By Marty Appel
The folksy, neighborly image we now have of the Brooklyn Dodgers was largely shaped by Wilbert Robinson, their manager from 1914-1931, during which time sportswriters began referring to the team as the “Robins” in his honor.
So lasting was the affectionate term, that it evolved into the “Flock,” (get it?) long after Uncle Robbie left the scene and the official nickname reverted to Dodgers. Flock was still regularly used in tabloid headlines until the team left for Los Angeles in 1958.
Robbie was the first 20th century Dodger to go into the Hall of Fame (1945), and his personal rivalry with his one-time teammate and business partner John McGraw helped make the Dodgers-Giants rivalry one of the greatest in baseball history.
His relationship with McGraw was complicated. The two first became teammates with the Baltimore Orioles in 1893, a franchise that would go on to win three consecutive Temple Cups as baseball champions. This was a remarkable team, which also featured future Hall of Famers Joe Kelley, Dan Brouthers, Willie Keeler, Hughey Jennings and manager Ned Hanlon. Robinson was the catcher, and while only a lifetime .273 hitter, he topped .300 five times, and in 1892 experienced a 7-for-7 afternoon with 11 RBIs. That 7-for-7 remains in the record books (tied by Detroit’s Cesar Gutierrez in 1970), a record unlikely to be bettered.
Robinson and McGraw became business partners in Baltimore with a café called The Diamond. When the National League cut back from 12 to 8 teams in 1900, the two of them were sold to St. Louis, but happily returned to Baltimore a year later to play for the new American League Orioles (enabling them to keep a closer watch on their business).
McGraw quit the following summer, joining the Giants to begin his 30-year reign as manager there, while Robinson stayed behind to finish out the Orioles season and begin his managing career.
With the end of the Orioles in ’03, his involvement with baseball became minimal, but he reunited with McGraw in 1911 as a coach, and served three seasons while their once warm friendship began to deteriorate. In 1914, the year after Ebbets Field opened, he was hired to manage the Dodgers.
Once a 170-pound player, he now weighed around 250 on a 5’8½” frame, and it gave him a somewhat amusing appearance to the delight of the trolley dodging fans that populated Brooklyn. As the team, “the Daffiness Boys” took on characters like Babe Herman, Casey Stengel and Dazzy Vance, and the club’s reputation for baseball gaffes, laughs and miscues began to grow.
During spring training at Daytona Beach, Florida in 1915, Robinson agreed to use his old catching skills to catch a baseball dropped 525 feet from an airplane. The stunt went bad when the aviatrix, Ruth Law, dropped a grapefruit instead of a baseball, and the force made Robbie feel as though he’d been hit by a lethal weapon. Such was the stuff of growing Brooklyn legend.
Still, Robinson was a respected manager, and he led the team to National League pennants in 1916 and 1920. Indeed, Tillinghast Huston, co-owner of the Yankees with Jacob Ruppert, preferred Robinson over Miller Huggins as manager. Ruppert prevailed, as Huston, overseas for World War I, found it difficult to argue his point from so far away.
The beloved Uncle Robbie went 11 seasons without another pennant before retiring after 1931, and three years later, passed away. No one did more to mold the character of the team to the borough in which it played more than this son of a butcher from Bolton, Massachusetts.