Baseball Way Back: Eddie Robinson keeping up with the game at 100
When you listen to Eddie Robinson, you start to believe 100 just might be the new 25.
Just two months past his 100th birthday, Robinson, the oldest living major league player, remains sharp and full of lively opinions, especially about today's baseball trends.
Just ask him about the shift.
He said, "I think it's unfair to left-handed hitters and ugly."
He even has his own podcast, "The Golden Age of Baseball with Eddie Robinson," an audio journey through the four-time all-star first baseman's 65-year-baseball odyssey, which began in 1939 with the Valdosta Trojans of the Georgia-Florida League in 1939 and ended in 2004, when he retired as a scout for the Boston Red Sox.
He talks about his time with the 1948 world champion Cleveland Indians, as well as Hank Aaron's 714th and 715th home runs -- Robinson was Atlanta Braves general manager at the time.
I recently spoke with Robinson, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, about his career, which included stints as a player with seven teams, including pennant winners in Cleveland and New York, and as a general manager not only with the Braves, but also with Texas.
Robinson's ties to Chicago are strong. He spent his best years with the White Sox of the early 1950s.
He was the first Sox player to hit a home run on the roof of old Comiskey Park.
The lefty slugger did it April 25, 1951 off Al Widmar in the third inning of Game 1 against the St. Louis Browns.
Irving Vaughan penned in the Tribune, "Robinson sent his (homer) onto the right field pavilion roof and at last reports it still was bounding toward Lake Michigan."
Robinson said the ball landed in front of a car belonging to a married couple who arrived late for the game and were just exiting their vehicle.
The man owned a confectionery store and wanted, after Robinson signed the ball, to display it in his store for a year.
"When the year was up, he gave it to me," Robinson said.
Robinson clubbed 71 homers between 1950 and 1952 for the Sox. His 29 home runs in 1951 tied a club record that stood until Bill Melton hit 33 in 1970.
"It was 352 down each line and the wind blew in, and if you were a long fly ball hitter you didn't hit many home runs, because the wind would knock the ball down. I was more of a line drive hitter, and the balls I hit made the bleachers," he said.
Robinson developed an appetite for home runs in Chicago. For each, he earned two steak dinners at the popular Stock Yard Inn restaurant.
Robinson belonged to a solid Sox infield that included the double-play combo of second-baseman Nellie Fox and shortstop Chico Carrasquel. Robinson recalled how he and Fox would sharpen their fielding by throwing hard-to-catch balls at each other.
The drills reflected a work ethic rooted in a Depression childhood in Paris, Texas.
After honing his skills on local and semipro teams -- there was no high school team -- Robinson began pro ball in 1939 after turning down a scholarship offer from the University of Texas.
For Robinson, who made money before school loading trucks, the $300 bonus was the deciding factor.
After a brief late-season stay with Cleveland in 1942, he served three years in the Navy, returning to the Indians in late 1946 and winning a world championship in 1948 on a team owned by Bill Veeck.
"Bill Veeck was a wonderful man. The players loved him," he said, recalling Veeck would throw batting practice and sit on the bench with the players and tell jokes. "When he smoked cigarettes, he scratched his match on his wooden leg."
He called Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau "a good guy and he was a damned good player," but did not consider him his best manager.
Robinson praised his White Sox manager, Paul Richards. "He was my mentor. I think he was the brightest baseball manager I played for ever," he said. "He helped the players. He taught them. He got out on the field and worked out with them. I never had a manager do that."
After Robinson's playing career ended, Richards helped prepare his former first-baseman for a front-office career.
Robinson was Richards' coach and farm department field director with Baltimore, assistant GM with the Houston Colt .45s, and farm system director in Atlanta before becoming GM there.
Robinson said he liked signing and developing players.
"When you take the uniform off and go to the front office, it all changes. Players don't treat you the same way. They look at you as the front office guy and watch their behavior."
At the beginning of 1974, Robinson was GM with the Braves as Hank Aaron was on the verge of smashing Babe Ruth's record.
Aaron had 713 homers, one shy of the record, when the Braves opened the season in Cincinnati. Robinson and manager Eddie Matthews planned to hold Aaron out of the lineup until the team opened in Atlanta.
In his podcast, Robinson said, "Knowing Hank, he might just break the record in Cincinnati, and we didn't want that to happen. We wanted it to happen in Atlanta, and we wanted to try to get a few big crowds out of his breaking the record."
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn insisted on the Braves fielding the best team and sent an emissary to enforce it.
Aaron tied the record in the opener but waited until opening day in Atlanta to break it.
Robinson paid tribute to Aaron on his podcast following Aaron's death.
He said, "He was just a regular guy and didn't seem to be the big hero he actually was."