Negro Leagues star James Robinson fondly recalls N.C. A&T

CorrespondentJuly 7, 2013 

— Children from Edward T. Bowser Elementary School in East Orange, N.J., swarmed around James “Jim” Robinson outside the Renaissance Hotel that played host to the Society for American Baseball Research’s annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference last month.

The children had just presented a dramatic presentation about Negro League baseball legends to rave reviews from conference attendees. Just minutes later, the kids’ attention was focused on Robinson and his fellow ex-Negro Leaguer Pedro Sierra, who were besieged with autograph requests.

For Robinson, 83, the Newark setting wasn’t too far from his hometown in Harlem, N.Y., but it was more than 500 miles from Greensboro, where his career as a professional baseball prospect was launched as an infielder for North Carolina A&T’s powerhouse baseball team.

It was in Greensboro where Robinson, who graduated in 1953, helped the Aggies to the first three of six straight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles. (A&T won 14 CIAA crowns before claiming three MEAC championships). Robinson then competed for the Goshen Red Wings, a black Greensboro semi-pro team that dominated the local sandlots back in the day.

It was in Greensboro that the legendary Negro Leaguer, Baseball Hall of Famer and Philadelphia Stars manager Oscar Charleston took notice of the Aggie when the Stars, a member of the top-level Negro American League, swung through Greensboro on a Southern tour. Charleston signed the A&T star, who had earned all-CIAA honors as the Aggies’ second baseman, to a contract in the spring of 1952.

Six decades later, Robinson remembers his time in North Carolina with fondness, although he acknowledges that when he first arrived in the state he had a little trouble adjusting to the heat.

“That was my first trip South,” he said. “It was exciting, but it was very warm to me.”

The experience at A&T has remained important to Robinson. The former Negro Leaguer – who was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame after a Negro League career that included three straight bids to the prestigious East-West All-Star Classic from 1956-58 – said he still has loved ones in the Greensboro.

“I still go back,” he said with a smile. “I have good friends there.”

Robinson sprang from an Aggie hardball tradition whose most famous product is probably Tom Alston, who in 1954 became the first black player for the St. Louis Cardinals. Both Robinson and Alston played under former A&T coach Joe Echols, who later became a successful coach and administrator at Norfolk State University.

In 1952, the Echols-piloted N.C. A&T team that included Robinson swept to an undefeated season and the CIAA crown, an accomplishment that was capped by a triumph in the conference title game.

“The A. and T. Aggies baseball team closed out its 1952 race in a blaze of glory last Wednesday night at the Greensboro Stadium as it edged Winston-Salem Teachers College 9-7 and accomplished the amazing record of an undefeated season,” the May 26, 1952, Atlanta Daily World reported.

While still enrolled at A&T, Robinson hopped to the semi-pro Goshen Red Wings (for whom Alston also played), a squad that traveled across the state playing other pre-integration black teams.

“It was a summer team,” Robinson said of the Wings. “Every town had a team. Winston-Salem, Durham ... Raleigh had a team, the Tigers, that played the Goshen team.”

Then came Oscar Charleston and a Stars contract, launching a stint in the Major League level Negro Leagues that also included stints with the Indianapolis Clowns, Kansas City Monarchs and Memphis Red Sox.

It was that history that enticed the organizers of the SABR Negro Leagues conference to invite Robinson, who now resides in New York, to be a part of the event’s players panel June 14.

During the panel, Robinson and Sierra detailed their reactions to the recent Jackie Robinson (no relation) biopic, “42.” Robinson said he enjoyed the film, although it left out the influence of pioneering black sportswriter Sam Lacy. Conference organizers said Robinson brought a great deal of wisdom and experience to the Malloy event.

“Jim’s presence at our conference was an essential part of the history that is being told,” conference committee member and Kent State professor Leslie Heaphy said. “It is one thing to read about and even hear historians and other researchers talk about, but this was his life, which makes it much more meaningful. His experiences on and off the field are something we all can learn from.”

SABR committee co-chair and author Larry Lester compared Robinson to the trailblazing baseball great who shared Jim’s surname.

“My longtime colleague brings a passion for history and shares his commitment to promote the national pastime via several educational channels,” Lester said, referring to Jim Robinson’s post-playing career as a social worker, professor and baseball coach. “A true gentlemen and steward of the game, this Mr. Robinson could have been the original No. 42.”

For Jim Robinson, whose big-time hardball tenure was sprung in North Carolina, being part of the conference was a high honor, citing the positive involvement of Newark youth in the event who mobbed him for autographs.

“This is beautiful,” said Robinson, who still donates money to his North Carolina alma mater. “This is special. These kids are good. They were delightful. It made me fell good (that the kids were enthusiastic about Negro Leagues history). It was very heartwarming.”

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