Before the Los Angeles Dodgers, there was the Brooklyn Dodgers, everyone knows that. But before they were the Dodgers (at least full-time), they were the Brooklyn Robins. Named for their lovable manager and Hall of Famer Wilbert Robinson in an era when team nicknames were dominated by the fans and the press (rather than marketed by the team themselves), the Robins were a grab bag of success, but only reached the World Series twice in their 18 year history.
Following their dismal 6th place finish in 1913, the not-so-superb Brooklyn Superbas fired manager Bill Dahlen, and replaced him with former catcher and current Giants coach Robinson. Robinson had only managed one time before, filling in as a player-manager for the 1902 Baltimore Orioles and compiling a sad 24-57 record. Still, he wanted to prove himself up for the task.
The 1914 starting lineup had its share of stars in leftfielder Zack Wheat and first baseman Jake Daubert, but the team's pitching staff was a toss-up of journeyman, rookies, and busts. The team managed to lead the league in batting average with the help of their .300 outfield of Wheat, Casey Stengel, and Jack Dalton, but other than the surprising 23-12 season of 26-year-old Jeff Pfeffer, the pitching was middling at best, and the team finished in 5th place with a 75-79 record.
1915 proved to be a virtual 180 from the season prior: other than Daubert, no starter batted higher than .258, but the pitching came around in full stride, combining for an impressive 2.66 team ERA behind Pfeffer and newcomers Jack Coombs and the oddly-named Wheezer Dell. The team finished 3rd, winning 80 games, but more importantly, Robinson really came into his own as a manager, helping the team to victory after victory despite their lack of hitting.
Robinson's skill and the team's talent finally gelled together in 1916, as the team captured the National League pennant behind the rejuvenated bats of Wheat, Stengel, and Hy Myers' blazing speed on the basepaths. They also got help from an old friend of Robinson's, Rube Marquard, whom they had acquired near the end of the 1915 season. Rube (inducted into the Hall in 1971) tore through his opponents for a 1.58 ERA, and Pfeffer and Larry Cheney also both contributed sub 2.00 ERAs. Unfortunately, the team ran up against another outstanding pitching set in the Boston Red Sox, including their young phenom Babe Ruth. The Red Sox captured the Series in five games, but the standard for the Robins was set.
Unfortunately for Brooklyn, by 1917 saw their output decline to horrendous levels. Everyone, from the normally heroic Daubert to Wheat, Stengel, Myers, and even Pfeffer and Coombs played below their level of talent. The team languished in 7th place. A major highlight of the season came on July 1, when Robinson and team owner Charlie Ebbetts directly violated a "blue law" preventing baseball from being played on Sunday. They tried to skirt the rule by claiming that the proceeds would go towards a homeless shelter, but were arrested anyway. By 1921, the blue laws were off the books for good, thanks in part to this little bit of civil disobedience.
In 1918, the team only fared slightly better, finishing 5th on strong seasons by Daubert, Wheat, and new rookie pitcher Burleigh Grimes, acquired in a trade for Stengel (who would later return to manage the Brooklyn squad himself in the 1930s). After the season, team leader Daubert complained that he was being stiffed out of part of his salary. He sued the team and won - and was promptly traded to Cincinnati for his trouble.
In 1919, while the Black Sox scandal made the headlines, Robinson's squad again finished 5th, without the help of Daubert or former leader Rube Marquard (who broke his leg in early May and finished with a 3-3 record). Though the team led the league in complete games and innings pitched, it simply couldn't score enough runs, finishing an abysmal 8-20 in one run games. To highlight matters, on the 5th day of the season, Burleigh Grimes squared off against the Philadelphia Phillies and threw a 20 inning complete game, but could only come up with a 9-9 tie. The Robins also set the modern-day record by finishing a doubleheader with the Giants in two hours and 25 minutes; most games today last at least 3 hours.
Nobody expected the team to improve much the following year.
During a preseason game against the New York Yankees, Jeff Pfeffer accidentally threw an inside pitch that nailed Yankees shortstop Chick Fewster in the ear. He recovered, but was unable to speak for nearly six months. It was an ominous sign, but one that was ignored by the league in general. The 1920 season gave Brooklyn fans a reason to cheer, though, as the Robins gained control of first place in May and never let go the entire season. They were helped by consistently dominant pitching, including a 26 inning standoff on May 21 that still stands as the longest game in major league history. Led by Zack Wheat's 9 home runs and .328 average and Hy Myers' league-leading 22 triples, the offense batted a scorching .277 and knocked in 566 runs. Meanwhile, Burleigh Grimes fully established himself as a star, compiling a 23-11 record on a 2.22 ERA and an amazing 25 complete games!
Surprise comeback stories from both Marquard and Jeff Pfeffer propelled the team to 93 wins and a chance to face the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. The Indians had gotten to the World Series through major adversity: their star shortstop, Ray Chapman, had been struck by a fastball and killed in May. They had something to prove, and they were going to prove it to the Robins, who ran into a brick wall in the Indian pitching staff, with Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski and company throwing a scorching 0.87 ERA and winning the series 5 games to 2.
Fun Fact: Shortly before game 2, undercover policemen in Cleveland arrested several people for scalping tickets to the game. One of those arrested was none other than Robin pitcher Rube Marquard!
After their 1920 flirtation with destiny, the Robins never finished higher than 4th place, with the exception of 1924, where they finished 2nd. Robinson's team always seemed to be made up of misfits and journeymen, and it is said that his managerial style was simply to "let 'em play." Freewheelers and nutballs like Dazzy Vance, superspy Moe Berg, Tiny Osborne, vaudeville star Rabbit Maranville, airhead Babe Herman, Jack Fournier, the incomparable Jumbo Elliott, the speedy Max Carey, and "the Schnozz" Ernest Lombardi all played under Robinson's watchful eye.
Odds and ends of the largely forgettable era include:
- The signing of Sam Crane, a light-hitting shortstop of the Philadelphia Athletics. He wasn't particularly good on the field, but off the field he was murder - literally. Convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her companion in a hotel room, he served 15 years in prison.
- Vance's 1924 MVP season, where he edged out Rogers Hornsby, who batted a major league record .424. The team raced to the finish against their crosstown rivals the New York Giants, but couldn't catch the red-hot team in September.
- The death of Charlie Ebbets, owner and major innovator in baseball, on April 18, 1925. All major league games that day were cancelled in honor of the legend. That same year on September 13, Vance threw a no-hitter, just one week after throwing a one-hitter.
- The famous "three men on base" story which mauler has eloquently recreated in his writeup on Babe Herman.
- The game on September 9, 1926, in which the Robins set four major league records, all of them involving substitution players. Trailing 6-3 entering the 9th inning, Brooklyn sent out five pinch hitters - who all hit safely. Three pinch runners were also used, and all three scored. Another pinch hit gave the team records in pinch hits in a game (6), consecutive pinch hits (5), pinch runners scoring (3), and pinch hits in an inning (6). Pinch hitter Dick Cox managed to get both the first and the sixth pinch hit for the team, and they scored 9 runs to claim a 12-6 victory.
- On August 3, 1929, the Chicago Cubs complained about Dazzy Vance's sleeve, which had been carefully torn into tatters to distract the batters. The next day, a ruling was made to ban such distracting attire, and for players to wear neater uniforms.
Tired of ineptitude, the new management in Brooklyn fired "Uncle Robbie" after the 1931 season, replacing him with the more business-minded Max Carey. The team reverted to its pre-Robinson day name of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Robinson headed to Atlanta, where he served as president of operations for the Southern Association's Atlanta Crackers until his death in 1933. Though his team never won a World Series, they showed a lot of character and heart throughout his tenure, and are certainly a team to be remembered fondly in major league history.
Brooklyn Dodgers | Brooklyn Superbas