Not that Frank Howard, Ron Cey, Chris Davis, minor league legends Smead Jolley and Pete Hughes, as well as long-forgotten Charley Swain, didn’t do their part, but Tom Robson reigns as the top slugger in Spokane’s baseball history.
Robson, whose power-hitting days paved the way for prominence as a major league hitting coach, died Tuesday in a Chandler, Arizona, memory-care facility. He was 75.
Expo ’74 wasn’t Spokane’s only big event in 1974. Robson, an easy-going, 6-foot-3, 215-pound outfielder-first baseman, crushed 41 home runs as the Indians, affiliated with the Texas Rangers, won the Pacific Coast League championship. Afterward, he won the league’s MVP award, and local writers and broadcasters named him Inland Empire Pro Athlete of the Year.
Robson, a Rochester, New York, native who grew up in Phoenix, was no stranger to big years. Although the New York Mets made him a lowly 50th-round pick in the 1967 draft, his second pro season produced 35 home runs and 102 RBIs for Visalia of the California League. But his career seemed to be going sideways until the Rangers signed him as a free agent in 1972.
The next season, he tore up the Eastern League, winning Topps Minor League Player of the Year honors playing for Pittsfield. He batted .316, hit 38 homers and contributed 126 RBIs. Promoted to Spokane for 1974, Robson hit .322 with the 41 homers and 35 doubles and 131 RBIs. On Aug. 7, in Honolulu, he became the fourth of six Spokane players to hit three homers in a game since pro ball came here in 1890.
The next year in Spokane, he appeared in only 87 games, batting .320 with the help of a 23-game hitting streak, still the fifth longest, and hit 13 homers. But he played little after joining the Rangers, and, when he failed to win a spot with the big club in 1976, he spent a year in the Japan Pacific League then retired as a player at age 30.
Only a few years before Robson came to Spokane, Howard, a Los Angeles Dodgers prospect, had been the 1959 minor league player of the year. After spending half that season in the Texas League, the giant outfielder joined the Indians and hit 16 homers in only 76 games, one a monster over the 28-foot-high center-field fence. Early the next year, the Dodgers recalled Howard from Spokane, and he became the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
Another Dodgers prospect, ex-Washington State standout Ron Cey, pounded 32 home runs for the 1971 Indians. Fourteen seasons as a standout N.L. third baseman followed. Chris Davis was a top slugger during Spokane’s recent four decades in the Northwest League. As a 2006 pro rookie, he hit 15 out in 69 games. Seven years later, he belted 53 for the Baltimore Orioles.
Jolley, an aging but fabulous hitter, and Hughes, who had bad feet, played for the city’s Western International League teams in consecutive years. In 1940, his big league career greatly abbreviated by horrid outfield play, Jolley led the WIL by hitting .373 with 56 doubles, 25 homers and drove in 181 runs. He would have hit more home runs, but his scorching line drives often didn’t gain enough altitude to clear the fences. In 1941, Hughes, who always put big numbers in the lower minors, hit 34 homers for the Indians with 156 walks.
Swain became this region’s premier slugger in 1905-1915. In his lone Spokane season, he led the league with 20 triples playing in a home park with an immense playing field. Swain never played in the majors, but the slugger topped the Northwestern League in doubles and home runs several times with a West Coast record 34 homers for Victoria in 1913.
Once Robson retired as a player, his career became closely linked with that of Bobby Valentine, another former Spokane star and PCL MVP. The two became close friends, and Robson was Valentine’s batting coach throughout most of the former Los Angeles Dodgers prodigy’s managing career.
News of Robson’s death spread after Valentine notified the New York Post, calling the former slugger “the best hitting coach and friend any team could have.” Later, in a statement, Valentine said, “As a hitting coach, Robbie was ahead of his times. He used kinetics and launch angle before anyone else did.”
After Robson served the Rangers organization as a minor league manager or batting coach from 1979 to 1985, he became Valentine’s assistant when Valentine managed Texas in 1986-92. They teamed up again with the Mets in 1997-2002, Robson coached Cincinnati’s hitters in 2003 then followed his friend to the Chiba Marines of the Japan Pacific League during 2004-06.
With the Mets, ex-WSU star John Olerud credited Robson with revitalizing his career, claiming Robson was the best coach he had. Later, Olerud wrote the forward for Robson’s book, “The Hitting Edge,” which remains for sale.
Robson, who made his home in Sun Lakes, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb, is survived by his wife, Jeannette, sons Adam and David and three grandchildren. His nephew, Mike Moustakas, is the regular third basemen for Cincinnati . Adam Robson played 17 games for Spokane’s Northwest League team in 1994. His older brother played briefly in the Detroit organization.