BASN’s Negro League Spotlight

By Tony McClean
Updated: June 17, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Neil Robinson stood just a shade under six feet tall (5-foot-11, 182 pounds) in his uniform. Despite that, the Michigan native was one of Negro League baseball’s best power hitters. Born on July 7, 1908 in Grand Rapids, Robinson played with three teams during his 16-year career. While his professional career began in 1934 after a brief stint with the Homestead Grays, Robinson’s most productive years came while with the Memphis Red Sox. Physically, Robinson was somewhat of a cross between two short sluggers: Hall of Famer Mel Ott and former Dodger and Astro All-Star Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn. Robinson, a utility player, was affectionately known as “The Shadow” by his teammates and opponents alike. He was also popular with the fans, especially when voting for the yearly East-West All-Star Classic was concerned. During an 11-year stretch from 1938 to 1948, Robinson either played or was voted in the Classic. The only years he missed were 1942, 1946, and 1947. It was in 1938 that Robinson began his run in Memphis. Despite hitting .367 the previous season with the Cincinnati Tigers, Robinson was acquired by the Red Sox. He immediately began to pay dividends for Memphis. As the everyday shortstop, Robinson hit .375, led the league in homers with 35, and helped lead the Red Sox to the American League first-half championship. One of Robinson’s biggest moments during the season came in the East-West Classic in Chicago. Representing the West All-Stars, Robinson keyed a four-run third inning which proved to be the margin of victory in the West’s 5-4 win. Down 3-1 with one out, the West got an RBI single from Alec Radcliffe to cut the East’s lead to one at 3-2. After Ted Strong walked, he and Radcliffe advanced on a wild pitch by Lefty Walker. After Quincy Touppe lined out to third baseman Walter Cannady, it set up the stage for Robinson’s heroics. After working the count to his favor, Robinson hit a line drive that went over the head of center fielder Sam Bankhead and rolled all the way to the wall. Strong, Radcliffe, and Robinson all came a round to score on the inside-the-park homer. The East would add a run in the fifth, but the West would hold on for the win. Robinson, who had three hits on the day, always seemed to save his best for the East-West Classic. The next season, Robinson would add more power numbers to his regular season and All-Star output. He hit a career-high 54 homers, which led the league for the second straight season. While the Red Sox were below .500 most of the season, Robinson was again chosen to play in the East-West Classic. And for the second year, Robinson found himself in the middle of a winning rally for the West. Down 2-1 entering the bottom of the eighth, Robinson hit a 380-foot blast off Roy “Lefty” Partlow of the Homestead Grays (his third hit of the game) to tie the game at 2-2. The West added two more runs and held on to win 4-2. In eight appearances, Robinson had a career .476 batting average in the Classic including a robust .810 slugging percentage. While he was known more for his hitting, Robinson was an adept fielder wherever he played. He also had above average speed and consistently was one of the league’s best basestealers. Many feel that if given the chance to play in the majors, Robinson could have been frequent member of baseball’s 30-30 club. Marlin Carter, who was a teammate with Robinson both in Cincinnati and in Memphis, recalled him as “about the most valuable player we had on the Southern teams. He didn’t do anything flashy, he just got the job done day after day. He was the kind of player you counted on.” Winfield Welch, the Birmingham Black Barons skipper and All-Star manager for the West squad during the early 1940s regarded Robinson as “the kind of player you build a team around.” Like many Negro Leaguers, Robinson spent his winters in the Caribbean honing his craft. Robinson mainly played in the outfield while toiling for in Puerto Rico (1940-41) and Cuba (1946-47). While he may have been overshadowed by the Josh Gibsons and Mule Suttles of his era, Neil Robinson was one of the most consistent and underrated sluggers in Negro League history. NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and the Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball contributed to this article.