In the 1994 Academy Award winning film Forrest Gump, the titular character finds himself at the intersection of American history on several occasions, an eye witness to famous people and events.
If baseball had a Forrest Gump it may have been Eddie Robinson, whose career in the National Pastime spanned more than seven decades beginning in 1939 as a wet-behind-the-ears teenage infielder and stretching to 2011 when he completed a tireless effort to fund pensions for old ballplayers.
Robinson, who played in the major leagues for 13 seasons from 1942 to 1957, with three years missed due to participation in the Second World War, is nearing his 97th birthday and is the oldest living former member of the Detroit Tigers. He played a quick 13 games for the Tigers in his final season in the big leagues, though Eddie never got a hit while wearing the Old English D.
Almost from the moment he could walk, Robinson was working hard. Before his 10th birthday he would get up at the crack of dawn to help deliver produce for a local truck company near Paris, Texas, where he grew up during the most bleak years of the Great Depression. After a few hours of work before the rooster’s had even crowed, little Eddie would go to school, only to retreat back home to do chores and help his mother. Somewhere in there he found the time to practice baseball and football, making an impression with his hitting and strength.
With times hard in northeast Texas, Robinson latched on to the first opportunity to bolt for greener pastures. In 1939 the 18-year old was signed by a scout traveling through the area who was working for the Pirates. He was assigned to Valdosta of the Georgia-Florida League where his chances seemed grim. At first, Robinson was slow to hit and terrible in the field around first base. He was nearly released, but in his second season his bat came alive and he soon worked his way up the minor league ladder, though his contract changed hands a few times, from Pittsburgh to Detroit, and eventually to Cleveland. He was thrilled to be in the Indians’ organization, hoping to play alongside Bob Feller, the famous phenom with a lightning bolt fastball. Robinson finally got his chance when Cleveland called him up at the end of the ’42 season, but by that time Feller, like many young American boys, was fighting in World War II.
Robinson missed the 1943-44-45 seasons while enlisted in the United States Navy. He spent several months in the Pacific, zigzagging the ocean from island to island. He was on the ship with his fellow sailors on August 15, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered to the United States. While in the Navy, he suffered an injury to his knee and a botched operation nearly cost him his leg. It was the quick thinking of a surgeon that saved his baseball career.
The 25-year old Robinson returned to the Indians at the end of the 1946 season as a more mature man, both physically and mentally after three years in the war. His first start in the big leagues came on September 19, at League Park in Cleveland. Bob Feller was the starting pitcher, fulfilling a dream of Robinson’s to be his teammate. Playing first base, Eddie batted third and stroked a double as Feller spun a four-hitter for his 25th victory. Ten days later, Robinson was in the lineup as Feller defeated Detroit ace Hal Newhouser for his 26th and final win of the season in a battle of great pitchers. It was the beginning of a fun run with Cleveland for Robinson, culminating in a championship.
But before that, on June 12, 1948, Robinson had a birds eye view of baseball history. That day, while the Indians were in New York, the Yankees held a ceremony to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium. Several Yankee legends and dignitaries were on hand. Robinson shook the hand of New York Governor Thomas Dewey on that day, a man who would shockingly lose the Presidential election only months later. But the biggest star was George Herman Ruth, the man everyone called “The Babe.” Though he was in frail health, the great Yankee slugger was on hand to honor “The House That Ruth Built.”
“He had his doctor with him [and] he talked in a very raspy voice,” Robinson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2016. “I could tell he needed some help. He was going to walk out to home plate without any crutches. I just reached into the bat rack and pulled out a bat and gave it to him.”
Robinson held onto that famous bat (which was apparently a Bob Feller model) for decades before selling it to a collector.
The Indians were loaded in ’48, with future Hall of Famers Feller, Bob Lemon, Joe Gordon, and Lou Boudreau on the roster. The team finished in a tie with the Red Sox but won a one-game playoff at Fenway Park to capture the pennant.
Playing in his first World Series, Robinson started every game at first base and collected six hits while batting .300 for the Indians against the Boston Braves. His RBI single in the eighth inning of Game Six proved to be the winning run in the Series clincher. The victory gave the Indians their second World Series title, and it remains the last championship won by the franchise going on 70 years. Robinson is the oldest-living World Series winner and the only man still alive who played in the ’48 Fall Classic.
Only a few months after the delight of winning the World Series, Robinson was disappointed to be traded. Cleveland manager/shortstop Lou Boudreau never got along well with Eddie for some reason, and he included Robinson in a blockbuster deal with the Senators that brought Mickey Vernon and Early Wynn to the Tribe. Wynn went on to establish himself as a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Indians.
In his first year as a Senator, Eddie had another baseball thrill: he was named the starting first baseman for the American League in the All-Star Game. In a game packed with all-time great players, Robinson was a star for the day, lining a single off Warren Spahn to score Joe DiMaggio in the AL’s victory at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. After the win, Robinson reflected on the path baseball had already taken him.
“I’m from a dusty town in Texas,” he said, “I can’t believe I’m on the same field as these great ballplayers. I have to pinch myself.”
Wsshington was frequently shuffling their roster in the 1950s, and Robinson got mixed in with that in 1950 when he was dealt to the White Sox in a six-player swap. The change of scenery proved to be a boon for Robinson, who had his best seasons in the Windy City, making two more appearances in the All-Star Game. In one game he showed off his lefthanded power when he launched a baseball over the right field roof in Comiskey Park, something only five others had ever done.
The most important thing to happen to Robinson in Chicago was his friendship with Paul Richards, the innovative White Sox skipper. Richards possessed a clever baseball mind and implemented many revolutionary tactics in the organization. He favored pitching and defense and was a pioneer in the usage of relief pitching. Robinson learned many things from his mentor.
In 1953, Robinson was sent to the Athletics in yet another trade, this time being swapped for two-time batting champ Ferris Fain. In Philadelphia, Robinson earned his fourth and final All-Star selection, making the Midsummer Classic with his third team. He drove in 100 runs for a third consecutive year and hit 20 homers for the fourth time in his career. He was 32 years old and still keen to play the game, but ’53 proved to be his final season as an everyday player.
It could never be said that Robinson wasn’t wanted: he was traded for the fourth time in five years at the winter meetings in 1953, this time to the Yankees in a huge 11-player transaction. Now a veteran of the American League, Robinson found himself on baseball’s greatest team. The Yankees had won five consecutive World Series titles through 1953, built around the slugging of young superstar Mickey Mantle and the airtight defense up the middle of catcher Yogi Berra, second baseman Gil McDougald, and shortstop Phil Rizzuto. The team had a deep pitching staff and an aura that Robinson had never experienced before.
“The Yankees expected to win,” Robinson said in an interview years later. “Every man in that clubhouse, and every person in the front office, thought we would win every game we played. No one wanted to be the reason we failed.”
Ironically, the Yankees string of pennants was halted in 1954, with Eddie’s old team the Indians halting their streak. Manager Casey Stengel already had two options at first base, so he used Robinson mostly as a pinch-hitter. Casey didn’t talk to his players much, and Robinson later said he probably only had ten words with his manager in his three years in The Bronx. But the veteran still made the best of his limited opportunities. In ’55 he hit 16 homers in only 173 at-bats to help the Yanks to the pennant. Robinson had a good time ruining the Tigers that year, slugging seven round-trippers against Detroit.
Robinson had a couple of hits and an RBI in the 1955 World Series, which the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in what was finally “Next Year” for Brooklyn. It was Eddie’s final postseason appearance. The Yanks traded him to Kansas City in the middle of the 1956 campaign. The Tigers got him that winter in an eight-player trade that brought Eddie to his sixth American League club. After his short cup of coffee with the Tigers in 1957, Robinson landed with the Indians, reuniting him with the team that gave him his first chance in the majors.
On May 28, 1957, at Briggs Stadium in a game between the Indians and Tigers, Robinson was waved into the game as a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth with his team trailing by a run. With a runner on first base, the lefthanded hitting Robinson pulled a fastball from Tiger pitcher Billy Hoeft into the short porch in right field for a two-run homer. The blow gave the Tribe a one-run lead that stood up for a 4-3 victory. The blow was Eddie’s last big league home run, and it sailed over Al Kaline’s head.
A brief four-game stint with the Orioles ended Robinson’s playing career. In his 13 years as a player, he had earned a paycheck from seven of the eight AL teams, the only one who hadn’t employed him were the Red Sox.
Though he was no longer on the diamond, Robinson didn’t leave the game. He was hired by his old friend Richards to scout for the Orioles, and Eddie attached himself to his old manager for the next few years, following Richards to Houston as assistant general manager. In his new roles in the front office, Robinson quickly impressed baseball insiders with his hard work. Hones through this countless mornings loading produce onto trucks as a kid, Eddie always worked hard. He was farm director for the Astros for several years in the 1960s before he was hired away by Charlie Finley to serve in his front office in Kansas City. That’s when Richards summoned him again, bringing him to Atlanta to be his farm director. Later, Eddie was named general manager, a role which saw him trade Hank Aaron to Milwaukee at the tail end of his career so he could be back in the city where he started his Hall of Fame career.
Robinson instituted many sweeping changes as a farm director and general manager. He was the first man employed by a big league team to mandate pitch counts for young pitchers. He built cutting edge weight rooms and training facilities for his players, and he was an early adopter of specialized relief pitching roles in his organizations. At times his methods irked the rank and file “baseball lifers” in the front office, but since Eddie had more experience than all of them, his message was better received.
In 1976, Robinson got what he later called his dream job when the Rangers named him their general manager. It was a chance for Eddie to return to Texas and still use his talents in baseball. His time at the helm of the Rangers was tumultuous: he fired four managers and had one quit on him in five years. But Robinson earned the reputation as a free-wheeling dealer who wouldn’t hesitate to shake up his roster. Maybe all those times he’d been traded had rubbed off on him. During his tenure with the Rangers, he acquired All-Stars Fergie Jenkins, Buddy Bell, Al Oliver, and Charlie Hough.
One of his players in Texas was pitcher Tom Grieve, a thoughtful man who had many new ideas about pitching. Robinson hired Grieve for his front office after the pitcher retired, and Grieve later served as GM for the Rangers in the mid-1980s. Grieve learned a lot from Robinson and appreciated his mentorship.
“I don’t think anybody has a career in any profession that long and that successful with the variety of roles he’s played without being a straight shooter,” Grieve said.
Even after new ownership swept him out in Texas, Robinson still wanted to work in the game he loved. He was so respected that George Steinbrenner hired him as a special assistant for three years. Always enthusiastic about player evaluation, Robinson was the first to create his own independent scouting agency. He was hired by several teams to revamp their scouting systems. In that role he helped the Twins scout and later win two World Series, and he personally scouted and saw hundreds of players who ended up in the majors in the 1980s and 1990s. Four of the players in the World Champion 1990 Cincinnati Reds had been recommended by Robinson.
As biographer C. Paul Rogers III pointed out, Robinson earned paychecks from 16 different major league teams in his baseball career. He had played for or worked under Lou Boudreau, Clark Griffith, Casey Stengel, Hank Greenberg, Bill Veeck, Paul Richards, Charlie Finley, Ted Turner, and George Steinbrenner. His career spanned from the days of train travel to the era of west coast road trips via jet. From fledgling radio broadcast networks to superstation cable TV networks. From Babe Ruth and Bob Feller to Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter. Even after his 90th birthday, Robinson was lobbying on behalf of the Major League Players Alumni Association to get funds for retired ballplayers who had fallen between the cracks in the pension program.
For more than 35 years, Robinson has lived in Fort Worth, Texas, where the 96-year old still watches baseball on TV and resides with his wife Bette, whom he married 62 years ago.