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Bill Robinson (by guest author Ted Anthony)

January 1, 2019

(The following post is by guest author Ted Anthony.)

The line was huge that afternoon at the old Franklin Federal branch, somewhere south of Pittsburgh. We lived somewhere north of Pittsburgh and rarely traveled this far down. But on this day, this particular bank location had something that was drawing big crowds during that bicentennial summer: an appearance and autograph signing by Dave Parker, the Pirates’ imposing rightfielder and rising star.

My mother would have none of it.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like Dave Parker; she loved him as much as she loved the rest of the Pirates in that National League East contender year, which is to say quite a lot. But the woman who didn’t learn to drive until she was in her 30s, and who let very little intimidate her in this world except for driving her car into unfamiliar terrain, was pulled to this distant bank branch by the undercard of the day: journeyman Pirate infielder-outfielder Bill Robinson.

My mother adored the Pirates in those days. She made sure we were in seats at Three Rivers Stadium for Jacket Day and Visor Day and Batting Glove Day. And though Willie Stargell was her favorite player by far — she won two game tickets on a local radio station that season by making up a rhyming cheer for him — she adored Robinson for his underdogitude, his ability to shine despite the bigger stars around him like Stargell, Parker, Bob Robertson and Al Oliver.

Plus, this was only a couple weeks after he hit three home runs in a heartbreaking extra-innings loss to the Padres. That feat — listened to by her, like so many games, on KDKA-AM on her tiny transistor radio — was the kind of thing that only endeared him to her more: the less noticed utility guy, working hard, claiming the spotlight with style but a minimum of pizzazz and ego.

Robinson went on to have the first of two consecutive career-best seasons that year, batting .303 with 21 homers and paving the way for an even better 1977 (.304/26). It’s hard for a fan to imagine the late-1970s Pirates without summoning an image of his face and his laconic smile.

I remember little from that distant afternoon at Franklin Federal Savings & Loan. But I remember two things: Long after Parker and his entourage departed, Robinson — sans posse — hung around to talk to people and chatted with us for nearly 15 minutes. And I remember, as we were leaving, my mother leaning in to me and whispering, “People like him are why I love baseball.”

Ever the Stargell fan, my mother stopped going to Pirate games after attending his retirement day in 1982. By then, Robinson had been gone for months, headed to our then-rival, the Philadelphia Phillies. As the years passed, she — like many in Pittsburgh — became disillusioned, first by drug scandals and then by long strings of flaccid seasons.

But by 2013, living in an assisted-living facility, she had become a fan once again. Every evening she’d sit in her apartment and watch, sometimes with my father, who was fading from Alzheimer’s, sometimes with her grandsons, sometimes alone.

In September 2013, as she was on the cusp of 89, I arranged to take her to see one final Pirate game. To call the logistics complex would be an understatement. By then, the magic of the Pirates’ 2013 season had become evident to all, and the only seats available were a couple rows beneath nosebleed. It was no small task getting an osteoporotic nonagenarian with a walker to her very vertical seat. But with the help of PNC Park staff, a precision dropoff by my wife and a strategically placed elevator, we made it.

At a Pittsburgh Pirates game, PNC Park, September 2013.

For nine innings, she couldn’t stop grinning and looking out at the ballfield and the Pittsburgh skyline beyond. Andrew McCutchen, she said, was “the new Willie Stargell.” And though by then her memory was fading, she turned to me late in the game and said, “Do you remember Bill Robinson? We went to see him once, at a bank somewhere. Right?”

Exactly a month ago today, my mother died at age 94, a decade after Bill Robinson died at 64. Franklin Federal is long gone, devoured by another bank that was then gobbled up, in turn, by an even bigger bank whose name now adorns the Pirates’ beautiful riverside ballpark. Even as she faded for a final time, she watched the Pirates all through this past season until it ended with a fizzle as the days got shorter and autumn rolled in. Her remote control by then had become her magic wand; toward the end, her brain remembered only two channels: her favorite all-news network and the station that showed the Pirate games.

Our culture loves tales about fathers and sons and baseball, and rightly so. I have many of my own. Less frequently, though, do we hear about mothers and sons and baseball. That’s a pity, and I hope it’s changing. In my own family today, my wife is as big a fan as I am. Our ball-playing sons’ childhood memories, like my own, will be suffused with the sense that both of their parents — not just their father — loved the game in all its strange and wonderful glory.

A couple weeks ago, when the director Penny Marshall died, a meme spread on social media that riffed off a favorite quote from one of her best-known films, “A League of Their Own,” about women playing ball during World War II.

“There’s no crying in baseball,” they wrote. “Except for today.” I kind of get that. I hope Bill Robinson, wherever he is, would, too.

Summer 2018. (Photo ©2018, Ted Anthony)

Ted Anthony, a longtime journalist and essayist from Western Pennsylvania, has reported from more than 30 countries. 

4 comments

  1. Nice mixture of baseball, family, and nostalgia to begin 2019. That is why I like to visit this site. Thanks to Josh and Ted Anthony.


  2. Lovely piece and very much worthy of the standard Josh has set…


  3. Thank you both. I appreciate the feedback.


  4. Thank you for this article. Very touching and heartfelt. My Grandmother introduced me to baseball, and many of my friends and my wife, were introduced to it by their Mothers as well.



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