Earl Robinette walked down a long hallway Wednesday morning, through the Detroit Tigers’ front office at Comerica Park. The walls were covered with photos of Tigers from the past, and it was as if Robinette was going back in time.
If only for a day.
His emotions were complicated, a strong mixture of excitement and a trace of regret that has followed him.
He was ushered into the office of John Westhoff, the Tigers’ vice president and assistant general manager.
“Have a seat,” Westhoff said. “It’s about time.”
Back in 1954, the Tigers offered Robinette a contract but he didn’t accept it, for reasons that remain complicated and confusing. Instead of signing, he stayed on the family farm in Clare County, north of Mt. Pleasant, and he has regretted it ever since.
“We had to dust off a contract that’s been sitting around for 50 years for crying out loud,” Westhoff said. “Have a seat. You need to sign something.”
Robinette is 80 now, but he still moves with ease, and he still has those massive, strong hands.
Westoff put an honorary one-day contract on the wood, circular table. About 100 players have signed their Tigers’ contracts at this table over the last 15 years, everybody from Pudge Rodriguez to Justin Verlander.
“Well, I understand you were quite a baseball player, back in the day,” Westoff said. “Welcome back.”
Robinette glanced at the contract. It was not the same contract — that was probably lost years ago — but this one was made specifically for Robinette.
This time, there was no hesitation. This time, there was no doubt. He picked up a pen and signed it quickly.
“There you go, my friend,” Westhoff said. “Welcome to the Tigers.”
Westhoff presented Robinette with an official Tigers jersey and hat.
“Yeah, it feels right,” Robinette said, easing into the jersey with the No. 9 on back, the same number he wore back in the day.
On the far side of the room, Greg Robinette, Earl’s son, wiped tears from his eyes.
“It’s like I’m back 62 years, back when he was a kid, just imagining what it would have been like for him to sign that contract,” Greg Robinette said. “I think it means some closure.”
How it started
Robinette said the contract was on the kitchen table.
“I remember the day like it was yesterday,” Earl Robinette said.
It was the summer of 1954.
Robinette was 19, the oldest of six children, and he was working on the family farm. Robinette was using a horse to cultivate a cornfield because the ground was wet and he couldn’t get the tractor in that area. He was about a quarter-mile from the house and he remembers seeing his father, waving a white towel up and down, the signal to return to the house.
“I got on the horse and road him up to the house,” Robinette remembers. “I was filthy. My brother brought out a towel and a clean shirt and they hosed me down.”
Inside the house, he found three members of the Tigers’ front office sitting at the kitchen table. They offered him a contract to play for the Tigers. He said the Tigers offered a $28,000 signing bonus, but there is no way to confirm that figure. The Tigers don’t have the original contract and none of the Tigers’ officials said to be present on that day are still alive.
Earl Robinette said that his parents didn’t react.
“They never said anything,” Robinette said. “Nobody said anything. I kept waiting for my dad to say something. I figured he’d say, ‘Well, this is what we have been working for.’
“I was really excited but nobody else was. I had no backing of any kind.”
Robinette said he was discovered by a Tigers scout at a tryout camp in Mt. Pleasant, which was held in late June 1954.
“That’s where they saw me play,” he said.
Robinette was an outfielder with a strong arm, who could hit from both sides of the plate.
The contract was on the table, quite literally.
But his parents sat in silence.
“I was stunned,” Robinette said. “I was kinda hurt. Dad could have at least said something.”
Why? That’s still a mystery to Robinette. Relationships between fathers and sons are always complicated, even in hindsight, even years after his father passed away.
The Tigers officials left, taking the unsigned contract with them; and Robinette could never figure out why his parents reacted like that, why they didn’t encourage him to accept the deal.
“To tell you the truth, I really don’t know,” Earl Robinette said. “My dad was kind of a different guy. It was never brought up again. There was nothing ever said. I was hurt, basically. My father never said a word. He just sat there, right at the kitchen table.”
And it is the one regret of his life, not signing that contract.
Re-creating the moment
In early October 2015, Greg Robinette wrote a letter to the Tigers, telling them about his father.
In the package, he included the letter that the Tigers had sent to Earl Robinette, inviting him to a tryout in Mt. Pleasant. The letter was dated June 17, 1954, and it was signed by John J. McHale, who was then the director of the Tigers’ minor league system. A story by the Society of American Baseball Research said that McHale, at that time, was in charge of the Tigers’ $300,000 bonus system. Greg Robinette included a photo of his father that was taken at the tryout and was published in a local newspaper. As far as the unsigned contract, the Tigers don’t have contracts that go back that far — files that old were purged years ago.
“I guess you could say,” Greg Robinette wrote, “I am Ray Kinsella and my father is Dr. Archibald (Moonlight) Graham in the movie Field of Dreams: “Fifty years ago, for five minutes you came within ... y-you came this close. It would KILL some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they’d consider it a tragedy.”
Greg Robinette made an unusual request: to have the Tigers sign his father for one day. Not for money. No, it was for something deeper than that.
“Additionally,” Greg Robinette wrote, “I would like to pay for an official Tigers’ uniform top with his name on it. … Please understand, I know the Tigers have fantasy camp but that’s not what I am talking about here, this wasn’t a fantasy, it was real.”
In every life, there are times when you come to a fork in the road.
There are decisions that change everything.
What would have happened to Earl Robinette if he had signed that contract?
“I would have never met my wife,” Earl Robinette said, his voice trailing off. “And I never would have had (sons) Greg or Kevin. They are two of the best young men you could ever ask for and I love them with all my heart.”
Earl Robinette met his future wife, Juanita, at a restaurant in 1963 in Port Huron. He was 28, working as an art teacher at Huron Junior College, later renamed St. Clair County Community College. He was a budding artist, a painter and potter.
She was 20, working as a waitress.
They were married a year later and have lived in Port Huron ever since, still married.
‘You look like a Tiger’
After signing the contract Wednesday morning, Robinette was treated like royalty. He was taken to a conference room with seven members of his family, and Tigers great Willie Horton stopped by to say hello and pose for pictures.
“I loved to watch you!” Earl Robinette said. “You were one of my favorite ballplayers.”
Horton looked at Robinette’s 13-year-old grandson, Eli Robinette, who plays travel baseball, carried a baseball glove and wore a Miguel Cabrera jersey. “You gotta keep that dream in your eyes,” Horton said.
Then, Juanita posed for a picture with Horton and planted a kiss on his cheek.
Earl Robinette just smiled. He was taken to the press box and did an interview with Tigers radio announcer Jim Price.
“Well, it’s special,” Robinette said to Price. “You can’t express it. It’s a dream, a dream come true — 55 years ago, I could have done the same thing, but I didn’t.”
“You look like a Detroit Tiger,” Price said.
And finally, Earl Robinette went down on the field with his family. He stood on the grass, behind the batting cage, as designated hitter Victor Martinez took some swings. At that moment, Robinette’s name flashed on the scoreboard, along with two pictures of him as a young baseball player.
He walked to the Tigers’ dugout and sat on the bench by himself, looking out at Comerica Park.
“Feels fantastic,” Robinette said, smiling.
So for one day, he became a Tiger.
For one magical day, it was like he traveled back in time, and this time there were no regrets.