'Sheriff' Robinson earned his badge in minor leagues

June 15, 1994|By John Steadman

CAMBRIDGE -- There's a gentle demeanor to Warren "Sheriff" Robinson, who spent 40 years in baseball, working under the two most distinguished executives the game has ever known, Branch Rickey and George Weiss, and, even before that, playing and rooming with Stan Musial when both were rookies at Williamson (W.Va.) in the Mountain State League.

It was $5-a-week room rent but Robinson and Musial, since there was only one double bed, had to share it. That's the way life was in the minor leagues. Robinson made $70 a month [Musial $65], but hastens to explain, "You could eat a fine dinner for 50 cents."

Robinson, coming up on his 73rd birthday, left baseball in 1977 after being a minor-league catcher and then served two terms as treasurer of Dorchester County.

"Every time I see Musial we talk about that first year in Class D ball, the long bus rides over those up-and-down roads in West Virginia," Robinson recalled. "There has never been a finer man than Stan. He was the same way as a young boy when we first met, but back then he slashed the ball to left field and didn't begin to pull pitches until much later."

In a career interrupted by World War II, Robinson played for the talent-laden Great Lakes Naval Station team, made up mostly of major-league performers, and then was shipped off for service in Guam. He was as capable a receiver as the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system ever had, but progress was slow. The major leagues then had only 16 teams with a 24-man player limit and opportunities were limited.

Robinson reflected on his pre-Musial days. That would make it 1937 when he was signed at age 15 out of a Cardinals' tryout camp by scout "Pop" Kelchner.

"I was paid $40 a month to catch batting practice and warm up pitchers in the bullpen in Cambridge. The manager was a wonderful man, the much-admired Fred Lucas, and on the team were two players who went to the major leagues, Ken Raffensberger and Danny Murtaugh?"

After laboring in the vineyards for the Cardinals, both before and after the war, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 1948. Soon thereafter he became a minor-league manager until joining the New York Mets as a coach in 1966 and then as a special assignment scout.

It was Robinson who prepared the report on the Orioles in 1969 when the Mets upset them in the World Series. "I admit I didn't see how we could beat the Orioles that year," he said. "They had a quality lineup but it happened. I think the same could be said about the Orioles whipping the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966. You just can't figure it, a team that was considered good beating one that was great."

Robinson has fond memories of his years as a manager, in such diverse places as Richmond, Buffalo, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Salisbury, N.C., Allentown, Quincy, Ill., Horning, N.Y., San Jose and Amarillo.

"At Amarillo, working for the Yankees, we had Jim Bouton, Joe Pepitone and Phil Linz on the same team. I remember telling Phil to make the grade he had to learn to play second, third and shortstop and I hit him a lot of ground balls at each position."

He drew the nickname "Sheriff" because his father twice tried for the county office and failed, but his brother, Waldo, later succeeded. As Robinson looks back over his shoulder and the fond memories of baseball, he says how much he enjoyed teaching young players.

How much can a player be helped? "I've thought about it a lot," he answered. "You can improve fielding and techniques. And certainly the mental aspect of how to approach a game or a situation. You do it by repetitive practice. Pound it into their heads, so to speak. But you can't make a .220 hitter a .260 hitter any more than you can make a .260 hitter into a .320 hitter."

Robinson was with the Mets when Tom Seaver was a rookie. The year was 1967. Before he signed out of college, Seaver was regarded as a prospect with an excellent curve but not overpowering. It shows that, yes, there are exceptions to any rule. A fastball can be improved. Seaver is example "A" that it can happen, until some other pitcher comes along.

"That's exactly what we were told," agreed Robinson. "He had a real bite to the curve but his fastball wasn't supposed to be that good. The second day of the season in '67 he made a start against Pittsburgh in Shea Stadium and beat the Pirates, 4-3. He had it all. Believe me, he could throw hard then and was just terrific."

For Warren "Sheriff" Robinson his baseball odyssey has been exciting . . . even to remembering when his first contract called for only $40 a month. Then he advanced to $70 while sharing the same bed as the roommate of some kid from Denora, Pa., a combination pitcher-outfielder. Last name Musial.

Those kind of stories are gems of yesteryear's minor-league experiences. And he knows they are so precious in his own book of treasured memories you can't put a price on them.

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