By Glen Sparks
Wilbert Robinson feared that he might be dying. He was lucky it was just a piece of citrus that hit him.
The Brooklyn Dodger manager’s fruitful encounter began this way: He had heard about an incredible stunt pulled off by the Washington Senators’ Gabby Street. On Aug. 21, 1908, Street caught a baseball thrown from atop the 554-foot-high Washington Monument. Several years later, people asked Robinson if he could do something similar.
Why, sure, Robinson said. No problem, he bragged. Why not drop the ball from an airplane, he suggested.
Now, Robinson was nearly 51 and a bit portly at that point in his life. Maybe, too, he had lost some reflexes from his playing days. Street, at least, was 25 years old and a starting catcher for the Senators when he caught a ball dropped from the sky. And, truth is, he muffed a bunch of attempts before finally landing one.
Robinson also was a catcher, a pretty good one, mostly for the Baltimore Orioles of the National League and for Brooklyn. The Massachusetts native played 17 seasons, retiring in 1902. He hit 18 home runs, drove in 772 and batted .273 (.316 on-base percentage).
Players loved Robinson for his outgoing, fun-loving personality. He was a story teller and back slapper. And, baseball, boy, could he talk baseball. John Kieran of the New York Times wrote that “he knew baseball as the spotted setter knows the secrets of quail hunting, by instinct and experience.”
The Dodgers hired “Robbie” to manage in 1914. The skipper’s attempt at catching a rapidly accelerating baseball happened on this date in 1915 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Ruth Law, a pioneering aviator who set several speed and endurance records, flew the plane. Apparently, and maybe luckily, Law forgot to bring along a baseball. This being Florida, she did have a grapefruit. (Another story is that Casey Stengel, then a player for the Dodgers, convinced Law to toss a grapefruit rather than a baseball. Safety first.)
Law let the ball go from approximately 525 feet. Robinson stood underneath the plane; his players stood nearby. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” Robinson thought.
Well, he didn’t have it. Maybe it was a last-second change in the wind direction. Maybe the Florida sun blinded him for a moment. Whatever, the fruit splattered on the manager’s face. Crash! “Ahh!!” Robinson was sure he felt blood. Had the projectile broken open his skull?!!
No, no. It was just pulp and citrus rind. The players broke up laughing. Finally, Robinson did, too.
“Uncle Robbie” managed the Dodgers for 18 years, compiling a 1,375-1,341. His teams won two National League pennants. The Old Timers Committee voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1945.
Robinson’s Hall of Fame plaque makes no mention of that one day in 1915 when he was attacked by a large piece of Vitamin C.