Friday, March 13, 2015

An Airplane, a Grapefruit, and Casey Stengel—Need I Say More?

Brooklyn Manager Uncle Robbie Robertson in 1916.

Baseball lore is rife with stunts, gags, and pranks.  Old timers and hot stove league denizens could while away the dreary winter hours not just with epic tales of on field prowess, but off-field high jinx as well.  Old time sports writers like Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon mined those yarns for their short stories.
Modern corporate baseball, carefully overseen by the image conscious honchos at Major League Baseball, armies of public relations flacks and player agents, has done its best to drain the color from the sport.  We are left with thin gruel like of a losing managers rant, perpetually repeated old clips of Harry Caray leering at a ball girl, and odd ball goofs by the traditional left handed pitcher.
But back when, way back when, ballplayers and even managers new the value of a good stunt.  Even better if compounded by a practical joke.
By consensus the greatest stunt of all was pulled on March 13, 1917.  It involved two of the most colorful figures in the game.  Wilbert (Uncle Robbie) Robinson was the jovial manager of the fledgling Brooklyn franchise in the National League.  One evening during spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida Robinson was sharing a few beers with his players in their hotel bar.  The story of Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street came up.   Street had gained a bit of immortality in 1908 when, on the 13th try he had caught a baseball dropped from the top of the Washington Monument, a fall of 550 feet.
The 53 year old Robinson, a former catcher in the famous rough and tumble old Baltimore Orioles of the old American Association, boasted to his players that he could beat that.  

Casey Stengel's 1912 rookie photo.
The players, led and egged on by young outfielder Casey Stengel, urged the rotund manager to back up his claim.  Together they cooked up a scheme to have Robinson catch a baseball dropped from an airplane.  Pioneer aviatrix Ruth Law was enlisted to fly the plane.  As Stengel, a famous talker and yarn spinner in his later days as Yankees and Mets manager, told the story years later, he was in the second seat with Law and it was his idea to drop a grapefruit rather than a baseball.  But, as everyone knows, Casey would never let mere facts get in the way of a good yarn.
Law, more reliably, would later recall that she flew solo.  She had forgotten, however, to bring a baseball from her hotel and there was no time to get one.  Instead she borrowed a grapefruit from the lunch of an aerodrome mechanic.

At the appointed hour Law dropped the fruit flying at least 50 miles per hour at an altitude above the 555 feet.  Robinson danced around on the field below trying to adjust for the movement of the plummeting orb.  Amazingly he got a glove on it.

Ruth Law, right in a Curtis pusher biplane.

The impact knocked Robinson to the ground and the fruit exploded drenching him in warm, sticky juice.  Stunned and convinced he was mortally wounded Robinson called out to his laughing team, “Help me, lads, I'm covered with my own blood.
It was no wonder that those early Brooklyn teams were so fond of their manager that the news papers often called them the Robins.
Robinson led the team through both glory and lean times until 1932 after which his protégé Stengel took over the team.  He led the team to National League Pennants in 1916 and 1920.  He oversaw a colorful era where the team became known as the Daffy Dodgers after the arrival of star Daffy Vance.  Their antics endeared them to loyal Brooklyn fans even in years when play on the field was lack luster.  Robinson, as much as any man, made Ebbets Field a baseball shrine.
He had come up through the Orioles with his best friend John McGraw and had gone with McGraw to become a pitching coach with the Giants s.  Despite great success winning consecutive Pennants in 1911, 1912, and 1913, a drunken McGraw had fired Robinson after a loss at home in the ‘13 World Series.  Their once close relationship shattered and the two men became bitter National League rivals.
The two met at the 1930 National League Annual Meeting and finally mutually reconciled.  They remained close until McGraw died of a heart attack in February 1934.
After Robinson retired from the Dodgers, he took over managerial duties of the minor league Atlanta Crackers.  He was depressed to learn of McGraw’s death, but was sure he would long outlast him
That was not to be.  A few months later Robinson slipped in a bathtub and broke his arm.  He jokingly told the ambulance drivers, “Don't worry about it fellows. I'm an old Oriole. I'm too tough to die.”  But he was wrong.  The fall had also caused a cerebral hemorrhage.  He died on August 8, 1934.
In 1945 Robinson was elected by the Veteran’s Committee to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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