Editor’s Note… this is the first in an ongoing series of interviews conducted with former stars of HBCU baseball.
James “Jim” Robinson was a member of powerhouse North Carolina A&T Aggie teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s that captured three consecutive CIAA championships from his sophomore through senior years in college. He arrived in Greensboro, North Carolina, after growing up in Harlem, where he was born on January 21, 1930. While at North Carolina A&T, Mr. Robinson joined the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. His professional career spanned most of the 1950s and included time with the Philadelphia Stars, Indianapolis Clowns and Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, playing as a second baseman, third baseman and shortstop.
North Carolina A&T inducted Mr. Robinson into its Sports Hall of Fame in 1987. He currently serves as an ambassador for Negro League baseball history, sharing stories of his playing career, teammates and the men against whom he competed.
Black College Nines feature writer Douglas S. Malan visited with Mr. Robinson on March 15, 2019. The following is the full transcript of Mr. Robinson’s interview, edited slightly for clarification.
What was life like in Harlem during the 1930s and ‘40s?
That was during the Depression. We did ok. My father, he found a way. I had two younger brothers. We were all one year apart. We did a lot of playing ball or running track, any kind of activity. We were very much involved in activities. We went to camp in the summer at Lake Sebago, about 50 miles north of New York City. I enjoyed being in the country. I learned how to swim and row a boat, all those things. I was pretty busy as a young guy.
It wasn’t until I was 14 or 15 years old that I began to pick up a baseball. I had a friend who already played with a local baseball team and he convinced me to try out for the team. Up to that time, I had only played stickball or a little softball. And I played basketball. I played basketball at the Harlem YMCA, and while I was at the Harlem Y, I met Roy Campanella. He was working there during the offseason. As a result of getting to know him, he got me a four-year athletic scholarship at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, North Carolina. His sister was married to the commander officer of the ROTC program.
What did you think of baseball when you first started to play?
I liked it. Even though I was late getting started playing, my father used to take me to baseball games at the Polo Grounds. We used to watch Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell. I liked baseball. It just took me a little while to play because in my neighborhood everybody was playing stickball or softball. When I finally started playing baseball, then I was encouraged to go out for my high school baseball team (Commerce High) and I fell in love with it.
What kind of influence did Roy Campanella have on you?
We stayed in a touch a long time. He had a liquor store two blocks from the Harlem YMCA. I used to go by the store and talk to him. As a result of me going by the store and sometimes running an errand for him, he asked me my plans for college. Well, I was out of high school for a year and he indicated to me that if I was interested, he could probably work out some kind of scholarship. I was thrilled. At that time, I was just taking a course or two at City College (of New York) but I was not a full-time student. I guess I’d still be trying to graduate from there if not for Roy Campanella. (laughing)
What was life like for you in North Carolina?
I got down there in the spring of ’49. That was a big deal for me. That was my first time going to the South. It was a whole new ballgame. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with segregation. There were a lot of dos and don’ts, places where I couldn’t go, stuff like that. I learned a lot. Plus, I had some roommates who grew up in the South and they helped me a lot. We would go downtown and if I was walking into a certain restaurant, they’d say, “No, no, you can’t go in there.” Or in the local movie theater we had to go upstairs instead of sitting downstairs. I had a lot of help.
I got down there by train. That was another interesting thing because I had to get off at Union Station in Washington, D.C., change trains and go to the back of the train. All of this was brand new stuff for me. But when I got to Greensboro, I was working out with the baseball team before I had all my classes settled. It took a couple days to get the class schedule. I was on a baseball team that had a lot of older guys, a lot of guys who were there on the G.I. Bill, a lot of veterans. They had been at A&T a couple years. They were all pretty good to me. They were friendly, and they had a lot fun and they were really good ballplayers.
Who were some of your teammates?
Tom Alston (first African-American player for the St. Louis Cardinals), Hubert Simmons (played for the Baltimore Elite Giants), Harold Greene. In fact, while I’m talking to you, I got my 1950 yearbook here in front of me because I’m looking at the first team I played with. Howard Rouse, Robert Smith, Ernie Canada, Bill Blakely, Bud Meadows, Al Morgan. And we all stayed in touch, either by phone or Christmas cards.
And the coach was Joe Echols. Any success I had at A&T I gotta give it to Coach Echols. He found a way to get me into the lineup gradually. He gave me a shot and by mid-season of my freshman year, I was the regular second basemen. And the guy I supplanted had been there three years. I gotta give it to Coach Echols. He gave me a chance.
That was a good team, that ’49 team. We came in second that year (in the CIAA standings). But each of the following years – ’50, ’51, ’52 – we won the championship.
What was your impression of the campus when you arrived?
I was impressed with the way it was laid out. Where I was located, it was called the Varsity House and it was quite some distance from the regular campus. The Varsity House was old Army barracks. All the athletes stayed there – football, basketball, baseball, track. We were all over there together.
We used to have to walk dirt paths to get to class on the campus and that was always a hassle because it was a long distance. The campus itself was nicely laid out and good-looking buildings. It was a couple of years before I finally got to a dormitory on campus.
What was your baseball field like?
We didn’t have a baseball field on campus. There was a minor league baseball field a few blocks away from campus and that’s where we played our games (War Memorial Stadium, built in 1926, where North Carolina A&T currently plays). That was a good ballpark. I think the local team played in the Carolina League. It was Class B. We always had a good ballpark to play in.
Are there game from college that really stand out?
What I remember my first year as a freshman, we were playing Howard University on what they call Easter Monday. And Easter Monday was a big deal at A&T because they used to have ten or eleven thousand people there who came dressed up. And I was amazed! I did get one at-bat late in that game and I flied out. I’ll never forget that because that was really a big deal. I never expected that kind of crowd and the fact I had a chance to play in that game, I’ll always remember that.
Do any other games stand out? Games where the championship was on the line?
Well, not really. We were so dominant. We used to beat teams so badly. We had a heckuva team. We used to beat teams so badly they’d stop the game in the seventh inning sometimes and we’d have 15 or 18 runs. And there was no playoff. It was just who had the best record. That was ’50 and ’51.
Then in ’52, I got hit by a pitch one night and broke my wrist. That was my last season and I only got maybe six or seven games. That was the year I was playing shortstop and Oscar Charleston, I guess you may know that name, he was managing the Philadelphia Stars. He caught up with me walking to campus after a ballgame and he said, “When the season’s over, I’d like you to join the Philadelphia Stars.” Well I knew who Oscar Charleston was, so I was thrilled. So I said, “Yeah, good deal.” And then two weeks later, I broke my wrist.
As a result, it wasn’t until late August that I was finally able to get back to baseball activities. The Philadelphia Stars did come to New York to play at Yankee Stadium, around Labor Day. They were on the road when I broke my arm and when they got to New York, Oscar Charleston was surprised to see me because I found out what hotel they were staying in and I came up to him and said, “I’m ready to go.” And I jumped on the bus, went to Yankee Stadium and he gave me a uniform. So I got to play a game in Yankee Stadium one night. Oscar Charleston put me out in left field and that was it. Then two days later, the season was over. The next year, I think Philadelphia dropped out of the league, so playing with Philadelphia was no longer in the cards.
Where did you go after playing with Philadelphia?
The Indianapolis Clowns. They needed some infielders. I think this was ’53. I had a friend tell me about it. I jumped on the bus and they were barnstorming. The regular season was over but I played about 30 games with them. During those 30 games, the St. Louis Cardinals signed me to a minor league contract. Quincy Trouppe was a well-known Negro League catcher. He was working for the Cardinals and he signed me.
The next spring, Uncle Sam pulled me out of Spring Training (for the Korean War). (laughing) When I came back to Spring Training in ’56, I went to Spring Training with their Eastern League team in Allentown (Penn.). It was Class A. I had a helluva spring. The guys on the team were congratulating me. And then when it was time to break camp, the manager said, “Robinson, we know you can play at this level, but we just don’t have room. We’re gonna ask you to go down to a Class B league.” I was furious. I refused to go.
I called Quincy Trouppe and he said, “If you don’t want to do that, I’ll get you a tryout with the Kansas City Monarchs.” So I went to the Kansas City Monarchs, and I think it was Jacksonville, Florida, where they were having Spring Training. I made the team. I played three or four years with the Monarchs and ended up being the captain. Finally in 1958, it was time to give it up. I was 28 years old. Any number of times during those years with the Monarchs, other teams would ask about me. But when they found out how old I was, it didn’t make sense for them.
You can no longer lie about your age. Years back when I was growing up, guys would lie about their age all the time. But your age is common knowledge now.
What did you do in those years after playing ball?
At 28 years of age, I gave it up and went to work for the New York City Department of Parks and then got a job with the New York City Housing Authority. They sent me to school and I got my Master’s degree in social work from City University of New York. I stayed with them for almost 30 years.
When I retired from that, I had a friend who was president of South Carolina State University, Dr. Albert Smith. He was my roommate in college. He asked me if I’d be interested in coming down there and starting a baseball program. I jumped at the opportunity. I was already retired from the housing authority. I went down there and stayed about five or six years.
They dropped the baseball program while I was there. We didn’t have much to work with. We didn’t have any full scholarships. It was hard to recruit guys. We just couldn’t compete with the stronger teams that had scholarships. It just didn’t work out. But it was a great opportunity. We had some great ballplayers, but we just didn’t have enough. I stayed there and taught after they dropped the baseball program. I was teaching some social work courses within the criminal justice curriculum.
Where did you end up after that?
Finally, I think it was around 1994, I came back to New York City. I do a lot of Negro League stuff. There’s a historian named Dr. Larry Hogan. He’s a researcher and we do stuff in and around this area. We go to libraries and talk about black baseball history. And every year, Major League Baseball sends me to the All-Star Game. I’ve been doing that for seven or eight years now. During that week, it’s usually about five days, we set up at the Negro League Museum site – they have a display every year – and we talk to people about Negro League baseball.
Do you stay connected to North Carolina A&T?
Up until about four, maybe five years ago I’d go to homecoming every year. I think the last year I went I realized I hardly knew anybody because the people I went to school with passed, they were gone. I keep saying I ought to try to go once more. But I haven’t done it. I did maintain a close relationship with A&T for years.
I’d say it’s about time you were grand marshal of the parade, don’t you think?
(laughing) That’s right. I wonder when they’re gonna call me on that. I think they passed me up a couple times. But it was a lot of fun at A&T. I feel indebted to that school. Great memories.
Douglas Malan is a journalist and visual artist living in Connecticut. His works include short stories, poetry and books. Among the books Malan has authored includes the children’s book, Let’s Go To The Ballpark!