CHICAGO -- The inscription on his plaque at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., reads as follows:
"Star catcher for the famous Baltimore Orioles, on pennant clubs 1894, '95 and '96. He later won fame as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1914 through 1931. Set record of 7 hits in 7 times at bat in single game."
Uncle Robbie was among baseball's legendary characters, the ideal manager for the Daffy Dodgers, a time when it seemed that no afternoon at Ebbets Field was complete unless three Brooklyn base runners piled up at the same base.
It was a softer age. Often, Robbie asked the baseball writers traveling with his club to pick his starting pitcher, sometimes his starting lineup. And he always listened to his beloved Ma Robinson, his wife.
Once, he started a rookie pitcher against the Cubs and patiently waited until the Cubs had hammered him for 12 runs before yanking him. Then he walked to the box seats where Ma was seated. "I hope you're satisfied," he told her. "Now, maybe you'll do less second-guessing."
One day, he decided to start outfielder Oscar Roettger, but couldn't spell his name. "What the hell," he said in surrender. "I ought to start Dick Cox." And he did.
Like many childless people, he enjoyed the company of children and was tremendously fond of Babe Herman's son. The little fellow regularly would climb into his capacious lap; Robbie weighed more than 300 pounds. Once, he dropped the kid on the floor. The boy looked up at his idol with hurt eyes.
"Why ain't your old man hitting?" Uncle Robbie asked.
One spring in Daytona, Fla., where the Dodgers were training, Ruth Law, a pioneer aviator, was flying daily over the beach dropping golf balls in the sand, a publicity stunt for a sporting goods company. Uncle Robbie got involved in an argument as to whether a baseball dropped from an airplane could be caught. Robbie thought it was possible. "I could do it myself," he insisted.
So one afternoon he stood in the center of the field, poised and ready to catch the object rapidly descending from Law's flying machine. But a grapefruit was dropped instead of a ball. The grapefruit burst as it hit Robbie's glove.
Startled, he fell on his back. He felt the warm juice spreading over his chest, was positive that it was his own blood and, while his players roared with laughter, began screaming, "Help, I'm dying."
According to the late Tommy Holmes, who for many years chronicled the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eagle, Robbie knew he had been framed. He looked sideways at Casey Stengel. The grapefruit was Stengel's idea. Before the next season, Robbie traded Stengel to the Pirates.
Robbie, 55 at the time, twice Stengel's age, had long since retired as an active player. He was a career .273 hitter, without power, but was an outstanding receiver. He was the first catcher to move close to the plate, four years before the rule was adopted compelling catchers do so.
Robbie spent the middle and latter part of his playing career with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s, when Baltimore was in the National League. He and the feisty John McGraw, the first manager described as a "mastermind," were friends and teammates. For several years, they were partners in the Blue Diamond Cafe, a Baltimore saloon.
They had opposite personalities. McGraw, the "Little Napoleon," ruled with an iron fist, the reigning disciplinarian of the time. Robbie, who managed the Dodgers for 17 seasons, winning pennants in 1916 and 1920, ran a loose ship. He once signed a broken-down pitcher to a generous contract because he liked the way he played the piano. Music always charmed Robbie, and his kindliness and gentle disposition always charmed everyone else. His players loved him.
McGraw was much aware of their different approach. In the fall of 1911, when McGraw was trying to drive his slumping New York Giants to a pennant, he sent an urgent telegram to Robbie, who at the time was managing the then-minor-league Orioles:
"Come on first train and be in for the big finish. Team is about to go to pieces through worry. Come along and help straighten out their nerves. They won't even play poker."
Bozeman Bulger, a New York Boswell who was covering the Giants, wrote about Uncle Robbie's arrival, including an encounter with catcher Chief Meyers:
" 'What's the matter with you, Chief?' he said to Meyers, who was looking very drawn. 'You're working too hard. Cut out this training nonsense and come with me.' He took the Chief to a saloon and gave him a hooker of brandy.
"Noticing that Rube Marquard [one of McGraw's star pitchers] was in the dumps, he slipped him a bottle of ale. The next morning, Robbie started a pool tournament and took Fred Snodgrass and Fred Merkle out to look at some new styles in clothes.