A Baseball Survivor
Bill Robinson died on the last Sunday in July. Unless you are an "old school" baseball fan, you probably wouldn't even know his name. Robinson, the biggest star of the 1962 Dublin Braves team, was revered by those who knew him as a decent man, one who was a well-respected hitting instructor and coach. His pupils won two world championships. A sixteen-year veteran of the big leagues, Robinson won a World Series ring of his own with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979. This is the story of a man who was once billed as "the black Mickey Mantle" and survived the intense pressures of major league baseball for a successful 47-year career in "America's pastime."
William Henry "Bill" Robinson was born on June 26, 1943 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. After high school, Bill was signed by the Milwaukee Braves and assigned to their farm team in Wellsville. At the age of 18, Bill Robinson was ranked by scouts as one of the best rookie outfielders ever, better than Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson. At first, his future in baseball seemed dim. After a poor season in Eau Claire, Robinson was assigned to the Dublin Braves in the Georgia Florida League. In his first game with Dublin, Robinson impressed the fans with a single and a double to drive in four runs. Under the tutelage of the wily veteran manager Bill Steinecke, Robinson reversed his downward spiral and posted a highly respectable .304 average with 21 extra-base hits in 207 at bats.
Following a system wide reorganization of the minor league farm systems, Robinson was assigned to the Waycross Braves in 1963. Bill's star continued to rise with a .316 average at Waycross and a .348 average with Yakima in 1964. Facing stiffer competition, Robinson's stats tailed off with the Atlanta Crackers the following year. An International League all-star with the Richmond Braves in '66, Robinson excited the big league team in Atlanta and scouts around the country with an outstanding .312 average, 20 home runs and 79 runs batted in. After five years of bus riding and hectic living, Robinson finally made it to the majors during a late season call up in the Braves' first season in Atlanta on September 20, 1966. In 11 at bats, he garnered three hits.
With Roger Maris being traded to the Cardinals and the future of an aging and aching Mickey Mantle in doubt, New York Yankee manager Ralph Houk salivated at the thought of Robinson in his outfield. "He has the best arm I have ever seen," Houk told a reporter for the Washington Post. On November 29, 1966, the Yankees traded the veteran third sacker Clete Boyer to the Braves for the young Robinson, who carried with him a .298 average, a rocket arm and the possessed the power to become what the Yankees hoped would be "the black Mickey Mantle."
An early indicator of Robinson's throwing ability was his skill in throwing rocks at his antagonists. Somewhat of a runt in comparison to the bullies of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, Robinson compensated for his scrawniness. "When I was about 10 years old, there was one boy who used to beat me up all the time. One day I waited at the top of a hill and split his head open with a rock from 20 yards. I guess I could hit a guy with a rock at a hundred yards. I was pretty accurate," Robinson chuckled.
After developing a soreness in his right throwing arm in the Venezuelan winter ball league, Robinson underwent elbow surgery in the winter of 1967. Robinson struggled in his rookie season. With manager Houk's unfaltering patience and encouragement, Bill Robinson once again reversed his slump and surged to bat .260 in the second half of the 1967 campaign.
Robinson's sophomore season with the Yankees mirrored his rookie season. Mired in a horrific slump at the all-star break, Bill silenced his doubters with a .282 second half, and solidified a starting position for the 1969 season. Robinson returned his blessings to the community by actively participating in youth programs in New York. After a dismal season in '69, Robinson feared his baseball career was over. At the age of twenty-six, Bill appeared to be headed for the verge of obscurity. Yankee fans, instinctively and unmercifully, booed Bill. The pressure to replace "the Mick" was unbearable. After three average seasons in the minors with Syracuse, Tuscon and Eugene, Robinson finally returned to the major leagues toward the end of the 1972 season with the Philadelphia Phillies, who hoped to capitalize on his resurgent power hitting.
Robinson, who could play all three outfield positions, led the Pacific Coast League in rbi at the time of his call up to the Phillies. With the pressure of being expected to perform with the legendary Yankees gone, Robinson returned to his youthful form. He hated to go to the ball park (in New York) where he tried too hard to perform up to the impossible standards set for him by management and fans alike. Frustration led to more frustration. The White Sox had assigned Bill to their Tuscon team in 1971. Robinson felt he was lied to by the Chicago team and actually quit baseball, only to be traded to the Phillies, a move which rejuvenated his career.
Robinson shed his demons and began to enjoy baseball again. Wally Moses, a native of Montgomery County, Georgia and the Phil's hitting instructor, resurrected Robinson's natural hitting style. Bill entered the 1973 season, hoping just to remain on the team for 52 days to qualify for a pension. Little did "Robby" know he would still be around a decade later. 1973 was Bill's best season so far. He batted .288 and hit 25 home runs. Seventh in at bats per home run, ninth in slugging percentage and tenth in extra base hits in the National League, Robinson appeared headed for stardom at the age of thirty. But Robinson's roller coaster career took another dip in 1974 and he was traded to the cross state rival Pittsburgh Pirates in the off season.
A valuable substitute outfielder, Robinson played well for the Pirates and played for the Bucs in the 1975 post season playoffs against the Cincinnati Reds. Though Bill accepted his job as utility outfielder, he wanted to play full time. When Pirate outfielder Dave Parker went down in May 1975, Robinson got his shot at starting in Pirate outfield. Robby was asked to play third base when Richie Hebner went on the disabled list. Bill enjoyed playing on the hot corner as it kept him more involved in the game. Bill Robinson responded to the challenge both eagerly and favorably, since the Pirates had a trio of outfield stars. Though he ended the 1976 season with a .303 batting average, Robinson went into August batting at an amazing clip of.340. With 64 rbi and 21 home runs, Bill Robinson was chosen as the team's most valuable player and finished 21st in the balloting for the National League's Most Valuable Player. Robinson had reached the prime of his career. Suddenly, at the age of 33, he was on the verge of becoming a superstar.
Bill Robinson entered the 1977 season, his 10th full year in the majors, with high expectations. A series of ham string injuries, a bad shoulder and an aching leg couldn't hinder his determination to show his 1976 season was no fluke. Though he wasn't considered for the 1976 all star team with a .335 average, Robinson thought he might have a chance in 1977. Robinson was devastated when his name didn't appear on the 1977 ballot. Thoroughly disgusted at what he termed as a farce of a voting system, Robinson vowed not to play, even if was selected as a substitute.
Robinson continued to excel. He got his first ever on screen interview with the venerable Howard Cosell on Monday Night Baseball. Bill told the bumptious Cosell that he had alleviated the pressure and went up to the plate without any worries. When called upon after first baseman Willie Stargell was scratched from the lineup due to an injury, Robinson moved across the diamond for the good of the team.
1977 was Robinson's career year. Eleventh in the balloting for the NL Most Valuable Player, Robinson finished eighth in the league in slugging percentage and runs batted in, and sixth in doubles posted career highs in home runs (26), runs batted in (104) and batting average (.304.)
Bill Robinson returned to the outfield in 1978, replacing Al Oliver, who had been traded to Texas. With a contract extension in hand removing him from the bottom of the pay list for regular players, Robinson looked to improve on his totals of the '77 season. After getting off to a hot start, a nagging thumb injury altered his outstanding swing. After six seasons of virtual serenity, the pressure began to nag at Bill once again. His hitting had gone from consistently torrid to woefully inconsistent.
The Pirates began acquiring new players to step in, just in case Robinson faltered in 1979. His average dropped to .246, the third worst of his career. Just when it looked like he would once again fail, Robinson turned it up and moved to the top of the team's offensive statistical categories. Robinson's return to brilliance helped the Pirates to win the National League's Eastern Division pennant.
The Pirates adopted the song We Are Family as their theme song for 1979. The Pirates easily swept the powerful Reds to face the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. In a rematch of the '71 series, the Pirates won in the seventh and deciding game. Hitless in three at bats in the league championship series, Robinson got five hits in the series to win his first World Series championship ring.
Still considered a good utility player, the Pirates held onto the aging Robinson after his home run total fell to 12 in the 1980 season, though he did hit .287. Nagging injuries to Willie Stargell and Dave Parker kept Robinson in the lineup despite the fact that he was 37 and was beginning to slow down. Robinson didn't disappoint Pirate manger Chuck Tanner and played another solid season for the Pirates.
The end of Robinson's career began in the spring of 1981 when he underwent surgery for the repair of his right Achilles tendon. Bill never regained his quick bat and posted the lowest average of his National League career. After 31 games with the Pirates, Robinson returned to Philadelphia for the remainder of the 1982 season. At the end of the season, Robinson, approaching his 40th birthday, filed for free agency. He was resigned by the Phillies and played only in ten games before being released on June 9, 1983, seventeen days after his final game on May 23, 1983. The Phillies respected Robinson's knowledge of him and retained him as a minor league hitting instructor.
In his sixteen seasons in the major leagues, Robinson had 1127 hits, 166 home runs and drove in 641 runs. He hit 104 round trippers in the minors along with 514 runs batted in. His career batting average of .258 in 1472 games was not a true reflection of his outstanding career in the 1970s when he was a better than average hitter.
At the end of the '83 season, Robinson was wooed by the Mets as their new batting coach. With the likes of Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and George Foster in the Met's lineup, Robinson wasn't about to begin making changes in his slugger's swings. "I don't have any complicated ideas about hitting,"Robinson said. "Mine is a very simple approach, mostly mental," said Robinson, who was manager Dave Johnson's first choice because of his ability as a teacher of hitting.
Facing the brink of elimination in the 6th game of the 1986 World Series, the Mets rallied and took advantage of one of the greatest blunders in World Series history to send the series into the seventh and deciding game, which the Mets won. Robinson had once again returned to the top of his form, this time as the man who taught the world champions the art of hitting. Robinson remained with the Mets until the end of the 1989 season when the team made wholesale changes in their coaching staff.
In 1990, the producers of Baseball Tonight hired Robinson for his insightful commentary on major league baseball. After a two-year stint with ESPN, Robinson returned full time to baseball. Robinson worked for the Phillies minor league organization as a manager and coach from 1994 though 1999. Bill returned to the Yankees organization as a minor league hitting instructor for its Columbus team from 1999 to 2001. He accepted the offer of the Florida Marlins to serve as their hitting coach for the 2002 season.
Once again in 2003, Robinson's pupils, the surprising Florida Marlins, shocked the baseball world by capturing the World Series title, earning Robinson his third and final World Series ring. After four seasons with the Marlins, Robinson was hired as the hitting instructor for the Dodger's minor league system.
On July 29, 2007, Robinson failed to show up for an appointment in Las Vegas to discuss hitting. He had complained about his heart after throwing batting practice and went back to his hotel room to rest. A friend found him dead. Apparently his heart simply gave out. His Bible was lying open in front of him.
Jeff Wilpon, the CEO of the Mets described Robinson as "a devoted family man, a consummate professional and one of the classiest men in our sport." "Bill was a wonderful family man and a great player, manager and coach. He was a friend to everyone he met," said Dodger general manager Ned Colletti.