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LEARNING DAY

Learning Day: The Great Grapefruit CONK 🌭

Baseball is a fun sport. That’s its only goal. So I love discovering situations where it blew past that goal and became confusing nightmares. More like “take me out OF the ball game”, amirite? Ha ha ha. Ha ha! That phrase references “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, a song every baseball fan knows by heart. I know that song better than the other song they play at baseball games, even though “the other song” is the U.S. national anthem. By the way, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” was written 114 years ago. That’s weird. That is maybe too old. Much like baseball itself, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” is a national modern institution *and* a lingering Victorian ghost.

Speaking of hauntings: baseball’s mascots can be haunted. Its children’s literature can be propaganda for a space alien. And its marketing stunts can be…the topic of this column. In 1915, at spring training, the Brooklyn Dodgers attempted one fun marketing stunt. That’s all. One li’l goof, for the ‘gram (as in “telegram”).

If that stunt went well, or fine, or badly, I wouldn’t write it up. But that stunt achieved bone-chilling singularity. It took so many wrong turns, and got so far out of hand, it made the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager think he’d been murdered.

That’s him. Due to a promotional stunt for the Brooklyn Dodgers, that manager thought he got murdered. Even though he came out of the stunt unharmed! No wounds. No broken bones. That fifty-something cherub-man lived another twenty years. He survives this story, even though this is a story from 1915. 1915 is peak Reckless Old-Timey Times. Stories from 1915 are supposed to end in needless death, as a basic courtesy to the reader. As a standard treat. A memento mori mint-on-pillow. However: this guy did *think* he got murdered. Which matters! I have to imagine that experience… sticks with you.

Do you like sports, Dear Reader? Well even if you have zero interest in sports, I think you should hear some baseball stories. They’re fun, because they’re pretty universally weird. Why’s that? Baseball fans love stats. Probably too much. As a result, baseball players are the most over-observed men in world history. American baseball is a longterm nationwide chronicle of almost a thousand players (or more than a few thousand, if you include the minor leagues) spending 200+ days per year doing sports (i.e. goofing around). And because baseball people love baseball stats, a legion of geeks recorded *every event* of that history. Every game, every lineup, every other journalism they can journal. The resulting corpus of stats, statements, and screwin’-around is unique. It’s our most asinine annual record of how strange it is to play baseball – and more fundamentally, how strange it is to be alive.

Baseball stories are a parade of impossibilities, verified by eyewitnesses and videotape. One time a pitcher obliterated a dove. An outfielder’s throw bullseyed a seagull. A batter hit what should’ve been an easy out, but the ball bonked off a pigeon for a double. I know that’s a lot of bird stuff. Bird stuff is my favorite tip of this iceberg. Baseball guys do clumsy, scabby, druggy, swappy stuff that’s so mind-boggling it sounds fake. They’ve done it since the late 1800s. And I love knowing all of it. I don’t know what happens when an infinite number of monkeys use typewriters. I do know what happens when more than twenty thousand guys contest a children’s game a quarter million times. They generate a Shakespeare’s worth of masculine time-wasting. It’s very stupid, in the ways anything wall-to-wall male is stupid. Honestly that’s part of why this column’s story is worth telling. It’s both a top baseball story *and* the rare baseball story involving a woman.

This story happened in 1915, in Florida, and it centers on a grapefruit. I once made an episode of my good podcast about grapefruit. I wanted to learn grapefruit’s whole deal. As it turns out, their whole deal is they’re freaks. And relatively new freaks. Grapefruit exist today thanks to an orgy of citrus cross-pollination in the 1700s. In the 1820s, a French guy brought some’a them freaks from the Caribbean to Florida. Grapefruit thrived in Florida, as all freaks do. Florida became our top grapefruit-growing state. It also feels right, to me, that Florida is king of the only fruit with a purpose-built murder-spoon.

To top all this off, Florida is home to “The Grapefruit League”. The Grapefruit League is an annual baseball practice round. A bunch of pro teams send their guys there to play “spring training” games. That’s right: these teams put their childish grown men in Florida, in March (SPRING BREAK WOOOO), to play even-lower-pressure childrens’ games than usual. 

Bonus story: baseball’s other spring league is called “The Cactus League”, because it’s held in Desert Florida. One time a Cactus League player got injured by a literal cactus. I love that story on its own. I also love it as ~foreshadowing~ for the Grapefruit League tale I’ll now tell.

On March 13th, 1915, Wilbert Robinson was the pretty-new manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mr. Robinson was well-liked. So well-liked, they re-named the team in his honor. On this day “The Brooklyn Robins” were in Florida, practicing baseball, and side-hustling for promotional juice. They wanted to do a fun marketing stunt! So they arranged a stunt where aviatrix Ruth Law – a woman! – would fly her plane into the air, and toss a baseball to Wilbert Robinson from the sky. He’d catch it. And then…marketing! Because like every other atom of baseball, somebody would write it down. (Also the authorities needed more information, for apprehending that freewheeling gal.)

Wilbert was the obvious target for this marketing stunt. And I know, this “marketing stunt” sounds more like an assassination attempt made entirely out of toys. Either way, Wilbert was the team manager. He was the team’s face and namesake. He was also a former star baseball player, who played the position literally named “catcher.” If anybody could catch(er) a ball, it was this Wilbert fella.

This planned baseball marketing stunt required a baseball. However, before the plane took off, “here is a baseball” became “hey we found a grapefruit let’s huck that at him instead.” How this happened is up for debate. Some say Law forgot to bring a ball to the airfield. Some say her colleague thought a grapefruit would be funnier. In the end, nobody knows. This takeoff was not a baseball game. It lacked a note-taking Nerd Gallery. What we do have a record of is the nerd-thronged Dodgers/Robins ballfield. That’s where Wilbert Robinson stood, glove skyward, ready to catch a sphere thrown from a miracle (an aeroplane!) by a miracle (an unaccompanied woman!?).

Here is ESPN’s account of what happened next:

I doublechecked this. Another source (The Society For American Baseball Research) says the same. This guy got hit with a grapefruit instead of a baseball. It pulped his ass up. And for multiple entire seconds, he thought that copious reddish sploosh was his innards. He thought most of his blood was Old Faithful-ing onto an infield. He thought he’d gushed a gallon or two, in an era when blood transfusions were new technology, and Florida’s chief infrastructure was “look at this swamp I found.” Imagine the doctors of 1915 Florida. Imagine that. When I try, I picture Wilford Brimley in Hard Target, but with a hospital blazing to the ground behind him. Anyway good Florida-imagining everybody. Now imagine 1915 Brooklyn. Are you imagining an electric trolley, scattering townsfolk in its murderous path? Good. That was the real situation there. It was the origin of the name “Brooklyn Dodgers.” So when the Dodge-Robins planned this fun spring-swamp goof that gave their beloved patriarch a near-death experience, it probably stress-stacked atop his New York terminal brushes. Also hey, remind me, what was the last line of that ESPN story again?

Yeah! That’s what happened. All his– 

…yes, thanks Wilbert. All–

Wilbert! No one cares! Or at least no one cared back then, probably. The modern concept of “PTSD” wasn’t codified ‘til the 1960s. Our 1915 mental health care system was saloons. And this 1915 event shared newspaper space with World War Friggin’ One. Those guys died. Wilbert Robinson did not die. Or at least, he did not DIE-die. But he did “die”, for a few moments, in his own mind. That experience sticks with you! You don’t breeze past it! I’m amazed Robinson returned to New York City to manage ballgames. He should’ve returned, put clown stuff on, and dumped stuff in the water supply. Which was a perfect crime, then. Water was colorful, then. Plus once Wilbert got on that clown makeup, how would anyone know he’d Joker-fied? In 1915, *every* clown looked malevolent.

Anyway: Wilbert lived. He thrived. He managed his way into the Hall Of Fame. His Robins/Dodgers played that whole 1915 season. Also they played it at this stadium, near my current Brooklyn apartment. I found out I live close to that site by accident. I was trying to drop off our recycling, and I missed a turn, and I ended up seeing *the most* Jackie Robinson murals. What are the chances? Also in the 1950s, that Dodgers franchise moved out of Brooklyn, to a much more haunted stadium in Los Angeles. One of the few times I’ve been there, I saw a no-hitter in person. What are the chances? Why am I pursued by Dodgers-based improbabilities? How am I the main character of a whimsical, multiregional, not-even-my-favorite-team Final Destination?

But hey, maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe that’s all random. It’s less likely than a baseball bird-death. It’s more probable than Ruth Law’s sky-ball turning out to be a grapefruit. But it’s weird. And it’s mine. And it’s the type of oddity that keeps bringing me back to this sport slash historical phenomenon slash psychological experiment. So I will continue to take myself out to the ball game…no matter how probably-haunted the music gets.

Alex Schmidt makes Secretly Incredibly Fascinating, which is a good podcast. LISTEN TO IT IMMEDIATELY.

This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Jeff Orasky, who was once playfully murdered by the Portland Trailblazers to promote logging safety.

4 replies on “Learning Day: The Great Grapefruit CONK 🌭”

I clicked a few of them links. Good lord, Alex. I was reasonably sure I couldn’t get more depressed by my homeland. Keep it up, hotdogs.
Alex, always loved your articles. More plz

Maybe it’s because I’m currently running a fever, but that seemed like some top-tier joke slinging. There were nested punchlines set to an irreverent rhythm. This Alex knows how to put words down in succession.

I would pay hundreds of dollars to witness such an event in the modern day.

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