Uncle Robbie and the Athlete Dying Young

Wilbert Robinson managed the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1914-1931.  Gentle and genial, Robinson earned praise from The New York Times upon his departure.  But Robinson was not always gentle and genial.

Upon Robinson’s departure from the Dodgers’ helm, the October 25, 1931 edition of the Times stated, “There may have been smarter managers than Uncle Robbie, but his record wasn’t at all bad.  His teams won two pennants and were boisterous contenders on other occasions.  It is doubtful that baseball ever produced a more colorful figure than the esteemed Uncle Wilbert.  Like Falstaff, he was not only witty himself but the cause of wit in others.  His conversation was a continuous flow of homely philosophy, baseball lore and good humor.  He was not an intellectual.  He knew baseball as the spotted setter knows the secrets of quail hunting, by instinct and experience.  A jolly old gentleman and as honest as the sunlight.”

Sportswriter Damon Runyon saw Robinson’s transformation gruff to lovable.  It happened during the 1913 training camp for the New York Giants.  It was Runyon’s first encounter with Robinson, then a coach for the Giants.  Runyon wrote a feature about it for his The Mornin’s Mornin column in the September 19, 1915 edition of The New York American.

“’Robbie’ was along in his capacity as coach of the young pitchers, and we thought of him then, and afterward, as we saw him bulked down in a Pullman seat, roaring rude jests at all and sundry, as a very rough and a very coarse old man.

“We remember that we marveled somewhat at the camaraderie that seemed to exist between the old fellow and the ball players, as manifested in mighty scufflings in the aisles, and over the seats, and in ribald banterings; but we remember, too, that we felt that here was a character whose room would ever be much pleasanter than his company.  He was too heavy-handed; too uncouth.”

Tragedy intervened.  It turned the uncouth coach into an merciful angel, one who offered comfort to an athlete dying young.  The athlete was Tom Hanley, a minor league pitcher with a mediocre record trying to break into the major leagues.  Hanley had an 8-6 record with the Zanesville Potters of the Central League in 1911 and the Newark Skeeters of the Ohio State League in 1912 with a 14-14 record.

Hanley stood out because he did not fit into the paradigm of a training camp filled with activity, banter, and chatter.  An illness sidelined him.  Runyon wrote, “The writer recalls him, vaguely enough, as a tall, think blond young fellow, with very old eyes, who was generally found seated, always off by himself, out in the sunlight that sprays the verandas of the Arlington in the Spring – a lonely-looking figure in the rush and bustle of the camp.”

Hanely was ill.  Forced to bed, he never rejoined the training camp.  Consequently, Robinson turned his attention from baseball to Hanley, spending time with the ballplayer before the illness killed him.

“It was too late to save Hanley, but for hours and hours old “Robbie” kept watch and ward at the bedside of the boy, now talking to the lad in a voice as soft and soothing as a woman’s, and now growling his indignation because of the neglect in the case.”

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