh.”8
The Pirates finished the 1959 campaign in fourth place, nine games behind pennant-winner Los Angeles. Skinner’s average dipped some, but he still batted a respectable .280, smacking 13 homers and driving in 61 runs. Both figures were good enough for second on the team behind first baseman Dick Stuart (27 HRs, 78 RBIs). Skinner led the team with 78 runs scored. In a four-game series in Cincinnati in late May he was 7-for-16, with five home runs and 11 RBIs, including a grand slam in the finale. The Pirates stayed in the hunt throughout the season, and as the calendar turned to September they were only five games out of the top spot. An 8-14 record that month, however, sealed their fate, and they finished in fourth place, nine games out of first.
The Pirates brought it all together in 1960, clinching the pennant when the second-place Cardinals lost to the Cubs on April 25. They finished the year with a 95-59-1 record. (The tie was a 7-7 duel with San Francisco on June 28 that was never completed.) Skinner hit for an average of .273, with 15 home runs and 86 RBIs, a career high. He was chosen to start in left field for the National League in both of that year’s two All-Star Games.
Skinner missed five games of the epic seven-game World Series against the New York Yankees. He went 1-fotr-3 with an RBI and a run scored in Game One, but jammed his thumb when he slid head-first into third base in the fifth inning, then was hit by a pitch in the seventh. After that he was replaced by Gino Cimoli, and didn’t return to the Pirates’ lineup until the epic seventh game, in Pittsburgh. Down 7-4 to the Yankees in the eighth inning, the Pirates scored five runs to take a 9-7 lead. During the rally, Virdon was on second and Groat on first when Skinner laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt along the third-base line to move the runners up. After the Yankees tied the game with two runs in the top of the ninth inning, Bill Mazeroski won the Series with a dramatic home run off Ralph Terry that gave Pittsburgh its first world championship since 1925.
Success did not last for long. In 1961 the Pirates dropped to sixth place, 18½ games off the pace. They were in third place at the All-Star break, but started the second half with a 3-14 record. For the third straight year, Skinner’s average dropped, this time to .268. Virdon and Groat also turned in poor years and no starter won more than 14 games.
In 1962 the National League expanded by two teams, adding Houston and New York. That season Skinner rebounded at the plate with a .302 batting average. He led the team in home runs (20) and walks (76), and ranked second in doubles (29) and RBIs (75). The Pirates improved as well, finishing fourth with a record of 93-68. But in 1963 the team was dismal, finishing ahead of only the two expansion teams. Skinner was not there at the finish, as he became the fourth regular from the 1960 World Series winners to be shipped out of Pittsburgh. Groat, Stuart, and Hoak had all left before the trade that sent Skinner to Cincinnati for pinch-hitter extraordinaire Jerry Lynch on May 23. The Dayton Daily News summarized the trade with the following headline: “Reds Get Regular for Lynch the Pinch.” “I’ve got to like this deal,” said Reds Manager Fred Hutchinson. “Skinner can play more for us – he can do more things. Jerry has done a great job for us, but I’d rather have a guy who can play every day. It’s nice to have a good bench, but not at the expense of the regular lineup.”9 Skinner had a similar take on the swap: “You always have a soft spot for the first team, but I’m real glad to come to this team. I’d been playing regular, but the last few days Willie Stargell and Ted Savage had been in the lineup for me and Clemente. So I kind of had an inkling that something might be going to happen.”10
Skinner played regularly at first, but as the season wore on he was sitting on Hutchinson’s bench. He was in the starting lineup for only 10 games from July 11 to the end of the season. Skinner hit .253 for the Reds, to end up at .259 for the season. People started to think that perhaps the Pirates were following the adage of trading a player a year too early instead of a year too late. Skinner dismissed these criticisms, instead putting the onus on himself to work hard that winter, and report to spring training in top shape.
Now 32 years old, Skinner was a part-time starter for the Reds as the 1964 opened. Hitting just .220 in 59 at-bats, he was dealt to the Cardinals on June 13, 1964 for a career minor-league catcher, Jim Saul. At first the move proved to be a bit of a rebirth for Skinner. He was inserted into the starting lineup by Cardinals manager Johnny Keane. He was also reunited with Groat, who had come to the Cardinals a year earlier. But on June 15 St. Louis pulled off a blockbuster trade, acquiring Lou Brock from the Cubs in a six-player deal, and by mid-July Brock was getting most of the starts in left field. Skinner was once again relegated to the bench, starting only on occasion for the rest of the season.
The Cardinals won the pennant with a remarkable late-season rush, aided by the Phillies’ collapse. In the World Series their opponent was again the New York Yankees, whom Skinner and Groat had faced when they were on the Pirates four years earlier. This Series also went seven games, with the Cardinals winning. Skinner didn’t play in the field; in four pinch-hitting appearances he went 2-for-3 with a walk, a double, and an RBI.
In 1965 Skinner was used primarily in a reserve role by new St. Louis skipper Red Schoendienst. He spelled either Brock in left field or Mike Shannon in right. “Bob’s still a good hitter – and good hitters are hard to find,” Schoendienst said. “He can jump off the bench after a long layoff and do a real good job with the bat. And he’s still dangerous as a long-ball threat.”11 In 152 at-bats Skinner hit .309, showing his professionalism by being ready when called on. He also started in 28 games in the outfield. In 1966, though, Skinner was used strictly as a pinch-hitter, 48 times, and not once seeing the field in a defensive position.
Skinner was released by the Cardinals after the season. He managed the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate, in 1967 and 1968. He led the Padres to the PCL championship in his first season and was named Minor League Manager of the Year by The Sporting News. (Skinner was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Fame in 1976.) When Gene Mauch, manager of the Phillies, was fired in mid-June of 1968, Skinner was promoted from San Diego to replace him. When Mauch was fired the Phillies were in fifth place, but only 5½ games out of first place. It was believed that difficulties with Richie Allen, the Phillies’ star outfielder and a consistent discipline problem, led to Mauch’s sacking. Nevertheless, Skinner was pleased with the promotion: “The organization has been great to me and it’s a real thrill and pleasure to be able to manage the team,” he said.12
The Phillies posted a 48-59 record under Skinner’s watch in 1968, finishing 21 games out of first place. The 1969 season was a frustrating one for Bob and the Phillies. Although Skinner said all the right things about being positive and about the team having the proper attitude, it did not take long for the inevitable clash between the manager and the star. Allen skipped a doubleheader in New York on June 24. He was suspended for 26 games and did not play until July 24 in Houston. In addition to the suspension, it was reported that Allen was fined $450 each game he did not play, for a total of $11,700. On August 5, Allen informed Skinner that he had an agreement with Phillies owner Bob Carpenter and that he refused to accompany the team to Reading for an exhibition game against the Phillies’ Double-A affiliate. Skinner resigned a few days later.
“Now I know what Gene Mauch went through,” said Skinner. “You can fine Allen and he just laughs at you. He negotiates with the front office, makes his own private agreement and it’s like handing the money right back to him. I don’t want to go on managing this club under the circumstances.”13 The Phillies were 44-64 when Skinner resigned. Bob Carpenter said that Skinner really resigned because the Phillies wouldn’t extend his contract past the 1969 season. Carpenter’s But his assertion largely fell on deaf ears. An article by New York columnist Jimmy Cannon was headlined, “The Richie Allen Mess – Skinner: Class Guy.” Cannon wrote of Skinner: “He isn‘t working, but he goes voluntarily for matters of pride. He went down with style because he refused to maim his dignity as a man. There aren’t many men in baseball who would make this choice. The world is short of them. And that is why there is so much trouble.”14
Skinner spent the next 30 years in a variety of posts. He coached for the Padres, Angels, Pirates, and Braves from 1970 through 1988. In 1979, he was the hitting coach for the Pirates, who won the World Series that year. One of Skinner’s projects in 1979 was Tim Foli, the Pirates’ light-hitting shortstop. By getting Foli to hold the bat parallel to the ground and choke up, Skinner helped him raise his batting average that season by 40 points over his career average. Foli proved valuable in the second position of the batting order behind speedster Omar Moreno.
Skinner managed the Tucson Toros, Houston’s Triple-A affiliate, in 1989 and 1990. After that he stayed in the Houston organization as a special assignment scout until 2009.
As of 2011 Skinner and his wife, Joan, resided in the San Diego area. They had four sons, Robert, Craig, Andrew, and Joel. In 2002 Bob and Joel became only the second father-and-son combination (George and Dick Sisler were the first) to be major-league managers, when Joel became the Cleveland Indians manager.
This biography is included in the book "Drama and Pride in the Gateway City: The 1964 St. Louis Cardinals" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by John Harry Stahl and Bill Nowlin. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.
Bill Ranier and David Finoli. When the Pirates Won It All. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2005.
Richard Peterson. The Pirates Reader. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 2003.
The Pittsburgh Pirate Encyclopedia. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC. 2003.
The Sporting News
1930 United States Census.
1 Pittsburgh Press, June 1, 1958
2 New York Times, April 19, 1959
3 National Baseball Hall of Fame Archives
5 New York Times, April 19, 1959
6 Baseball Digest, June 1959
9 Dayton Daily News, May 24, 1963
11 National Baseball Hall of Fame Archives