Robert Gaston

This article was written by Chris Rainey

With the clarity of hindsight it seems appropriate that an action photograph of Robert Gaston by noted African-American photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris shows what looks like Gaston launching a home run. As the backup to Josh Gibson and teammate of Buck Leonard, Gaston certainly saw his share of home runs. Gibson abandoned the Homestead Grays in 1940 and 1941, leaving Gaston as the main catcher. In that role, Gaston slammed two homers and drove in three runs in the seventh inning against the Baltimore Elite Giants on May 10, 1941. Ray Brown and Buck Leonard also homered in the 10-run rally that gave the Grays a 13-10 win.

Robert R. Gaston was born on March 19, 1910, to John and Corine Gaston in Chattanooga, Tennessee.1 His father worked as a driver at that time, but the family joined the Northern migration and moved to the Homestead area of Pittsburgh, where John found work in a steel mill. The couple divorced in the late 1920s. Gaston’s mother moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, Carrie and Charles Frye, and worked as the cook for a family. Gaston dropped out of high school after two years and by 1930 was working as a laborer and living in a rooming house in Homestead.

Gaston showed a talent for baseball and, since he was a local resident, it was natural that the Grays would take a look. Gaston’s earliest box score appears in April 1932, when he saw action against the Detroit Wolves.2  In the game he split time with Spoony Palm behind the plate. No Negro National League existed in 1932, and the Grays traveled the country playing all comers. Bill Perkins, Mack Eggleston, and Tom Young saw the bulk of the catching action, especially against top talent. A youngster like Gaston was used sparingly while he learned the game.

In 1933 Homestead joined the revamped Negro National League but dropped out after 20 games. Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe was the team's number-one receiver. Gaston was given plenty of playing time in exhibitions but had only a few appearances in league games. His notable league appearance occurred on May 31 when he played left field in a 13-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Satchel Paige. His appearances read like a road map of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio with stops in McKeesport, Corapolis, Kittaning, Greensburg, and Warren, to name a few. In 1934 the Grays continued as an independent franchise with Fred “Tex” Burnett as the top catcher. Indications are that Gaston was Grays property, but no box scores were located that show him in action.3

The 1935 Grays rejoined the NNL and went to Wilson, South Carolina, for spring training. They had Burnett and Gaston under contract, but Burnett joined the Brooklyn Eagles and Tommy Dukes came in to share catching duties. Gaston started hot in the exhibition season with a home run against the Newark Dodgers. He followed that up with a double and triple on April 20 in Dayton, Ohio, against the Ducks of the Middle Atlantic League. When the season began he and Dukes frequently split innings in the games with one of them starting and the other entering the game as a replacement in the fourth or fifth inning; this arrangement gave Gaston experience. In important match-ups, Dukes played the whole game. An interesting sidelight to the season was that fans were invited to vote for their favorite players in advance of the All-Star game with results published in African-American newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier. Gaston was enough of a fan favorite that he garnered 1,100 votes, more than some starters. (Dukes had more than 6,000 votes.)

Because Gaston saw limited playing time, it was difficult for him to gain the savvy necessary to be a top-flight catcher. That inexperience, coupled with an arm injury that limited his throwing, led the Grays to drop him after the season. After giving the arm time to heal, he joined the Edgar Thomson baseball team in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 1937. That squad was a high-powered semipro team that enabled Gaston to refine his catching skills, strengthen his arm, and improve his accuracy on throws. He also increased his power statistics at bat.4 In his absence, the Grays added Josh Gibson as their catcher.

Gaston rejoined the Grays in 1939. At 6-feet-1 and 185 pounds, he was referred to by one paper as porky. Fortunately that did not become his nickname; it had always been Rab Roy. In fact, in an April 1932 article, he is called by his nickname and nothing more.5 Gathering data on Negro League games is an ongoing process. At the time of this writing Baseball-Reference credits Gaston with only two games in 1939. Seamheads.com lists him with four games and 11 plate appearances. However, a search of Pittsburgh newspapers found that he saw action in both ends of doubleheaders on June 10, 11, and 16, and August 10 and 12 against league opponents. In some cases Gibson was in left field; other times he was not in the lineup.6 Besides Gibson, Gaston split the catching duties with Henry Turner and others. According to Courier writer Robert Hughey, Gaston had a batting average over .300 and “cut down many a run … with his accurate heaves.”7

Josh Gibson chose to go to the Mexican League for a reported $800 a month in 1940-41. By contrast, Gaston listed his wages for 1939 at $800 in the 1940 census. Gaston took over as the Grays’ number-one catcher. He handled the pitching staff of Ray Brown, Wilmer Fields, Edsall Walker, and Tom Roberts expertly. He hit .218 with an on-base percentage of .3318. The Grays finished in first place with a 28-13 record.9 Elijah Miller, a Grays batboy, suggested that Gaston had become a superior defensive catcher to Gibson though nowhere close as a hitter.10 Teammates Howard Easterling and Buck Leonard started in the 1940 East-West game played at Comiskey Park. Owner Cum Posey somehow arranged for eight other Grays, including Gaston, to be in the dugout. There were only five substitutions made by the East squad; of the extra Grays only Ray Brown saw action.11

In 1941 manager Vic Harris was concerned that Gaston was “a good prospect, but needs more experience. If we can find an experienced catcher everything will be alright.”12 No veteran was located and Gaston held the number-one spot with Ameal Brooks and Spoony Palm providing backup. Opening the year with his power display, he went on to have 17 runs batted in and 4 homers to go with his .272 average. Most of his career he hit in the eighth spot, but on occasion in 1941 he moved up to seventh.

The Grays were easy winners of the first half in 1941, but played only .500 the second half. Some of the blame for the dropoff landed on outfielder David Whatley, shortstop Chester Williams, and Gaston “for failing to keep in shape during the season.”13 The Grays welcomed back Gibson and Sam Bankhead in 1942. They took the NNL pennant, but fell victim to Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series.

In 1943 the Grays again reached the World Series. Gaston’s sole appearance came in Game Three. Gibson had the day off, and Gaston opened the scoring with a single to plate Sam Bankhead; he then scored on an outfield error. The Grays eventually won 4-3 in extra innings over Birmingham and went on to claim the championship.

Some of the Grays, like Ray Brown and Vic Harris, took jobs in the defense industry during the war years. Gaston and Whatley enlisted in the Army after the 1943 season. Their service was short-lived because “the effects of old injuries received in sports contests made it necessary for the Army to send them home.”14

Gaston saw less and less action in 1944 and 1945. In 1946 Ted Radcliffe and Eudie Napier replaced Gibson, leaving no room for Gaston. He played a few games with the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers before returning to the Grays in 1947. He saw limited action, but on August 22 against the New York Cubans he did record the only career stolen base currently on his record. The 1948 season opened with an exhibition in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Gaston caught and Napier played right field. During the season Gaston played sparingly, usually in the second game of doubleheaders. He remained with the Grays until 1949, when his playing days ended.

As with so many of the Negro League players, Gaston disappeared from sight after his playing days, little is known except that he stayed in the Homestead neighborhood. He is listed in the 1940 census as married, but was living in a rooming house without his spouse. Further information about his family life was unavailable. Unlike some of his peers, Gaston never went to Mexico or the Caribbean in the winters to play ball; instead, he would find work as a laborer. No doubt he found work in the mills and shops around Homestead.

There is a contradiction in what Robert Gaston the man was like. Somewhere a story started that he might have killed a man. When the Negro Leagues became a topic of numerous books in the 1980s and 1990s, this story found its way into print. James Riley went so far as to report that Gaston was considered “evil.”15 This depiction is in sharp contrast to contemporary newspaperman Robert Hughey’s description of Gaston as “shy and unassuming.”16

Former Grays batboy Elijah “Lucky” Miller considered Gaston his best friend on the team and would sit with him during the games. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Kevin Kirkland did interviews with Miller from 2004 to 2010 and wrote a children’s book, Lucky Bats, based upon Miller’s memories. From his discussions with Miller, Kirkland had difficulty believing the negative depiction of Gaston. He suggested that Miller, a longtime usher at the Second Baptist Church, would not have associated with Gaston had he been truly evil.17 At the age of 93 years, Miller showed his affection for Gaston by visiting him shortly before the player’s death.                                                                          

After years in obscurity, Gaston was one of six players invited in 1993 to attend a celebration in Pittsburgh that placed banners honoring the Grays and Crawfords. The following year he took part in Pittsburgh’s bicentennial celebration. At an event called Founder’s Fest, inner-city high-school baseball players re-created a game between the Crawfords and the Grays. Gaston made an appearance to help bring the past alive.

Gaston was residing in a Pittsburgh nursing home when he died on February 11, 2000. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, northeast of downtown Pittsburgh across the Allegheny River.

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

Ancestry.com. 

The Afro-American (Baltimore).

Altoona (Pennsylvania) Tribune.

Canton (Ohio) Repository.

Chicago Defender.

Notes

1 There is some speculation that Gaston was born in 1913, not 1910.

2 Pittsburgh Courier, April 23, 1932: 16.

3 Pittsburgh Courier, March 16, 1935: 14. Gaston was listed as a team member, i.e., holdover from 1934.

4 Robert Hughey, “Grays Pin Catching Hopes on Bob Gaston,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 19, 1941: 17.

5 Pittsburgh Courier, April 16, 1932: 15.

6 Box scores and line scores came from Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Courier.  Seamheads.com appears to have stats from about 60 percent of the 54-game schedule.

7 Hughey.

8 seamheads.com, accessed April 24, 2016.

9 Dick Clark and Larry Lester eds., The Negro Leagues Book (Cleveland: SABR, 1994), 161.

10 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 11, 2006: 29.

11 Pittsburgh Press, August 19, 1940: 19.

12 Pittsburgh Courier, April 5, 1941: 17.

13 Pittsburgh Courier, March 21, 1942: 16.

14 Pittsburgh Courier, February 5, 1944: 16.

15 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994), 309.

16 Hughey.

17 Based upon email exchanges and a telephone interview on March 15, 2016, with Kevin Kirkland.