This article was written by Alex Semchuck
Though he was an outstanding catcher for the Baltimore Orioles during the 1890s, Wilbert Robinson is remembered today primarily as the jovial, rotund “Uncle Robbie” who managed the Brooklyn Robins to two National League pennants and a 1,399-1,398 record from 1914 to 1931. His congenial nature and happy-go-lucky attitude made him one of the most beloved characters in baseball, but on the diamond he was a never-say-die competitor who specialized in getting the most out of his pitchers. “It is doubtful that baseball ever produced a more colorful figure than the esteemed Wilbert Robinson,” wrote John Kieran in the New York Times. “Like Falstaff, he was not only witty himself but the cause of wit in others. His conversation was a continuous flow of homely philosophy, baseball lore, and good humor. He knew baseball as the spotted setter knows the secrets of quail hunting, by instinct and experience.”
One of seven children of Henry and Lucy Jane (Handley) Robinson, Wilbert Robinson was born on June 29, 1863, in Bolton, Massachusetts. Wilbert (then known as “Billy Rob”) inherited his father’s butcher shop after Henry passed away in 1883, but his heart was in baseball, not the meat business. Following in the footsteps of his older brother Fred, who played three games for Cincinnati of the Union Association in 1884, 22-year-old Billy Rob signed with Haverhill of the Eastern New England League in 1885. His manager, William Prince, described him as looking like a “choice cut of sirloin,” but he batted .269 in a league in which nobody hit .300 and demonstrated his natural leadership ability. “Robinson was a great catcher from the first day we placed him behind the bat, but to my mind his greatest quality was, and is, his personality,” Prince recalled in 1913. “His good nature was a sure remedy to drive away all the blues. No cliques could last while Robbie was around. He taught us to look at all such things as a joke, and drew us together as a sociable, harmonious club.”
The following year Robinson joined the Philadelphia Athletics of the major-league American Association, where he averaged a paltry .227 over the next four-and-a-half seasons. Strapped for cash towards the end of the 1890 season, the Athletics sold Robinson and star pitcher Sadie McMahon to the Baltimore Orioles. After batting just .216 in his first full year as an Oriole, the 29-year-old backstop raised his average to .267 in 1892. On June 10 of that season Robbie enjoyed one of the finest offensive games in the history of baseball, driving in 11 runs and racking up seven hits in seven at-bats, a record that has been matched only once–by Rennie Stennett of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1975. Over the next seven seasons in Baltimore, the 5′ 8″, 215 lb. catcher hit .312, including a career-high .353 in 1894, as Baltimore–“the toughest, rowdiest, dirtiest, most foulmouthed team in history”–won three consecutive National League pennants from 1894 to 1896.
During his years with the Orioles, Robinson developed a close and long-lasting friendship with teammate John McGraw, who was 10 years younger. The two men eventually went into business together, opening the Diamond Café, a Baltimore billiards parlor that included a bar, dining room, and bowling alley. Under a joint ownership arrangement, Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon and star players Joe Kelley, Willie Keeler, and Hughie Jennings moved to Brooklyn in 1899, but Robinson and McGraw stayed behind, refusing to leave their prospering business. When the season ended, and they again refused to move to Brooklyn, they were traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Robinson and McGraw spent the 1900 season in St. Louis, then returned to Baltimore in 1901 to play for the new Orioles of the American League, with McGraw serving as player-manager. After hitting .301 during the AL’s inaugural season, Robbie took over the reins as manager on July 8, 1902, when McGraw left the Orioles to manage the New York Giants. The big catcher batted .293 in 91 games during his final season as a major-league player.
Robinson remained in Baltimore, splitting his time between the Diamond Café, a butcher shop that he owned, and catching for Baltimore’s Eastern League franchise through July 1904. After four-and-a-half years away from baseball, he accepted an invitation to go to spring training with McGraw’s Giants in 1909 and work with the pitchers. Robbie did the same thing in 1910, and in midseason the following year he signed on as a full-time coach. His main duties were keeping the club loose, jockeying the opposition, and helping develop the pitching staff–pet projects included Rube Marquard, Jeff Tesreau, and Al Demaree. Robinson remained with the Giants through 1913, though he and McGraw quarreled throughout that last season. At a reunion with some old-time Orioles at a New York saloon after the last game of the 1913 World Series, McGraw got drunk and criticized Robinson’s third-base coaching in that day’s 3-1 loss to the Athletics. Robinson snapped back that McGraw’s managing had been pretty lousy, too. “This is my party. Get the hell out of here,” snarled McGraw. Robbie showered him with a glass of beer on the way out.
About a month later Robinson signed to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers, which eventually became best known as the Robins after several seasons under his leadership. He managed the club for the next 18 years, winning pennants in 1916 and 1920 but finishing in fifth place or worse 12 times. Developing a great rapport with his players (which is how he came to be known as “Uncle Robbie”), Robinson seemed to get the most out of a group of unproven youngsters and over-the-hill castoffs, often challenging for pennants when nobody expected him to. But even during the bad years, Robbie gained some measure of satisfaction if his club helped prevent McGraw’s Giants from winning the pennant; though the two old friends shook hands for cameramen, neither made any effort to mend the rift between them.
The single incident for which Wilbert Robinson is most famous occurred during Brooklyn’s 1915 training camp in Daytona Beach, Florida. A female aviator, Ruth Law, was making daily flights in the area, dropping golf balls as a publicity gimmick for a local golf course, and eventually the talk in camp turned to the idea of catching a baseball dropped from the plane. Though none of his players was brave enough to try, Robinson, three months shy of his 53rd birthday, agreed to accept the challenge. On the big day, Law forgot the baseball back in her hotel room so she substituted a grapefruit from the lunch of one of her ground crew at the last minute. The grapefruit landed in Robinson’s mitt and exploded, knocking him down and drenching him in warm juice. Thinking he was covered in his own blood, Robbie called for help. The players rushed over and began laughing uproariously when they realized what had happened. Robinson always suspected that Casey Stengel or trainer Fred Kelly had played a prank on him, and Casey later claimed that he had been the one to drop the grapefruit, but Law herself told the true story in a 1957 interview.
When Brooklyn owner and president Charles Ebbets passed away in 1925, his heirs held a directors meeting and voted to give Robinson a new three-year contract as manager and president, along with a hefty raise in salary. He held both positions for the next five years, a period during which the Brooklyn team became known as the “Daffy Dodgers.” Apocryphal stories abound from that period, tending to portray Robinson as the tolerant, easy-going Uncle Robbie or, worse, as some sort of comic buffoon. For instance, Robbie supposedly tried to discipline his team by instituting a Bonehead Club, assessing heavy fines on whomever became a member; according to the story, he became the first member himself when, prior to a game, he handed the umpire a laundry list instead of a lineup card. In reality, Robinson was still a sound baseball man who was simply overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his dual roles. He probably felt relief when the Robins replaced him as president in 1929, allowing him to focus on managing.
Robinson and McGraw finally reconciled at the National League winter meetings in December 1930, ending their 17-year feud. Robbie remained on as Brooklyn manager through the end of the 1931 season, after which he left for his hunting camp, Dover Hall, near Brunswick, Georgia. He wasn’t there long when he received word that the Dodgers had replaced him as manager with Max Carey. In 1932 Robinson became president and manager of the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association, serving for two seasons. In early August 1934 he fell in his hotel room, hitting his head on the bathtub and breaking his arm. While being administered to, he uttered his most famous line: “Don’t worry about it, fellas. I’m an old Oriole. I’m too tough to die.”
He was wrong. Having suffered a brain hemorrhage, Wilbert Robinson died in Atlanta on August 8, 1934, with his wife at his bedside. It was just five months and 14 days after the death of McGraw. The two old Orioles are buried at New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore, not far from each other.
A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., “Deadball Stars of the National League” (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author utilized the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. Also consulted were Jack Kavanagh and Norman Macht’s Uncle Robbie (SABR, 1999), David Nemec’s Players of Cooperstown: Baseball’s Hall of Fame, Total Baseball, and www.baseball-almanac.com.