For the better part of the 20th century, the name Robertson was synonymous with athletics at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Alfred James — “A.J.” or “Robbie” — Robertson served as the school’s athletic director and head coach of three sports from 1920 to 1948. Bradley’s former home basketball venue, the Robertson Memorial Fieldhouse, was named in his honor. The apple did not fall far from the tree. His son, Jim Robertson, was a successful catcher in the New York Yankees’ farm system and saw action with the Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics in 1954 and 1955.
Born in 1891, A.J. Robertson grew up in Minnesota. He lettered in football, basketball, and baseball at Carleton College in Northfield and then was a star quarterback at the University of Montana. After coaching stints at Kentucky Wesleyan, Georgetown College, and Kansas State Teachers College, he was hired by Bradley in 1920. He served as athletic director and coached football, basketball, and baseball for 28 years. Under Robertson’s direction, Bradley’s basketball program gained national prominence.
Alfred James (Jim) Robertson, Jr., the eldest son of A.J. and Clarissa (née Coyte), was born on January 29, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. Jim had three younger siblings: William “Corky”, Lois, and Marjorie. To say that Jim was born with a baseball in his hands is not much of an exaggeration. “My mother says Pop was tossing a ball at me in my crib when I was six months old,” said Jim in 1954.1 Growing up in the Robertson household, sports were the main topic of conversation between A.J. and the boys.
A.J. made sure his sons were well-rounded athletes, and they rotated between sports depending on what was in season. By age 12, Jim was instructing younger kids in baseball at a community center during the summer. He attended Peoria Central High School where, like his father, he was a three-sport standout: guard on the basketball court, quarterback for the gridiron team, and shortstop and catcher on the baseball diamond. He enlisted in the military in 1946 and spent a year stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base where he played infield on the baseball team. The club’s catcher, Sammy White, was another future big leaguer.2
Jim enrolled at Bradley in the fall of 1947 and played all three sports coached by his father. Bradley had an established shortstop, so Jim became a full-time catcher. “I just figured I had a better chance there because there always seemed to be a shortage of them,” he said in retrospect.3 The position suited his stout frame; he was listed at 5-foot-8 and 181 pounds his sophomore year.4 The 1948 Bradley Braves baseball team had a 30-5 record, including a 23-game winning streak to close out the season.5 Jim, a freshman, batted .330.6 This was the last team coached by A.J., who passed away that October from a rare liver condition at age 57.7 A year later, Bradley’s new athletic facility, the construction of which A.J. had spearheaded, was named in his honor.
There were several major league teams interested in signing Robertson after his successful 1949 sophomore year. He received a tryout with the Yankees on the recommendation of scout Lou Maguolo.8 Robertson caught batting practice before a game in St. Louis and then traveled with the club to Chicago where he worked out under the eye of Bill Dickey.9 Robertson agreed to sign with the Bronx Bombers. “This is the team I have always wanted to play with, and now that I have an opportunity, I am going to take advantage,” he said.10
The 21-year-old Robertson was assigned to the Grand Forks (ND) Chiefs in the Class C Northern League for what remained of the 1949 season. He played in 44 games and hit .248. Robertson advanced to the Class B Quincy (IL) Gems of the Three-I League in 1950 and hit .295. In the spring of 1951 Robertson and Mickey Mantle were among a group six minor leaguers invited to train with the Yankees.11 One report said that Robertson “proved a hustler but had throwing troubles.”12 He spent 1951 with the Class A Muskegon (MI) Reds, batted .288 and was named a Central League All-Star.13 Promoted to the Class A Binghamton Triplets, he batted .303 and hit five home runs in 117 games. His playing time was split between catcher and the infield.14 He was named to the Eastern League All-Star team and came in second in voting for league MVP.15 Robertson was considered the circuit’s best catcher and, as one Binghamton reporter surmised, the best in the Yankees’ farm system.16
Robertson spent 1953 spring training with the major league club in St. Petersburg, Florida, and was assigned to the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. He hit .264 in 28 games before being sent to the Yankees’ other Triple-A affiliate, the Kansas City Blues. In his debut, Robertson drove in three with a bases loaded double and threw two runners out on the bases.17 He played in 77 American Association games and finished with an average of .278, OBP of .399, and two home runs. Kansas City’s roster was loaded with future big leaguers, including Bob Cerv, Elston Howard, Vic Power, Bill Skowron, and Bill Virdon. When the Blues defeated Toledo to win the American Association pennant, Robertson drove in the decisive run in the clinching game. “That was a $1,000 hit,” he said afterwards, referring to the winning team’s playoff share.18 Kansas City subsequently lost to the International League’s Montreal Royals in the Little World Series.
In December 1953, Robertson was part of a massive 11-player trade between the Yankees and the Philadelphia Athletics. In addition to Robertson, the A’s acquired Power, Bill Renna, Don Bollweg, Johnny Gray, and Jim Finigan in exchange for Eddie Robinson, Harry Byrd, Carmen Mauro, Tom Hamilton, and Loren Babe. Earle Mack, the team’s acting general manager following the firing of Arthur Ehlers, announced that Robertson would be the team’s starting catcher in 1954.19 “All I want is a chance to play up there. I think I’ll get it with the Athletics,” said Robertson.20
The Yankees and Athletics could not have been in more different situations. The Yankees were coming off five consecutive World Series titles. They had Yogi Berra in the prime of his career, and so Robertson was expendable. The bottom-dwelling Athletics, on the other hand, provided an opportunity for playing time to players who were stuck in the Yankee farm system. The Philadelphia franchise had an overall dire outlook heading into the 1954 season. Robert D. Warrington described the state of the team in SABR’s Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal: “A bad team, sparse crowds, burdensome debt, and internal strife all were set against the backdrop of playing in an old ballpark located in a declining neighborhood with limited parking and bad transportation.”21
Athletics player-manager Eddie Joost wrote an article about Robertson for the Associated Press during spring training of 1954. “He’s a good catcher of the workhorse type, throws well, and knows how to move around. His hitting may be a question,” wrote Joost.22 He expressed hopes that the team’s coaches could help Robertson at the plate and wrote that he would be “invaluable” if he came close to the numbers he’d posted at Triple-A.
Robertson made the Athletics out of spring training and debuted in the second game of the season on April 15, against some familiar faces at Yankee Stadium. Joost penciled him into the eighth spot of the batting order ahead of battery-mate, Alex Kellner. In his first at bat, Robertson doubled to right field off Yankees starter Tom Morgan. The A’s were shut out, 3-0, and Robertson finished the game 1-for-3. The Associated Press game story stated he displayed no signs of nervousness and “handled Kellner like a veteran.”23“The only thing that I wish right now is that my dad were here,” said Robertson after his debut. “How much this moment would have meant to him.”24 He started 43 games at catcher in 1954, playing sporadically and splitting time with Joe Astroth and Billy Shantz. He appeared in 63 games, catching in 50 of those games. In 147 atbats, Robertson recorded 27 hits for an average of .184. He walked 23 times and drove in eight runs. The A’s finished in last place, 60 games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians, with a 51-103 record. Bernie Guest, the A’s farm director, said Robertson “did an outstanding job behind the plate and was a fierce competitor.”25
Following the 1954 season, the Mack family sold the Athletics to Arnold Johnson, who relocated the franchise to Kansas City for 1955. After missing time in spring training due to a shoulder injury, Robertson was placed on leave from the team in April to deal with a legal matter.26 He was arraigned in Indianapolis on an indictment charging him with Federal Housing Administration fraud. The fraud accusation involved a “model home ruse to obtain aluminum siding contracts in violation of FHA regulations.”27 Robertson and four other men were charged. He pled innocent and posted $3,000 bond.28 A trial was held in the fall of 1955, and he was found innocent of the charges.29
Robertson appeared in only six games through early May and recorded two hits in eight at bats. He was optioned to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League on May 11, where he impressed defensively. In each of his first five games, he threw out baserunners attempting to steal. One reporter wrote, “The young man not only is out in front of the plate after bunts like no catcher we have seen in years but has a rifle shot arm, which he fully knows how to use.”30 In 115 games, Robertson hit .229 with five home runs and 28 RBIs. On December 2, the Athletics sold his rights to another PCL team, the Seattle Rainiers.31
Backing up 36-year-old Ray Orteig, Robertson saw little action during the first two months of 1956. He appeared in 19 games and batted only 36 times. On June 7, Robertson was sold to the Charleston (WV) Senators of the American Association on a 30-day trial basis.32 In 45 games with Charleston, a Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, Robertson hit .246 with a .345 OBP and four home runs. In December, Charleston traded Robertson and Bobby Tiefenauer to Toronto of the International League for Archie Wilson and Don Griffin. In February 1957, Robertson decided to quit baseball and finish his degree, marking the end of his career at age 29.33 For his career, he hit .275 with 38 home runs in 658 minor league games and .187 in 69 games as a major leaguer.
Following his baseball career, Robertson worked as a real estate developer in Peoria. He married in 1967, becoming a stepfather to his wife Sue’s two daughters. He enjoyed riding horses and owned a stable in the Peoria area. In the early 1980s, Jim and Sue retired and moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. He played golf and tennis and had a workshop in his garage where he made custom saddles and other leather goods. In the mid-2000s, he moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he spent his remaining years.34
Like his father and brother, who also had played baseball and football at Bradley, Jim was inducted into the Bradley University and Greater Peoria Sports Halls of Fame. The Robertson Memorial Fieldhouse hosted countless sporting events, concerts, commencements, and community events until it was razed in 2008. In its place, the university erected a statue of A.J. to honor his legacy.
Jim Robertson passed away on October 15, 2015, in Redmond, Washington, at the age of 87. Those who knew Robertson hold fond memories of him. His sister-in-law, Dee, said that he was “fun, vivacious, and one-of-a-kind.”35 Dave Snell, longtime Bradley men’s basketball play-by-play announcer, recalled that Jim was “a great guy and proud of his alma mater.”36
Special thanks to Dave Snell and Dee Robertson for sharing their memories and to Leslie Sloan, Jim’s stepdaughter, for providing information about his life after retiring from baseball.
This biography was reviewed by Malcolm Allen and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com
1 Art Morrow. “Son’s Play as A’s Catcher May Give Dad More Fame,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 1954: 76.
3 “Robertson Glad for Chance to Make Good with Athletics,” Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania), April 17, 1954: 14.
4 1948 Bradley University Basketball Roster, https://bradleybraves.com/sports/mens-basketball/roster/jim-robertson/3892, Accessed 11/28/2020.
5 1948 Bradley Baseball Team, Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame, http://www.gpshof.com/Inductees.asp?NFOVYAAEHJJC4J64CDcU5=MSEYEBGRLCU72P0335nJt273I4U57, Accessed 11/30/2020.
6 1948 Bradley Baseball Team, Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame website.
7 “A.J. Robertson, Bradley Athletic Director, Dies,” Decatur Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), October 21, 1948: 17.
8 “Yanks Succumb to Browns, 4-2, in Shortened Tilt,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 17, 1949: 22.
9 “Bradley’s Jimmy Robertson Will Sign Yanks Pact,” Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), July 19, 1949: 13.
10 “Bradley’s Jimmy Robertson Will Sign Yanks Pact.”
11 “Promoted Rookies,” Arizona Republic, March 1, 1951: 32.
12 “Trips, Barons Battle, But not for Title,” Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), May 12, 1951: 13.
13 Lefty McFadden. “Thomas, Scarface, Freels Click, Buddy ‘Unanimous’,” Dayton Daily News, July 29, 1951: 6.
14 Charley Peet. “Jerry Stoutland Made Understudies of Robertson, Courtney in Class B,” Press and Sun-Bulletin, April 8, 1953: 36.
15 “Eastern League Selects MVP,” Pittsburgh Press, September 21, 1952: 64.
16 John W. Fox. “Robertson, at .318, Giving Tesauro, Smith a Run for Eastern Bat Title,” Press and Sun Bulletin, July 31, 1952: 19.
17 Kenneth Jones. “Pot Shots,” Journal Star (Peoria, Illinois), June 26, 1953: 20.
18 Gene Reinstroffer. “Wiseler Remains Calm as Mates Fill Dressing Room with Shouts,” Kansas City Times, October 1, 1953: 21.
19 Charley Peet. “’Our No. 1 Catcher will be Robertson,’ Mack’s Son Says,” Press and Sun-Bulletin, December 20, 1953: 4.
20 Peet. “’Our No. 1 Catcher will be Robertson,’ Mack’s Son Says.”
21 Robert D. Warrington. “Departure Without Dignity: The Athletics Leave Philadelphia,” SABR Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal, https://sabr.org/journal/article/departure-without-dignity-the-athletics-leave-philadelphia/, Accessed 11/27/2020.
22 Eddie Joost. “Joost Praises Robertson as Hustling Ball Player,” Evening Sun (Hanover, Pennsylvania), March 25, 1954: 22.
23 “Robertson Glad for Chance to Make Good with Athletics.”
24 “Robertson Glad for Chance to Make Good with Athletics.”
25 Joe McGuff. “Meet the Athletics,” Kansas City Star, January 16, 1955: 25.
26 Joe McGuff. “Manager Lou Boudreau of the A’s Analyzes the White Sox Star-Catcher; Jim Robertson Sent Here for Medical Treatment,” Kansas City Star, March 15, 1955: 12.
27 “3 Evansville Men Plead Innocent in Housing Fraud,” Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), April 15, 1955: 13.
28 “K.C. Catcher Charged in FHA Fraud,” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio), April 23, 1955: 6.
29 “Peoria Defendants Judged Innocent,” Evansville Courier and Press, October 2, 1955: 1.
30 L.H. Gregory. “Greg’s Gossip,” Oregonian, May 24, 1955: 17.
31 “Jim Robertson Sold,” Daily American (Somerset, Pennsylvania), December 3, 1955: 5.
32 “Robertson Sold to Charleston,” Seattle Daily Times, June 7, 1956: 16.
33 Ray T. Rocene. “Sports Jabs,” Daily Missoulian, February 20, 1957: 8.
34 Telephone interview between the author and Leslie Sloan, December 14, 2020.
35 Telephone interview between the author and Dee Robertson, December 14, 2020.
36 Telephone interview between the author and Dave Snell, December 14, 2020.