Baseball's oldest living player is turning 100
Eddie Robinson has seen it all, from an Indians title to Babe to Jackie to Aaron
There may be no one on Earth who has seen as much baseball as Eddie Robinson.
The 99-year-old played for seven teams, and he worked in the front office as a scout, farm director or general manager for nearly a dozen more during a career that spanned 65 years.
Born in Paris, Texas, on Dec. 15, 1920, Robinson made it to the Majors with the Indians in 1942. He missed the next three years while in the service during World War II -- and suffered nerve damage to his foot that nearly ended his playing career. He won the Indians' last World Series in 1948, played against Jackie Robinson and alongside Larry Doby. He was playing when Babe Ruth’s number was retired, was the GM of the Braves when Hank Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record, and was in the stands when Mark McGwire hit home run No. 62.
He started his career under the reserve clause and became an executive during the advent of free agency. He played in four All-Star Games and drafted players like Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue and Dale Murphy -- who all played in countless more.
Robinson has seen and done everything possible in the sport, and still loves baseball, regularly tuning in to watch the Texas Rangers (naturally enough, he was their GM from 1976-82).
With Robinson about to turn 100 years old on Tuesday, MLB.com reached him at home in Texas, where he lives with his wife, Bette, to talk about some of his best memories from his big league career.
His first home run
Robinson made his debut during the 1942 season, getting one hit in eight at-bats with the Indians at the age of 21. But because he joined the war effort, he wouldn’t get back to the big leagues until 1946. On his second day back on Sept. 20, he was starting at first base when he came to the plate in the first inning to hit against his old Navy buddy, Fred Hutchinson, and the Detroit Tigers.
“I had just been called up from the Minor Leagues,” Robinson said. “I thought I could hit a home run off of [Hutchinson], but I wasn't sure. I hit it in League Park in Cleveland. League Park had a short right-field fence, but it was tall. You had to hit the ball high to get it out of the park. I got ahold on one of Freddie's curveballs and knocked it out. That was a delight for me to get my first home run.”
His final home run
Robinson’s last home run came in 1957 -- 15 years after his debut and after he had played for every American League club except for the Red Sox. Once again, it was against the Tigers, who had released Robinson earlier in the month. So, when he came up to bat as a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth on May 28, there was some serious pride on the line.
“The Tigers had released me, and Cleveland had signed me,” Robinson said. “Soon after they signed me, we went to Detroit. I pinch-hit in the ninth against Billy Hoeft, who was a left-handed pitcher -- pretty good pitcher. I hit a home run off of him with two men on and won the game [4-3]. I remember that vividly.”
He wasn't aware it would be his last at the time.
“I thought I was gonna stay with Cleveland the rest of the year but it didn't happen," Robinson said. "I was through. I should have hung 'em up a year before, but I wanted to play one more year. You needed the money. We didn't make much money when I played.”
The Indians released him in June. He signed on with the Orioles as a player-coach in September and retired from playing at the end of the season.
Winning the World Series with the Indians
Robinson played a big part on the 1948 Indians -- the last year the team won a World Series. Though he didn’t get along with manager Lou Boudreau that season, he bashed 16 home runs and played in 134 games as the team’s starting first baseman.
It was a tense season for the ballclub. They were in a fierce four-team race for the AL pennant and finished the regular season tied with the Red Sox, necessitating a one-game playoff.
“That's what it's all about," Robinson said. "That was my second full year in the big leagues and I wasn't performing the way that I thought I should perform. But I was on a good team -- we had Joe Gordon and Boudreau, Larry Doby and Dale Mitchell. We had a very good team and a good pitching staff. Gene Bearden came along as a surprise and won 20 games for us. All of a sudden we were a damn good team.
“All year long, Philadelphia, Yankees and Boston were in the race with us. Then in September, Philadelphia fell out of it. But the last day of the season, we had a one-game lead and Boston and the Yankees were tied one game behind us. If we had won our game, we would have won the pennant. But we lost and Boston beat the Yankees -- threw us into a tie."
The next day, the Indians beat the Red Sox, 8-3, behind Bearden's complete game to win the sudden-death playoff and head to the World Series to face the Boston Braves.
Robinson proved a crucial member of the World Series team. He went 6-for-20 and drove in the Series-clinching run in the top of the eighth of Game 6 to push Cleveland to a 4-1 lead over the Braves. Boston scored two runs in the bottom half to cut the lead before its rally died out.
“The run that I drove in turned out to be the winning run of the World Series. I was happy with that. I'm happy today with it. It's really something to treasure.”
Playing against Jackie Robinson
While playing with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League in 1946, Eddie Robinson hit .318/.405/.578 and smashed 34 home runs. It was enough to earn him the MVP of the league -- ahead of Montreal’s Jackie Robinson and future Yankees infielder Bobby Brown.
Robinson remembers Jackie well.
“I liked Jackie -- I knew he had good ability and thought that he was a good choice for what the Dodgers were trying to do," Eddie Robinson said. "I admired him for what he did. It wasn't as hard on him in the Minor Leagues as it was the next year in Brooklyn. But he did it and I admire him very much for what he did.”
For all of Jackie’s accomplishments, Eddie thinks there is one person who is left out of the conversation: His Cleveland teammate, Larry Doby.
“I don't think it's really fair the way Larry Doby is remembered. He was the first Black player in the American League -- he came in the league about two months after Robinson did in '47. You seldom hear of Doby. He's an afterthought. He went through all the indignities and everything -- stayed in separate hotels, ate at separate places. He did all the things that Robinson did, but he gets little credit.
“Doby was a quiet guy. He didn't join in celebrations all that much. But he was a team player. He played hard every day and was a damn good player. Had good power. He certainly deserves more attention than he gets."
A different steal of home in the 1955 World Series
Toward the end of Robinson’s big league career, he became a platoon player for Casey Stengel’s Yankees, but he didn’t regret the lack of playing time. He loved playing for a winning ballclub, and he enjoyed taking the subway up to the Stadium from his apartment in Greenwich Village. That culminated in Robinson's second trip to the World Series in 1955 when the Yankees took on the Dodgers.
While Jackie famously stole home in the Series, there was another attempt that may not be remembered by anyone except Eddie. Yankees second baseman Billy Martin tried the same thing two innings before Jackie, but he wasn't successful.
"I don't remember Robinson stealing home, but I was hitting when Martin tried to steal home,” Robinson said. “He thought he was safe, but he wasn’t. He was out easy. He told me, ‘I was in safe, wasn't I, Eddie?’ ‘Oh no, you were out. You shouldn't have been doing that anyway,'" Robinson said with a laugh.
“He was a good guy. Billy and I were great friends until he died," Robinson added. "I liked him a lot and that's why I could say what I said to him, ‘Hell no, you were out.’”
Babe Ruth’s number retirement
Just two months before Ruth passed away, the Yankees retired the Babe’s number during a ceremony at Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948. Sure enough, the Yankees were playing the Indians and Robinson was batting cleanup for Cleveland. So, he was in the dugout when Ruth stepped out for his ceremonial goodbye.
“I gave him the bat," Robinson said. "He looked like he needed help physically, and I took a bat out of the bat rack and gave it to him. He carried it up to home plate, and he used it as a kind of a crutch. When he came back, I got the bat and had him sign it.”
Robinson kept the bat for over 30 years, hanging it in the restaurant he owned in Baltimore. Eventually, he decided to sell it -- and he called Barry Halper, one of the biggest collectors of baseball memorabilia.
“I told my wife, Bette, I said, ‘I wonder what that bat’s worth.’ We had no idea, and I said ‘Well, I'm gonna call Halper and ask him for a price that I know he won't give me, but he might come back with a lesser price, give us an idea about what it's worth.’ So I called him up. I said, ‘Barry, I'm thinking about selling that Ruth bat.’ ‘What do you want for it?’ I said, ‘$10,000.’ He said, ‘I'll have the money to you tomorrow.’ And last time, I think it sold for $120,000 to 125,000!”
Hank Aaron breaks the record
Not only was Robinson on hand when Ruth’s number was retired, but he was the GM of the Braves when Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record in 1974.
But there was a problem.
Going into the season, Aaron needed just two home runs to break the record and the Braves opened the season on the road in Cincinnati. Robinson and Braves manager Eddie Mathews wanted Aaron to break the record back at home, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn’t want him sitting out to start the year.
“We knew it would draw big crowds," Robinson said, "But the Commissioner said, 'You have to play him. You have to play him because the rules say you’ve got to put your best team on the field.’ Bowie was like that."
So, Aaron started in the season opener and, sure enough, he homered. After resting him in the second game, Aaron went 0-for-3 in the third game of the series and the Braves headed back to Atlanta.
“And damned if he didn't hit a home run in the first game in Atlanta,” Robinson said with a laugh. "The record was broken and it was exciting, but it didn't go on as long as we wanted it to.”
His scouting philosophy
Robinson had a hand in signing lots of big-name stars. He was in the A’s front office when they drafted Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue. He was with the Braves when they picked Dale Murphy.
But one type of player he was drawn to that wasn’t the most skilled was a knuckleballer. Wherever he went, he sought them out.
“I had hit off Hoyt Wilhelm, Mickey Haefner and Johnny Niggeling -- some of the tough ones when I was playing -- and I knew they were damn hard to hit,” Robinson said. “When I got to Texas, I had a chance to get Charlie Hough. I got him and he had a little trouble getting started. The newspapers didn't like it. But he turned out to be the all-time leading winner for the Texas Rangers."
He was also instrumental in getting Tim Wakefield to the Red Sox.
“I had Phil Niekro as a player in Atlanta and I could see his ability. Wakefield came available and I was working for the Red Sox at the time, and I suggested that they sign him and get Niekro to work with him in Spring Training. They did enable him to win 16 games that season. So I got a lot of mileage out of knuckleballers.”
Robinson continued to scout for the Red Sox through the 2004 season, hanging it up after the Red Sox won their first title in Robinson's life.
The source of his luck
Before we hung up after speaking for nearly an hour, Robinson wanted to make something clear.
“The only thing you didn't ask me was what I attribute all my good luck to. That's my beautiful wife, Bette," Robinson said. "She's taken such good care of me and still does. I'm very proud of her."
"We got married when I was with the Yankees," Robinson said. "She went to Hunter College in New York, and we went on our honeymoon with the Yankees to Japan. We played several games over there with the Yankees. Instead of coming back to New York, we went all around the world. We had a three-month honeymoon.”