Card Corner, 1972 Topps: Bob Robertson

Looking at a hulking Bob Robertson juxtaposed against the ordinary frame of the Mets’ Bud Harrelson, I’m reminded of the old television show, Land of the Giants. Airing from 1968 to 1970, it was a show about astronauts who passed through a strange cloud and landed on a planet that they thought to be Earth, only to realize that the inhabitants were the size of skyscrapers.

Obviously, I’m exaggerating the differences between Robertson and Harrelson. Robertson is no giant, but in some ways he dwarfs Harrelson. Just look at Robertson’s forearms, which are in full display on his “In Action” card, as he latches onto a failed pickoff attempt at first base. With that Popeye build, the colossal Robertson appears to have sufficient muscle to snap one of Harrelson’s arms into pieces.

As we look at this photo, taken during a game at Shea Stadium in 1971, even Robertson’s first base mitt looks larger than normal. The mitt seemingly swallows the ball thrown by an unknown Pirates pitcher, who could have been excused if he expected Robertson to rip out a chunk of the ball with his teeth.

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It’s somewhat ironic that Robertson’s Topps card shows him in the act of fielding. Though he was a good defender, most fans who remember the era of the early 1970s will undoubtedly recall Robertson as a slugger, first and foremost. It was his ability to hit with gargantuan power that gave the Pirates hope that they owned the talents of a future Hall of Famer, the “next Ralph Kiner,” as some scouts predicted with glee.

As with most careers, Robertson’s ascent to the major leagues did not occur without some bumps and setbacks. That journey began in 1964, the final year in which major league teams could sign amateur players without them being subjected to the draft. The Pirates signed Robertson as an amateur free agent and immediately assigned him to Salem of the Appalachian League.

From the start, Robertson moved quickly through the Bucs’ system as a power-hitting third baseman. From 1964 to 1966, he advanced one level per summer, from Rookie ball to Double-A. Then adversity struck. While playing in the Southern League in 1966, Robertson could not elude a pitched ball, which struck him on the wrist. The errant pitch left him with a chipped bone. Pirates doctors decided to forego surgery on the wrist, feeling the procedure might not help the injury. That decision forced Robertson to play off and on with an almost arthritic kind of pain in his hand. “Sometimes I can go weeks without feeling anything, then it comes back again,” Robertson told Charley Feeney of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Despite a so-so performance at Triple-A Columbus in 1967, where he put in time at both third base and first base, the Pirates gave him a late-season cup of coffee in Pittsburgh. But at 20 years of age, Robertson wasn’t ready; he hit .171 in a September look-see.

A more serious problem arose in 1968. Robertson developed an obstruction in his kidney, which required surgery. As a result, he missed the entire season, negating what could have been a full season of minor league development.

Through diligence and hard work, Robertson bounced back with a strong spring in 1969 and clawed his way onto the Pirates’ Opening Day roster. The Pirates installed him as their starting first baseman, but he still wasn’t ready. In mid-May, the Pirates demoted him to their Triple-A affiliate, the Columbus Jets. That’s where Robertson put together a breakout performance. He clubbed 34 home runs in 422 at-bats for Columbus, where he terrorized pitchers to the tune of a .589 slugging percentage. After the Jets’ season ended, Robertson returned to Pittsburgh, this time to stay.

As the Pirates prepared for the 1970 season, they viewed Robertson as an important piece to their infield puzzle, either at first base or at third base. Robertson’s serious approach to the game earned him high regard in the Pirates organization. That reputation also earned him a nickname from his Pirates teammates, who were legendary for their ability to apply the needle in the clubhouse. They called Robertson “Grumpy.” If Robertson endured a particularly bad game one night, he might show up at the ballpark the next night with a slight streak of irritability. For his part, Robertson claimed that he wasn’t actually grumpy; he was just very serious about his job.

Robertson applied that seriousness not only to his hitting, but to his fielding. While he had limited range at third base, he took special pride in his defensive play at first base. When Robertson first joined the Pirates, he began using an old, battered mitt that had been discarded by Donn Clendenon, a skilled first baseman in his own right. Though Robertson looked big and bulky, he actually owned surprising agility and soft hands. (During the 1971 season, Robertson would record eight assists in a game, setting a major league record for a first baseman.)

Robertson also had special ability when it came to executing one of the most demanding plays required of a first baseman: the 3-6-3 double play. Scouts considered Robertson exceedingly skilled in picking up ground balls, pivoting, and making the throw to second base. Opposing scouts also instructed their hitters to bunt away from Robertson, and instead bunt toward third base or the pitcher, because of Robby’s quickness in charging and handling bunts.

As well as Robertson played his position, he knew that his level of hitting would determine his playing time in Pittsburgh. In 1970, his first full season in the majors, he made the most of a platoon role with Al Oliver and hit so well that he became the everyday first baseman by mid-July. Robertson emerged as a major force in 1970, clubbing 27 home runs in under 400 at-bats and compiling a stunning OPS of .931.

Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh made Robertson his everyday first baseman at the start of the 1971 season. After a slow start, Robertson compiled impressive numbers as the Pirates’ No. 1 first baseman, emerging as a right-handed complement to Willie Stargell.

Still, there were obstacles. The red-haired slugger missed 31 games during the season with a variety of knee problems. His aching knees required cortisone shots in the middle of September. The injuries at least partially accounted for Robby’s long home run drought; he did not reach the seats from Aug. 25 to the end of the regular season.

The home run tailspin finally ended in Game Two of the National League Championship Series against the Giants. The Pirates had already lost the first game of the playoffs, putting them in a near must-win situation in Game Two of the best-of-five. In his second at-bat of the afternoon, with the Bucs now trailing 2-1, Robertson sliced a delivery from left-hander John Cumberland down the right field line, chasing Dave Kingman into the corner. Normally a cloddish outfielder, Kingman raced to the foul line, leapt for the ball, and appeared to make an impressive off-balance catch. But not quite. As Kingman crashed into the foul pole, the impact of the collision knocked the ball out of his glove and over the fence, for a home run.

In the seventh inning, with the Bucs possessing an uncomfortable 4-2 lead, Robertson strode to the plate to face another left-hander, Ron Bryant. With two runners aboard, Robertson launched a high drive over the left field fence. The three-run blast blew the game open, giving the Pirates a 7-2 advantage. Then in the ninth inning, with the Bucs leading 8-2, Robertson faced another left-hander, this time veteran reliever Steve Hamilton. Robertson ripped a Hamilton slider over the wall in left-center. Now with three home runs on his ledger, Robertson finished with four runs scored and five RBIs. Robby’s sudden barrage at Candlestick Park launched him into national prominence.

Perhaps spearheaded by Robertson’s power surge, the Pirates went on to win the next two games and take the pennant. More spotlight moments awaited in the World Series.

After dropping the first two games to the Orioles in embarrassing fashion, the Pirates faced a critical Game Three at Three Rivers Stadium. With the Pirates leading 2-1 in the seventh, Roberto Clemente reached on an error and Stargell drew a walk. Orioles left-hander Mike Cuellar now prepared to face Robertson.

With the count one-and-one, Murtaugh noticed that Brooks Robinson was playing deep at third. He signaled to Frank Oceak, his third base coach. At first, Oceak couldn’t believe the sign, which called for the slugging Robertson to lay down a bunt. A surprised Clemente, who was leading off second, waved his arms frantically in an effort to call time and confirm that Oceak had signaled for the sacrifice. But umpire Jim Odom did not grant Clemente the time-out, as Cuellar delivered one of his trademark screwballs to the plate.

Instead of squaring around to bunt, Robertson unleashed a full uppercut swing at the pitch. He drove the ball deep toward the opposite field. Several seconds later, the ball landed in the stands over the 385-foot sign in right-center field at Three Rivers Stadium.

A few moments later, Robertson greeted both Stargell and Clemente at home plate, ready to celebrate his three-run homer. After he crossed the plate, Stargell whispered to Robertson, “That’s the way to bunt the ball.” Stargell’s comment tipped off Robertson, who now realized that he had missed the bunt sign from Murtaugh. Robertson jogged back to the dugout and turned to Murtaugh, saying sheepishly, “I guess I fouled it up, huh?” In his classic deadpan, Murtaugh responded, “Possibly. But under the circumstances, there will be no fine.”

The Pirates went on to win the game, then took the third and fourth games of the Series, before squeezing out a 2-1 victory in Game Seven. In overcoming two blowout losses in games one and two, the Pirates completed one of the largest upsets in Fall Classic history.

In particular, Robertson’s lusty hitting against the Giants in the Championship Series had given him national recognition. The powerful first baseman, previously unknown to many fans outside of the Pittsburgh area, had finished the LCS with seven hits in 16 at-bats, and a playoff record four home runs. His World Series home run only added to his postseason resume. Robertson’s robust hitting had more than adequately replaced the lack of production from the Pirates’ most prolific power hitter, the slumping Stargell.

With the Pirates enjoying their status as World Champions, they felt confident about their young first baseman. Robertson’s massive build and fearsome swing had some Pirate observers talking about the 50-home run club. Such a forecast seemed reasonable. Unfortunately, it would never happen.

Seemingly on the verge of stardom, Robertson struggled terribly at the outset of the 1972 season. He remained in a slump for most of a long, torturous summer. The season became more difficult when Bill Virdon, who had replaced Murtaugh as manager, decided to use Willie Stargell exclusively at first base, instead of the outfield, where the additional running bothered his knees. Virdon moved Robertson back to third, where he platooned with Richie Hebner. The platooning only disrupted Robertson’s timing further. He would finish the season at a miserable .193, with limited power.

As the Pirates prepared for the start of the 1973 season, the unforeseen death of Roberto Clemente left the Pirates with a huge hole in their starting outfield. Virdon, who had succeeded Murtaugh as manager, considered Robertson for left field, before putting him back at first.

Then came a monumental setback. During a game at Wrigley Field, Robertson ran into foul territory to catch a foul pop off the bat of Ron Santo. As he approached the dugout, Robertson ran into a small puddle of mud and briefly lost his footing, slipping for just a instant. That momentary slip would change Robertson’s career.

At first, Robertson felt little pain. Then, after the game, his right knee swelled up. He eventually underwent an operation to repair ligament damage to the knee. Robertson would hit only .239 with 14 home runs.

Robertson would undergo two more operations on the knee, and three surgeries on his back. In 1974 alone, he had to have surgeries to both of his knees.

The injuries and the operations curtailed Robertson’s production, preventing him from becoming Ralph Kiner or even Harmon Killebrew, as the Pirates had once hoped. After hitting a combined 53 home runs in 1970 and ‘71, Robertson totaled only 48 home runs during the four-year span from 1972 to 1975.

Robertson claimed that the Pirates’ insistence on platooning him hindered his run-producing ability. “I’m not too concerned where I play next year as long as it’s not in Pittsburgh,” Robertson told longtime sportswriter Suter Kegg. “My attitude has changed completely. I don’t react like I used to when I hear the name Pittsburgh Pirates mentioned. There was a time I appreciated being identified with them, but not anymore.”

Against his wishes, Robby remained in Pittsburgh through spring training of 1977. On March 31, the Pirates released their one-time budding star. Robertson responded by filing a grievance through the Players’ Association, claiming that he was injured and should have been placed on the disabled list, which would have entitled him to his full season’s pay. One day before an arbitrator’s hearing, the Pirates agreed to pay Robertson his full salary for the 1977 season.

The ailing slugger missed all of ‘77 while rehabilitating after back surgery. Once a star of the future, Robertson would have to settle for work with expansion teams. In 1978, Robby made a comeback with the Mariners, and then spent a short time with the Blue Jays, where he hit .103 in 29 at-bats. He couldn’t take extra batting practice or take extra infield without his back locking up. It was time to go.

Robertson decided to start his own advertising agency, and also conducted motivational seminars. In 1990, he returned to baseball as the hitting instructor for the Astros’ affiliate in the Southern League, the Columbus Mudcats of the Southern League.

Now retired completely from the game, Robertson has maintained connections with the game by attending many of the Pirates’ alumni events and keeping close ties with the organization from his home in Maryland.

With many of these “Card Corner” features, I haven’t had the privilege of meeting the players in question. Robertson is one of the exceptions. Years ago, while working at the Hall of Fame, I participated in a video tribute for Bill Guilfoile, who was retiring as the Hall’s director of public relations. Prior to that, he had served the Pirates as their chief PR man. I ended up interviewing a number of the ex-Pirates, including Robertson.

Robertson was one of the most cooperative and outgoing of the players we interviewed. He answered all of our questions, with all earnestness and seriousness, and told stories that showed the human side of the gentlemanly Guilfoile.

By the way, he wasn’t the least bit grumpy. In the case of the Bob Robertson that I saw, the nickname just didn’t fit, not at all.

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Comments

  1. Cliff Blau said...

    His poor 1972 season seemed like a mystery at the time.  I wonder if his various injuries were the reason he stopped hitting.  Merv Rettenmund was his AL equivalent: a gig hitting semi-regular who seemed on the verge of stardom who instead just stopped hitting in 1972.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    Thanks, Ralph.

    Good comparison, Cliff. Though Robertson (slugger) and Rettenmund (speed, line drive hitter) were different types of players, their careers both flatlined. As I recall, the Orioles traded Frank Robinson largely because they thought Rettenmund could take his place as an everyday outfielder. When he flopped, the O’s traded him to the Reds.

    I’m not sure exactly what happened to Rettenmund, but back and knee injuries definitely hurt Robertson.

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