Blunder by Tiger catcher cost team chance at 1950 pennant

Aaron Robinson (left) is shown during his years with the New York Yankees, with fellow catchers Ralph Houk and Yogi Berra.

Aaron Robinson (left) is shown during his years with the New York Yankees, with fellow catchers Ralph Houk and Yogi Berra.

Go to your favorite watering hole and watch a ballgame with the masses to see how little most fans know about the rule book. Inevitably, you’ll overhear a conversation by befuddled fans who aren’t sure what the infield fly rule is or have no idea when a pitcher has committed a balk or not.

But that’s to be understood – fans are  supposed to be fans (short for fanatics), they aren’t interested in the details so much. But ballplayers should know the rules – baseball is their livelihood. But even the ballplayers can flub up.

Back in 1950, a Tiger player made a boneheaded play when he forgot the rules and cost the team a critical game down the stretch in the pennant race. The gaffe cost Detroit a ballgame, and it eventually cost the player his job, as he was shipped away shortly after.

The 1950 Detroit Tigers were a veteran ballclub with several stars in their primes: third baseman George Kell was the reigning batting champion; Hal Newhouser was still just 29 years old and not far removed from his MVP days; and “Hutch” – pitcher Fred Hutchinson, was finding his groove on the mound. The club featured three .300 hitting outfielders – Hoot Evers, Johnny Groth, and Vic Wertz, a left-handed power-hitter who was rounding out as one of the best hitters in the game. The team hadn’t seen a losing season since the first year of World War II, but despite their talent, they were expected to be chasing the New York Yankees in the American League. But it turned out that the Yanks did the chasing that season.

The Yankees were in the early stages of a 16-year stretch in which they dominated the baseball landscape. Though Joe DiMaggio was 35 years old and seemingly as famous for his love affair with Marilyn Monroe as he was for being a ballplayer, he was still formidable. Catcher Yogi Berra, infielder Jerry Coleman, leadoff man Hank Bauer, and pitchers Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, and Eddie Lopat were all in great form. The Yanks were the class of the big leagues. But they found themselves looking up at Detroit in the standings for much of the season. When the Bengals went 37-18 in May and June they belt a four-game lead over the Bombers.

But, as the calendar turned to September, the two teams were in a dead heat. On September 21, after Hurchinson shackled the Philadelphia A’s to complete a three-game sweep, the Tigs and Yanks were tied atop the standings.

The Tigers went into Cleveland for a big three-game set against the Tribe with just a week-and-a-half remaining in the season. In game one, Newhouser squared off with Bob Feller in one of their famous duels. This time, Bullet Bob emerged victorious, winning the contest 4-3. The Yankees did not play that day, but the next afternoon they won while Detroit lost to Cleveland again. A thin margin of 1 1/2 games separated the two clubs. In the finale of the Cleveland series, the Tigers’ pesky left-hander Ted Gray took the mound in a critical game. He faced Bob Lemon, one of the aces of an ace-filled Cleveland staff. Gray was up for the challenge, and the game remained knotted at 1-1 after nine. In the bottom of the 10th, Lemon led off with a triple to the deep regions of the outfield. Detroit skipper Red Rolfe ordered intentional walks to the next two batters to set up a force play at any base. When Gray coaxed Larry Doby to pop out, it looked like the Tigs might escape the jam. The next hitter, Luke Easter, bounced a routine grounder to first baseman Don Kolloway, who stomped on first and fired the ball to catcher Aaron Robinson. Lemon was coming in from third, but still several feet away from pay dirt. Robinson caught Kolloway’s toss and stepped on home plate.

Double play to end the inning, right?

Nope.

When Kolloway touched first he removed the force play and any runner advancing needed to be tagged to be put out. Robinson stood on the plate unaware as Lemon slid across the dish with the winning run. Gray and his teammates in the field never had a chance to holler at Robinson to alert him. They were dumbfounded that their catcher had forgotten a fundamental rule of the game.

After the contest, Robinson was crestfallen. he’d let his team down. The Yankees won again and the Tigers fell 2 1/2 games back. They never got any closer and the ’50 pennant was lost. It was the final chance for that group of Tiger players, as they wouldn’t taste a pennant race that late in the season again until 1967.

Kell had an excellent view of the fateful play from his perch at third base. “[Aaron] just stood there with the ball in his mitt while Lemon scored the inning run,” Kell remembered years later. “It was strange to watch.”

In Robinson’s defense, there had been a hazy “fog” that settled over Lake Erie that day caused by a forest fire in Canada. But the smoke cloud was not so thick that it could be blamed for the Detroit catcher’s mistake.

His boneheaded play was one of the last things Robinson ever did in a Tiger uniform, it turns out. The catcher, who had one time was a promising prospect in the Yankees organization (ironically), was waived by Detroit the following August after appearing in just a handful of games in 1951. He spent a month with the Boston Red Sox before being released, bringing an end to his big league career.

To some, Robinson will be remembered as the tall, strapping catcher who couldn’t break the Yankee lineup with Yogi Berra in fromt of him, to others he’ll be the guy the Tigers got when they traded away Billy Pierce (who went on to win 208 games after being exiled from Detroit), but to many who saw that strange play in the middle of the 1950 pennant race, Robinson will always be the man who stood at the plate with the ball and watched the winning run score right in front of him.

5 replies on “Blunder by Tiger catcher cost team chance at 1950 pennant

  • Chris Boone

    Great story! This happened to us in 1991 we were playing in a tournament in Manhattan KS.The bases were loaded with no one out.I was playing 3rd and came up even with the bag we were leading at the time 7-3.Well the dude hits a screamer a one-hopper to me @ 3rd I touched 3rd and threw to 2nd yelling to Boots our 2nd baseman to tag him he didn’t he just touched 2nd base and threw to 1st thinking that we had just completed a triple play and he started running off the field yelling and cheering because he thought we had just completed a triple play.Well you know what happened same situation as the story above.When I touched 3rd to make the force he had to tag the runner @ 2nd base which he did not.Luckily he finished the throw to 1st and we got him @ 1st for the 2nd out of the inning they scored one run that inning the man on 3rd scored which made it 7-4 the next batter flew out to left and the game ended that way 7-4 with us winning so we had alot better outcome than the 50′ Tigers did.:)

  • greg kellie

    @chris boone in the situation you described either the runner beat the throw to second or the ump screwed up. the force at third negates the force at the plate, but the force is still in effect a second and first.

  • Mister Warmth

    Great memories! I’m plenty old myself, but my dad and his contemporaries always seemed to bitch about that 1950 season as the one that got away, even more so than the 1961 campaign. By the way, not only didn’t DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe meet until 1952 (after he retired), she was still an unknown at the time of this story, both to him and to the public. Just sayin’. 😉 Anyway. thanks!

  • Della Robinson-Melton

    Aaron Robinson was my Grandfather. He loved baseball and sacrificed a lot to play. He started out playing in the textile “Mill Leagues”. Back in the day, ballplayers weren’t paid the huge salaries like today. He was a farmer and a migrant worker in the off-season. Grand-daddy Aaron’s baseball career was also interrupted by WWII and served in the US Coast Guard. His determination to play ball took a toll on the family and his marriage to my grandmother ended in divorce. His children were raised at Connie Maxwell Children’s Home, in Greenwood, SC. All of Grand-daddy Aaron’s children went on to become successful and several are college graduates. Despite that fact that he is portrayed in this article as “boneheaded”, Aaron Robinson was a good man.

  • Dan Holmes

    Della,

    Thanks for sharing memories of your grandfather. The article was not meant to disparage the MAN. It illuminates a strange play that occurred more than 60 years ago. Many players, including some of the all-time greats, have made mistakes on the field.

    Dan

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