SPRING TRAINING AND THE TRUE STORY OF THE GRAPEFRUIT NICKNAME
By JOE GUZZARDI
February 28, 2021
Major League Baseball approved a plan to go forward with Spring Training, also known as the Grapefruit League. Fans, who may or may not be allowed to watch the games, think that the reference to grapefruits evolved from the Florida camps where citrus grows in abundance.
But actually, the grapefruit nickname came about from a 1915 publicity stunt that involved two of baseball history’s most famous characters: Casey Stengel, then an excellent Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder, and his manager, Wilber “Uncle Robbie” Robinson, about whom a New York Times reporter wrote: “It is doubtful that baseball ever produced a more colorful figure than the esteemed Wilbert Robinson.”
A third party to the hoax was Ruth Law, the fifth woman to earn a pilot’s license and a famous aviatrix who once said that the best way to get her to do a dangerous trick while airborne was to tell her she couldn’t do it. Law then stunned male pilots, including Orville Wright, when she became the first female to perform multiple aerobic loops and to fly at night. Wright, claiming women had no business piloting aircraft, had refused to teach Law how to fly.
In 1915, the same year that Law looped her airplane 16 times over a Birmingham, Ala. country fair, the three protagonists in the grapefruit farce found themselves in Daytona Beach, Fla. Casey and his Dodgers teammates were conducting spring training drills; Law was dropping golf balls from her plane over a local course to generate interest in the sport.
Suddenly, the Dodgers – specifically Stengel – thought that dropping a baseball from a plane to a player on the ground would be a fine idea. Stengel convinced Law to pilot her plane, and to drop a ball to the player waiting below.
But no Dodgers player came forward. Eventually, the team persuaded the good-natured Robinson to dust off his catcher’s mitt – during his 17-year playing career from 1886 to 1902, he had been a solid catcher for four teams – and try his luck.
Robinson was likely inspired by his 1908 memory when Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street, dressed in street clothes and on his 15th try, caught a baseball dropped from the top of the Washington Monument, a distance of 550 feet. Mathematicians calculated that on its way down, the ball had picked up 300 pounds of force, and traveled 95 miles per hour.
Once airborne, Law realized that she had forgotten the baseball back in her hotel room. She did, however, have her lunch, which included a grapefruit. When Law leveled off at 500 feet, she dropped the grapefruit, and the orb struck Robinson in his chest.
Onlookers recalled that the Dodgers manager, now felled and covered in sticky red juices, thought he was mortally wounded. A dazed Robbie called out “Help me, lads, I’m covered with my own blood.” Only when the Dodgers rushed over to Robinson’s side, but burst out laughing hysterically, did the manager realize that he had been the target of a friendly joke gone bad.
In the years following the madcap grapefruit caper, Robinson continued to manage the Dodgers who, until his 1931 retirement, adopted the nickname “Robins” in honor of the popular skipper. Stengel had a storied player and managerial career that peaked when he piloted the New York Yankees to an unmatched five consecutive World Series titles, 1949 -1954. Casey’s curtain call with the Amazin’ Mets was less successful.
By 1916, a determined and skilled Law had shattered the existing cross-American flight speed record when she flew non-stop from Chicago to New York. After World War I broke out in 1917, Law lobbied unsuccessfully to fly military aircraft. Denied permission, a resolute Law broke more women’s aviation records that included soaring to 14,700 feet in 1919.
Eventually, Law retired from flying, moved to Los Angeles and took up gardening. Ironically, despite Orville Wright’s early rejection of her request for instruction, in 1948 Law attended a Smithsonian event in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk donation to the museum.
Although Law had a record-setting aviation career, she inexplicably traveled to Washington by train, a longer than four-day journey.
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