Craig Robinson (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Craig Robinson

This article was written by Don Leypoldt - Rory Costello


Craig Robinson (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Shortstop Craig Robinson retired with 755 fewer career homers than his Braves teammate Hank Aaron. But only six men can say they joined Aaron in the starting lineup on the nights Hammerin’ Hank tied and broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Robinson is one of those special six.1

Craig George Robinson was born on August 21, 1948, in Abington, Pennsylvania, the lone brother to sisters Gail and Marianne. The siblings’ father, George, was a beloved teacher and principal at Lower Moreland High School in the township neighboring Abington. Robinson’s mother Anna (née McDaniel) was also a teacher. George Robinson was one of the first people inducted into the Lower Moreland Hall of Fame; Lower Moreland’s National Honor Society chapter is named for him.2

Craig Robinson grew up in nearby Hatboro and moved to Bucks County when he was in middle school. A multi-sport standout at Council Rock High School, he was named to the Lower Bucks County League First Team in both prep baseball and football.3 Robinson also played basketball, though he stood just 5-feet-10. As a high schooler, Robinson was arguably better on the gridiron as a flanker and defensive back than on the baseball diamond.

But baseball was Robinson’s future. “At the time, Wake Forest and North Carolina were popular destinations,” he recalled. Robinson followed another future Council Rock big-leaguer, pitcher Bill Dillman, to Wake Forest.

Robinson played under Jack Stallings, one of the winningest baseball coaches in college history.4 He led the Demon Deacons in virtually every category in 1970: average (.363), doubles (12), triples (4), homers (even though that was just with 2), hits (45) and runs (27). A three-year letter winner, he earned first team All-ACC honors in his junior and senior years.5

The Philadelphia Phillies selected Robinson in the 11th round of the 1970 draft. “I grew up a Phillies fan for sure,” Robinson said. “I never played at Connie Mack Stadium but my Dad took me to baseball games there. I loved Connie Mack. It had a beautiful infield. There was that right field fence with the tin on it that Johnny Callison used to mash doubles off of.”

Robinson went straight from Wake into the Double-A Eastern League with the Reading Phillies, where he was one of the youngest regulars. He batted just .210 but fielded at a .977 clip in 89 games at shortstop. Reading finished one game out of first behind the Waterbury Pirates.

“Reading Double-A was a good move,” Robinson noted. “That bumped me into good, competitive baseball. Andy Seminick was my manager and he was great. Tough as nails. He wasn’t someone who was loud or rah-rah but a determined guy that knew the game. He was fun to play for and well respected in the club house.”

The next season, 1971, both Robinson and Seminick were promoted to Triple-A Eugene (Oregon) in the Pacific Coast League. Robinson raised his average to .269, despite facing more advanced competition, and was the only Emerald to play in all 145 games.

Offensively, Robinson’s 33 extra-base hits that season were a professional career high. Defensively, Robinson benefited from teammate Ruben Amaro, a former Gold Glove shortstop who was winding down his career. “Probably the biggest influence on me playing shortstop was Ruben Amaro. He was a super, super guy,” Robinson remembered. While Robinson played shortstop with more adrenaline and “athletic charge,” Amaro showed more grace. “He glided across the field,” Robinson said. “When we’d take ground balls, he’d always tell me, ‘You’re digging up my infield!’ He could take infield and it didn’t even look like anybody stepped on it. When I did, there were some footprints around there. But he was one of the really good people for the minor-leaguers in the Philadelphia system.” Robinson added, “He made you feel comfortable and free on the field — he knew how to compete in a healthy way.”6

Blocked by Larry Bowa at the big league level, Robinson repeated 1972 at Eugene. His average dipped to .226, but he stole a career-high 23 bases and drove in a career-high 48 while his fielding average improved to .966 from .953 in 1971. The Emeralds won the Pacific Coast League West division while the East crown was claimed by Tom Lasorda’s Albuquerque Dukes. Robinson mentioned the Eugene-Albuquerque rivalry as a good memory.

On September 9, 1972, in the seventh inning of an eventual loss to the Cubs at Veterans Stadium, Robinson made his big league debut by pinch-running for Joe Lis. “The Vet was a multi-purpose, big, round stadium that seated a bunch of people. It was a wonderful place to play because of the fans and because of the enthusiasm of Philadelphia,” Robinson stated. “It’s really cool, if you grew up there, to wear a Phillies uniform. It was a really wonderful experience.”

Robinson’s first start and at-bat came three days later in a 4-3 home loss to New York. In his second at-bat, Robinson led off the fourth with a double off Jim McAndrew for his first career hit.

While September 12, 1972, is special to Robinson for both his first start and hit, the date is also significant to Phillies fans. Batting seventh and making his major-league debut that day was one Michael Jack Schmidt, Robinson’s teammate in Eugene and a man Robinson described as “one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with, maybe the best. Schmitty was a great hitter with great hand-eye coordination.”

Robinson returned to Eugene for a third season in 1973 and put together career highs in batting average (.276) and slugging percentage (.379). He also stole 19 bases in 22 attempts. On July 26, Bowa broke his ankle in game two of a doubleheader against Montreal. 7 Robinson was ready when the call came to join the Phillies.

The next night, Robinson singled and scored off Ernie McAnally in his first at-bat, although Montreal edged Philly 4-3. Robinson hit well in the early going, highlighted by two doubles in the nightcap of a 6-5 win against the Cubs on July 31. When the Cubs left town a few days later, his average stood at .333.

Robinson started 39 games at short in 1973. Although he tailed off to end the season with a .226 average, he banged out three hits against San Diego in a wild, 9-8 come-from-behind win on August 21. “I didn’t even want to leave,” Robinson recalled. “I was in the clubhouse after everybody had been gone for half an hour.”

On December 3, the Phillies sent Robinson and Barry Lersch to Atlanta for Ron Schueler. Lersch never appeared for Atlanta; he spent the 1974 season in Triple-A. Longtime Phillies broadcaster Chris Wheeler claims that Atlanta GM Eddie Robinson (no relation), was several drinks in with Phillies GM Paul Owens when he commenced the trade…and that Eddie Robinson thought he was getting young Philly southpaw Randy Lerch.8

“I wanted to try and play regularly. It was going to be tough in Philadelphia because Bowa was there and he played so well for many, many years. I kind of expected a trade,” Robinson observed. “I even said, ‘Yeah, that would be good for me.’”

Although Lersch never suited up for the Braves, Robinson certainly did: he made 138 starts at short in 1974 (Marty Perez was moved to second base) and appeared in 145 games total. Two in the season’s first week were especially historic.

The first was his Braves debut at Cincinnati on Opening Day, April 4. Robinson batted eighth — but batting fourth and playing left field was Hank Aaron, who entered the game with 713 career homers. Exactly six years before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated (King’s funeral was just two miles from Fulton County Stadium). Suffice it to say, racial relations in 1974 America were still simmering, and the racist hatred that Aaron had to deal while chasing Ruth is well documented.

Robinson recalled “a certain amount of unease and a certain amount of ‘What the hell is going on here?’ when they had bodyguards in the clubhouse. There was a special area for him to be safe and away from others which made you think, ‘Wow. I wonder what this is all about.’” Yet despite this atmosphere, “the relationship between Hank and the people in the clubhouse was always good,” Robinson said. “Hank was a great guy and a super teammate.”

Robinson remembered the home run that tied Aaron with Ruth. “It was the first time he went to the plate, and he didn’t swing at one pitch. The count went to 3-and-2. The first time he swung the bat all year, off of Jack Billingham, it went out of the park. That’s when everybody went crazy.”

He also had a personal memory of that day. “Early in the game, Johnny Bench hit a ball to my left that was just a rocket. It was hit about as hard any ball as I’ve ever seen and I happened to stick out my glove and catch it. I can remember after that saying to myself, ‘If everyone hits the ball that hard up here, I might not be around!’”

The second historic event came in Atlanta’s home opener on April 8. In the bottom of the third, Robinson drew a walk from Al Downing but was picked off first one batter later. In the bottom of the fourth, Aaron hit one of the most iconic homers in baseball history. “They took me out in the middle of the game after I got picked off,” Robinson chuckled. “But then it was Downing against Hank and Hank ended it pretty quickly.”

Beyond the incredible hype and spotlight around Aaron’s chase of Ruth, Robinson battled a second source of tension as he started his Atlanta career: coming to grips with his first permanent starting job. “There was a lot of adrenaline moving through me,” he remarked. He had just a .183 average after a 7-2 loss at St. Louis on April 30, but he had two hits the next night as the Braves topped St. Louis 6-5. Starting from there, Robinson proceeded to have six multi-hit games in the first half of May.

“I started to relax a little bit more. I took a little bit of pressure off of myself,” Robinson explained. “I had a better experience at the plate. That was the big difference.”

Robinson finished the year batting .230 with 11 steals. For some reason, he hit much better on the road (.264) than at home (.187) in 1974. His 16 sacrifice hits were among the National League leaders. Defensively, he ranked fourth among National League shortstops in putouts.

Robinson saved his best hitting for last. He closed the season hitting .359 with four walks and eight runs in the Braves’ final 13 games. He had a three-hit game in Atlanta’s 14-inning 3-2 loss at Houston on September 22 and another three-hit game three days later in the Braves’ 5-2 win against Los Angeles. The Dodger game might have been Robinson’s best that year as he also fielded all 11 chances cleanly.

From August 10 to the end of the season, Robinson made just three errors and fielded .980, despite Fulton County’s reputation for having a sub-par playing field.9 Although Atlanta finished the year 14 games behind the Dodgers, who went on to win the pennant, the ’74 Braves won 88 — by far the club’s highwater mark in the 1970s.

After Robinson got the flu in spring training, the door opened for Larvell Blanks to win the Braves’ shortstop job in 1975. Robinson appeared in 10 games before being dealt to San Francisco on June 11 for corner infielder Ed Goodson.

“[Eddie] Robinson tries deals to revive skidding Braves,” reported The Sporting News soon thereafter.10 Atlanta was 26-32, 8½ games out of first on the day of the deal. Very little was “revived” at Fulton County Stadium; Atlanta finished the year 67-94.

After spending almost exactly a year in San Francisco, primarily as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement, Robinson was sent back to Atlanta in a seven-player deal on June 13, 1976, a trade most notable for sending Darrell Evans to the Giants.11

Robinson got some revenge against his old team at Candlestick Park on July 2. He drove in two runs to help give Atlanta a 7-2 win behind the pitching of Andy Messersmith, who’d joined Atlanta on April 10 as one of the first signings in the new era of free agency. “Messersmith had the best change-up in baseball that I’ve ever seen. And he was a super guy,” Robinson recalled.

At the time, though, Robinson didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the signing. “When I think back on it,” he mused, “I don’t know that I thought about it too much [then] other than he was coming from an organization — the Dodgers — that was well respected.” He came to realize, “The star of the show was Marvin Miller. Once he took over the MLBPA [Major League Baseball Players Association], the players made strides year after year.”

Meanwhile in Atlanta, a combo featuring Jerry Royster, Junior Moore and Darrel Chaney manned shortstop for the Braves in 1976 and 1977. Others who got a chance at short during this period included Pat Rockett and Rob Belloir. Indeed, throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the position was a revolving door.

“The Braves had a different strategy and culture than the Phillies did,” Robinson points out. “I was fortunate to come up behind Bowa, Denny] Doyle, and Ruben Amaro — people where the Phillies’ strategy was, ‘We’re going to put players in the middle of the infield who can catch the ball and provide the defense that we need. We’ll put the most productive offensive people in the corners and outfield.’ In Atlanta, that wasn’t so much what they had going. They looked for more offensive production out of anywhere they could get it.”

Thus, Robinson played sparingly as a defensive replacement and spot starter. He had only 53 plate appearances in the second act of his Braves career. In something of a coincidence, he handled 53 fielding chances in 1977 without an error.

Robinson became friendly with Braves owner Ted Turner and spent some off-seasons as a cameraman for WTBS. His assignments included the Atlanta Flames hockey team, University of Georgia football, NASCAR, and some NFL games while working for the country’s first “superstation.”

Robinson did not make the Atlanta ballclub out of spring training in 1978. The San Diego Padres picked him up, and he spent the year with their Triple-A affiliate in Hawaii, batting .240 but with a career best .347 on base percentage. Robinson, who had drawn just one base on balls in over 160 plate appearances with the Phillies, walked more than he struck out in his final professional season.

After his playing days ended, Robinson was hired back by the Braves. “I wanted to stay in baseball,” he said. “My first job was in Bradenton in rookie ball. I enjoyed the kids and I enjoyed coaching.” He was promoted to coach Double-A Savannah in 1980 and Triple-A Richmond in 1981.

Savannah had a 17-game improvement in 1980 as prospects like Milt Thompson, Ken Dayley, and Steve Bedrosian began to show their readiness for the big leagues. Savannah also cut a weak-hitting catcher named Brian Snitker, who successfully managed Atlanta’s big club nearly 40 years later.

Along with pitching coach Johnny Sain, Robinson coached at Richmond for four seasons. From 1981 to 1983, the R-Braves went 245-172 while finishing in the top two of the International League twice. Richmond served as finishing school for future big-league All-Stars Brook Jacoby, Brett Butler, and Gerald Perry.

Throughout his big league career, Robinson was surrounded by future successful major league managers, such as Johnny Oates, Davey Johnson, and Cito Gaston. Not surprisingly, Robinson saw similar personality traits in himself and the skippers-to-be. “They have very good social skills. They are good customer service people. They socially interact with people very well. There is a certain ease to talk to them and approachability. They listen to you.

“Brian Snitker was always the same type of guy: a smile on his face, very easy to get to know,” Robinson continued. “Easy to like. Interested in you, not just himself. He was a really sharp baseball mind as far as identifying talents and he stuck with it for a long time.”

Eddie Haas intended to promote Robinson to Atlanta, but Haas was fired midway through the 1985 season in his only stint as Atlanta’s manager. Instead of getting a big-league job, Robinson found himself managing rookie-level Pulaski in the Appalachian League.

Pulaski went 28-40 in the shortened season. But if a minor-league affiliate’s job is to produce players that help the big club, Pulaski and Robinson did have one major success. David Justice, who tied for the team lead in homers with 10, became one of Atlanta’s main hitting stars of the early ’90s. Pulaski had one other future big-leaguer on its roster. Though Tommy Greene produced an unsightly 7.64 ERA in rookie ball, and pitched just briefly for the Braves, he would later throw a no-hitter in the majors. Both farmhands were barely out of high school when Robinson managed them.

“Tommy Greene was a big strong kid who threw the heck out of the ball,” Robinson remembered. “He had a good mentality. He was a tough kid on the mound. Justice was easy to work with too. It was obvious that both were very talented and would have the opportunity to play in the big leagues if things fell their way. And if you get lucky. You’ve got to have some luck.”

After his one season managing, Robinson successfully pivoted out of baseball. “I shifted gears and didn’t look back,” he described. He and his wife Terry (née Miller) moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, and spent seven years running a family steel foundry: Kast Metals. “That is pretty much the most radical pivot you can ever imagine, going from wearing double knits at the ballpark to a hard hat at a steel foundry,” Robinson said. “It was an intense education.”

Robinson then embarked on a successful 23-year hospitality career starting at Binion’s Horseshoe in Bossier City. Harrah’s purchased Binion’s in 2004; four years later, Harrah’s re-branded themselves as Caesars. “I was a dealer, then a supervisor, then a pit boss, then host manager. I eventually became Director of Casino Marketing,” Robinson recounted, adding, “Caesars was a wonderful career for me with the training in customer service and interacting with people all of the time.” Those people skills served the affable Robinson well both in baseball and after baseball.

In 2016, Robinson was inducted into the Bucks County Sports Hall of Fame — one year after the induction of both Dillman and Al Speakman, Robinson’s high school baseball coach. Shortly after, the Robinsons retired to the Florida Gulf Coast.

The Robinsons were married in 1984 and have two daughters, Natalie and Holly. Today, Robinson is active in yoga classes and still frequently hits the gym. He and Terry have two golden retrievers and a horse. Robinson is an “early to bed, early to rise” devotee.

Robinson has favorite memories from his baseball career. “Signing with the Phillies was a big deal for me. That I was signing with the hometown team was a very cool thing. And I was sent to Reading, which wasn’t very far from where I grew up,” Robinson reiterated. “The other thing is that when Bowa broke his ankle and I was called up to the Phillies, that was cool because my parents were there. The culmination of having signed with the Phillies and being called up was incredible. You remember the first time you walked into the dugout or incidents like the first really good game that I had, where I went 3-for-4. Hank hitting the home run in Atlanta; that was a thrill. Those are the kind of things that stick with you.” Dodger Stadium was a place where Robinson enjoyed playing, and he had a .255 career average at Chavez Ravine.

But while baseball was a big part of Robinson’s life, he emphasizes that it was just one part. He pivoted out of the game as cleanly as he turned a double play. “There is a large part of my life where I wasn’t in baseball,” Robinson points out. “I left the game and I was fine. I’m kind of proud of that too.”

Last revised: July 23, 2020

 

Acknowledgments

Grateful acknowledgment to Craig Robinson for his input. Much of the source material for this bio came from Don Leypoldt’s interviews with Robinson on April 17, 2020 and June 17, 2020. All Robinson quotes are from those interviews unless otherwise indicated.

This biography was reviewed by Warren Corbett and Jan Finkel and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Notes

1 The others are Ralph Garr, Mike Lum, Darrell Evans, Dusty Baker, and Dave Johnson.

2 From Lower Moreland High School. https://www.lmtsd.org/Page/8487

3 From Bucks County Sports Hall of Fame. https://buckscountysportshof.com/honorees/2016-honorees/

4 Stallings won over 1,200 games in a nearly 40-year career at Wake, Florida State and Georgia Southern

5 From Wake Forest Baseball Archives. https://godeacs.com/documents/2020/1/14/Baseball_History.pdf

6 Remark about comfort and healthy competition — e-mail from Craig Robinson to Rory Costello, June 18, 2020.

7 July 27th, 1973 New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1973/07/27/archives/bowa-of-phillies-breaks-ankle-is-out-for-5-weeks.html

8 From Curt Smith, A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth. (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011)

9 From Ballparks of Baseball. https://www.ballparksofbaseball.com/ballparks/atlanta-fulton-county-stadium/

10 Wayne Minshew, “Robinson tries deals to revive skidding Braves,” The Sporting News, June 28, 1975.

11 Evans is just the second player to hit 30 homers in a season for three different teams.

Full Name

Craig George Robinson

Born

August 21, 1948 at Abington, PA (USA)

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