Robbie Robison: St. Petersburg’s Second ‘Mr. Baseball’
St. Petersburg has honored many of its citizens with the title of “Mr. Baseball.” There was of course the first Mr. Baseball, Mayor Al Lang, after whom Al Lang Stadium is named. It was Al who mostly started it all by bringing Major League Spring Training to the city beginning with the St. Louis Browns and their manager Branch Ricky in 1914. Much later there was Mr. Baseball Bob Stewart and Mr. Baseball Rick Dodge, both of whom piloted the building of Tropicana Stadium, which led to securing the Tampa Bay Rays in 1995 (their opening season was 1998). Stewart was chairperson of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce Baseball Committee and later a city council member and county commissioner; Dodge was an assistant city administrator. But after Al Lang died in 1960, the original title of Mr. Baseball fell to Elon Clifford Robison. Known as “Robbie,” he shunned the Mr. Baseball sobriquet, however, saying it could only belong to Al Lang.
Robison enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War I and took part in five major battles. Upon his return, his sweetheart and soon-to-be wife reflected, “Robbie left as a boy and came back a man.” He became the owner of Robison’s Camera Shop (advertising “Eastman Kodaks, Greeting Cards and Fountain Pens, and a Lending Rental Library”) located at various downtown locations over the years, including 410 Central Avenue. The business was established by his father in 1921, but Robbie took it over the following year and evolved it into Romo Color Lab, Inc. It served not only St. Petersburg, but much of the West Coast of Florida, employing as many as 50 people.
Robison served on the city council from 1943 to 1947, including the position of Vice Mayor. One of his accomplishments was to establish a city-owned industrial park, the Tyrone Planned Industrial District, which later evolved into ECI, among other industrial uses. He also organized and directed the Community Blood Bank, served on the City Planning and Zoning Board for 11 years, and was board chair of the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
But Robison’s passion was baseball. He got involved in Major League spring training. His grandson, Peter Robison, recalls his grandfather did photo processing for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and on at least one occasion, in 1932, he took the Babe alligator hunting in Gulfport.
Robison later chaired both the St. Pete and State of Florida Chamber of Commerce Baseball Committees and led efforts to build a new stadium to replace the old Waterfront Park Stadium. This was finally accomplished in 1947 after overwhelming approval in a public referendum. It was Robison’s city council resolution that named the new stadium in Al Lang’s honor.
Historian and city activist Walter Fuller wrote, “Robison eventually became Al’s faithful lieutenant as his health failed, and ably and loyally has kept St. Petersburg in the fore of Florida baseball-wise since.” This appears to be a bit of a gloss – Robison eventually had a falling out with Lang around 1959. He did not respond to Lang’s concerns but was quick to credit Lang for all that he had accomplished when he died a year later. Robison stated, “[Lang] was a fabulous figure in the baseball world. His knowledge of the game, the players, and the scribes was unlimited. And they all knew and loved him. He was welcomed wherever he went. St. Petersburg, and Florida too, owe him much. We will all miss him.”
When St. Petersburg lost the Yankees to Ft. Lauderdale in 1961, Robison is credited with leading efforts to replace them with the newly established New York Mets. The Mets were one of baseball’s first expansion teams, organized to replace the Dodgers and Giants, which had left New York City. At age 72, Casey Stengel came out of retirement to manage the new team. In addition to Stengel from the Yankees, and Richie Ashburn from the Phillies, the Mets recruited such stars as Gil Hodges, Roger Craig, and Don Zimmer from the Dodgers, and the one and only Yogi Berra from the Yankees.
Robison was a friend of Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra and saw them on many occasions when the Mets were in St. Pete. He helped Mets pitcher Tug McGraw (who coined the slogan “You Gotta Believe”) find housing when he first arrived for spring training around 1966. Robison was especially close to the Mets’ board chair Donald Grant who invited him to Shea Stadium games in Queens, including the World Series in 1969, which the Mets won in an upset. After that, the team was known as “the Amazing Mets.”
At the state level, it was Robison who led much of the effort to prevent Arizona from enticing Major League spring training teams away from Florida. One of Robison’s last initiatives was to establish a baseball museum in St. Pete. He raised $37,000 for the project, but when city council refused to help fund the museum, he returned every penny to the donors. His grandson Peter recalls that he also collected considerable baseball memorabilia for the museum. What happened to that is unknown.
In the mid 1920s, St. Petersburg was growing by leaps and bounds. Charles Hall and his Victory Land Company developed Lakewood Estates in South St. Pete, which boasted the Lakewood Golf and Country Club (now the St. Petersburg Country Club) whose butterfly fairways weave throughout the neighborhood. Lakewood was part of the PGA Tour from 1930 to 1964, with such golf legends as Bobby Cruickshank, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan among many others competing there. Robison invested in three lots on Anastasia Way in Lakewood facing the 13th fairway in 1950 for $600 each. Peter Robison’s father, Donald, built a home on one of the lots in 1963.
Robbie Robison was an excellent golfer and a charter member of the Lakewood Country Club. Peter remembers that when he was a young teen about 12 or 13 years old, his grandfather suddenly appeared at the door and asked for a couple of beers. Peter dutifully took them to him and his golfing partner on the fairway. The golf partner turned out to be none other than Mets catcher Yogi Berra. Peter was amazed that Yogi was not much bigger than he. “I was as tall as he was.”
Robbie Robison died in 1978 at age of 79. The Evening Independent ran a full-page banner headline announcing his passing on the front page, and the St. Petersburg Times ran a similar banner on the first page of the sports section. John Lake, publisher of the Times and Independent, said at the time, Robison “was completely unselfish…He did a hell of a job for us.” St. Louis Cardinals owner August A. Bush, Jr. noted, “Robbie was one of the original group of St. Petersburg ‘batboys’ who greeted us so warmly when we first came to St. Petersburg in 1953.” The Mets board chair Donald Grant had stated just a few days before Robison’s death that Robison was “the reason why we’re all here today…He brought the Mets to St. Petersburg.”
Peter Robison attended Bishop Barry High School (now St. Petersburg Catholic) in St. Pete. He attended Cornell University and then got a doctorate in biochemistry at Syracuse University. He went on to have a career in the petroleum industry, much of it in the west, but in 2010 Peter returned to St. Petersburg and built a new home on one of the Lakewood lots his grandfather had purchased 60 years before.
Peter himself played short stop and first base when he was a kid in Lake Maggiore Little League and Junior Major League at Hoyt Field in Gulfport. He keeps up his family tradition on the diamond as coveted “A” (Alternate) player for the world-famous Kids and Kubs Three-Quarter Century Soft Ball Club who play at North Shore field from November through March. Kids and Kubs regular players must be 74 years or older, but each year the club accepts a few “younger players” (73 if you are male, and 71 if female) to fill in when regular players are absent. The Kids and Kubs are now in their 93rd season – it’s very likely Peter’s grandfather watched some of their games.
Will Michaels is a former executive director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the author of The Making of St. Petersburg and the Hidden History of St. Petersburg. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.