How Bruce Robinson Revolutionized Catcher's Protective Gear in 1979.
Twenty-first century baseball chest protectors shield a catcher’s most important defensive weapon --- his throwing arm. There is a hinged cup covering the right shoulder to guard it from high velocity pitched and deflected baseballs.
Catcher J. T. Realmuto with right shoulder protection.
At its inception in the 1880s the chest protector did not cover a catcher’s right shoulder. Equipment makers kept padding away from the shoulder to avoid impeding arm movement. This left a catcher’s valuable throwing arm exposed to injury. This did not change for nine decades.
In 1979 New York Yankee minor league catcher Bruce Robinson realized that having a successful major league career would depend on safeguarding his strong and accurate right arm. So he invented the “Robbypad,” a hinged flap attached to his chest protector that covered his right shoulder.
The Robbypad is the missing link in the evolution of the catcher's chest protector. Its invention by Robinson was one of three threads of baseball history that converged in Ohio’s capital city of Columbus in 1979
“It was like having a veteran catcher.”
- Former teammate pitcher Brian Kingman, describing 22-year old Bruce Robinson
As he walked to elementary school in La Jolla, California Robinson tested his throwing arm with rocks. “I had to hit every sign from a certain distance or I couldn’t go to school,” he said. “I was on a mission from the time I was about 10 years old to become a major league baseball player.”
Bruce Robinson without a Robbypad covering his right shoulder. Chattanooga Lookouts, 1976.
As Robinson worked his way up the minor league ladder with the Oakland Athletics he was a major league prospect. Rene Lachemann managed Robinson for three years while the catcher progressed from Single-A to Triple-A. “He had plus power, an outstanding arm, was very good behind plate, blocking, and was a diligent worker,” Lachemann observed. “I thought he would be a 10- or 15-year veteran of major league baseball.” The six-foot two-inch, 195-pound Robinson also hit left-handed, an added bonus.
Robinson had a break out year with Triple-A Vancouver in 1978, hitting .299 with an .820 OPS and was promoted to Oakland in August. He hit .250 in 28 games and his throwing arm sent a warning message to baserunners. He threw out 46 percent of the runners in stolen base attempts. That was fifth in the American League for catchers playing at least 25 games and well above the league average of 38 percent, according to Baseball Reference.
Robinson had the fifth best 1979 caught stealing percentage for AL catchers in 25+ games.
The New York Yankees acquired Robinson in February, 1979, as owner George Steinbrenner stockpiled left-handed hitting catchers. The owner wanted lefty catchers to take advantage of the short right field fence in Yankee Stadium when they reached the American League. They would be needed, as the Yankees were expecting 32-year old All-Star catcher Thurman Munson to play fewer games at catcher.
The 25-year old Robinson saw his opportunity with the Yankees and wanted to protect his throwing arm. “I’d never been hit right there on the point [of the shoulder],” he said. “If you put your finger on that bone and imagine a ball coming in at 100 miles an hour off a bat, you’re going down. I’d seen a couple of guys get hit and you can’t throw. You can’t lift your arm.” Robinson recalled catchers losing playing to deep throwing shoulder bruises and worse. “I said ‘I’m going to do something about this.’”
Columbus Celebrates Baseball’s Return
In 1976 the minor-league baseball stadium in Ohio’s capital city was vacant and in disrepair. Jets Stadium had been empty since 1971 when the Pirates Triple-A team had departed for Charleston, WV due to facility conditions. A movement to restore the stadium and return baseball to Columbus was conceived by Franklin County Commissioner Harold Cooper, the Jets former General Manager.
Cooper’s vision needed legal guidance. He turned to the Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, which also represented the county in legal matters. Attorney Frank Ray, 27, had been a county lawyer for less than three years, working almost exclusively as a prosecutor.
Frank Ray with Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn in 1987.
Ray vividly recalled the moment in late 1975 when his boss said, “‘Frank I know you love baseball, I have a project for you I think you’ll really like.’” He instructed Ray to meet with Cooper. On October 28 the County Commission had voted to offer $600,000 to purchase Jets Stadium. When Cooper informed Ray that the commission had finalized the deal, he added, “I hope that was legal.” Once Ray verified that the transaction was proper, Cooper informed Ray the county now wanted to own a baseball franchise.
“I was 27 years old. I had never formed a corporation in my life,” said Ray. “I was a litigator, a prosecutor.” He cautioned Cooper, ‘“I don’t think there’s any public body that owns anything in professional sports. The closest thing is the [Green Bay] Packers.” He asked me to figure it out, so I did.”
In 1976 the Galbreath family owned the Pittsburgh Pirates and its Triple-A team the Charleston Charlies, the five-year-departed Jets. The Galbreaths were one of the richest families in America. The family’s 79-year old patriarch John managed the family’s diverse holdings in Columbus. Twenty miles away was Darby Dan Farm, where the Galbreaths bred Kentucky Derby winners.
Galbreath had hinted to Cooper that the family interest in minor league baseball was waning. Cooper asked Ray to meet the multi-millionaire at the Galbreath Mortgage Company. Cooper knew it wasn’t an adversarial negotiation, but to the young lawyer Ray, it was a frighteningly intimidating scene.
“I had my double-knit blue blazer on and the guy comes out looking like a million bucks, a fraction of his fortune,” said Ray. “His office is gorgeous. A lady comes out with tea service and sets it down.”
“On one side of the desk he has the Kentucky Derby trophy,” Ray continued. “And on the other side of the desk he has the World Series trophy. I am just trying to get my jaw in the right position so I can talk to this guy.”
Galbreath suggested that they write their proposals on the back of their business cards and exchange them. “I broke into this cold sweat. I don’t know how I am supposed to negotiate this deal,” said Ray. “I wrote down $25,000. I forget what my authority was. It was more than that. I thought this was going to be a negotiation, so I’m going to start low.”
“So he handed me his card and I handed him mine,” said Ray. “His card read, “Your number is fine.”
Ray drafted the required document. “Honest to God it’s a one-page, double-spaced contract,” he said.
The financial statements of Franklin County, Ohio documents the purchase of the Clippers in 1976.
The purchase of the Pirates’ Triple-A franchise rights for $25,000 was a financial blessing, because Cooper had audacious plans for run-down Jets Stadium. The County invested $6 million in refurbishing the minor league facility with features rarely found in the major leagues in 1976 --- private suites, a restaurant, and at the eleventh hour, a turf field to meet the 1977 Opening Day deadline.
The Pirates returned from West Virginia and fans packed upgraded and renamed Franklin County Stadium. Columbus led the International League (IL) in attendance with 457,251. That was triple the attendance in 1970, the city’s last year with Triple-A baseball. In 1978 Columbus led the league in attendance again.
On the field, however, General Manager George Sisler, Jr. was discouraged. In 1977 and 1978 the Clippers finished seventh in the eight-team International League. “Sisler was not pleased with the quality of the Columbus players,” said Ray.
Sisler conferred with Yankees owner Steinbrenner during the annual off-season shuffle of ready-to-relocate Triple-A franchises. Steinbrenner moved the Tacoma Yankees to Columbus from the Pacific Coast League. (The Pirates went to Portland of the PCL, and the Indians Triple-A team moved from Portland to Tacoma, replacing the Yankees.)
This brought the talented Yankee Triple-A team, the 1978 PCL co-champion, to Columbus where Steinbrenner had deep roots. In the 1950s Cleveland native Steinbrenner was stationed in Columbus with the Air Force. He later coached area high school sports, earned his master’s degree at Ohio State and married a Columbus native.
Steinbrenner would embrace Columbus. The city would embrace the Clippers and Steinbrenner’s commitment to winning. Record crowds would fill Franklin County Stadium. The Clippers would win three consecutive International League championships in unrivaled fashion.
The Birth of the Robbypad
In 1978 he had been the team’s trainer, his first job after graduating from the University of Maine. Letendre was a certified trainer. His year in West Haven reinforced the lessons of his extracurricular college work in Orono, Maine as a student trainer and sports official.
He knew that managing and preventing injuries generated results on the baseball field. “From a medical standpoint, the less injurious your catcher is, the more successful you’ll be holding runners on,” he said.
The training room was a bustling six foot by eight foot room off the Clippers clubhouse. Before and after games, players received medical treatment. There were two training tables, a chest closet and a desk. “It was cozy and efficient,” said Letendre. It was the birthplace of the Robbypad, and its precursor --- the Mittpad.
The Mittpad was Robinson’s first venture into catcher’s protective gear. It was designed to protect the fleshy bottom of the wrist when a catcher opened his glove and turned it over to stop pitches in the dirt.
“I have big hands,” said Robinson. “When I put my hand in a catcher’s glove about an inch and half of between the end of my palm and my wrist would be exposed out of the glove and that really hurts when you get hit by a ball in the dirt.”
Letendre was immersed in his hectic pre- and post-game player treatments. He did not remember Robinson collecting the medical supplies needed for the Mittpad --- athletic tape, tongue depressors and quarter-inch dense, flexible foam. Robinson cut two circular foam pads, sandwiched the tongue depressors in between, and taped it into a round shield.
“Then I would poke holes in it and get three pieces of leather,” said Robinson, “and I would tie it to the bottom of my catcher’s glove so that when I turn my glove over when the tip is pointing down and blocking a ball I now had this little pad covering my hand so it doesn’t get hit.”
The Mittpad hangs below the glove. Pitches in the dirt often miss the glove and the catcher’s goal is to stop the ball and keep it front of him.
When scooping balls in the dirt the Mittpad protects the exposed wrist, as the catcher uses any body part to stop the ball, whether protected or not.
The Mittpad was appended to all of Robinson’s mitts --- his game glove, workout glove and another game-ready glove. From the start of the 1979 season it was a success. “The only adjustment I’d ever make would be to remove the athletic tape that was fraying and replace it with new tape,” said Robinson. “The pad never needed replacing.” The Robbypad was next.
“Can I have a chest protector? Here’s what I want to do,” said Robinson to Letendre, describing the Robbypad. The pair teamed up, searching for hard-to-find worn-out catcher chest protectors to cannibalize. “Chest protectors are like old shoes,” said Letendre. “Back in the day very rarely would a catcher give up his chest protector even though the foam had been degraded by the ozone in the air where he’d be better off wearing “Life” magazines taped to your chest.”
Robinson fashioned the first prototype. From the left side of a chest protector he cut out the padding that covered the catcher’s left shoulder. “I cut it up and made a little half heart shape,” said Robinson. “I poked holes in it with an awl and took black shoelaces and stuck three shoelaces in it.”
It took some tinkering to ensure that Robinson’s shoulder would stay shielded. First, the shoelaces had to be adjusted. “At first it was too stiff,” he said. “I had to get the exact right tension on the shoelaces. Too loose and it was too floppy and wouldn’t stay in position.”
Then, there was the positioning. “You had to wear the chest protector high enough so it had to be positioned in the right spot,” he said. “If it was too low your arm threw over it. It was better to have it too high than too low.”
By the end of May the Robbypad had made its professional debut. Letendre saw the success. “Robby recognized it instantly because every time he got hit it would still hurt but it would be a percussive hit versus an acute blow…The equivalent of a hornet’s sting versus a mosquito bite,” said Letendre.
Garry Smith, a Clippers outfielder for four years remembered the Robbypad. “What a great idea it was and it was completely logical,” he said.
On May 31 the Clippers were in first place at 30-11, leading the International League by six games. Attendance averaged over 5,000 fans per game. On some nights the Clippers would outdraw major league games.
Defensively, Robinson was establishing himself behind the plate as a future Yankees catcher. At the plate, where he often struggled early in the season, “I got off to another typically horrid start,” said Robinson. He was hitting .188 with one home run and 10 RBIs. The team’s other left-handed hitting catcher, Brad Gulden was hitting .301 with six home runs and 25 RBIs.
Opposing IL catchers liked the Robbypad. Kevin Kennedy played for Rochester on his way to the majors where he later coached and managed. In 1979 he caught for the Red Wings, “I personally felt it might restrict my throwing arm as that was my strength...so I never used it,” he said. “My other catcher teammates [later] did use it and liked it…Those foul balls straight into our throwing shoulders hurt like crazy. I took several off of my right shoulder and always tried to tough it out by throwing more during the game so it wouldn't tighten up.”
The Clippers front office also endorsed the Robbypad. Attorney Ray had left the County Prosecutor’s Office and opened a private practice in 1979. Having built the legal underpinnings of the team, he was hired by the Clippers as their legal counsel. He worked closely with General Manager Sisler and attended almost every Clippers home game. “Sisler thought it was great,” said Ray. “He got a kick out of the whole thing…It was a device that protected a player physically.”
So in July, when Robinson and Letendre formalized their partnership with visions of a commercial venture, Sisler and Yankees owner Steinbrenner were ready to help. On July 16 the Clippers were 64-27, sixteen games ahead of second place Pawtucket. The Clippers had set a team record with a 15-game winning streak and its .280 team batting average was twenty points higher than the league’s next best. Robinson had started to hit, too, raising his average closer to .300 than .200.
Excerpt from the Mittpad/Robbypad release signed by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Clippers General Manager George Sisler, Jr.
The next day, July 17, Steinbrenner and Sisler signed a release giving up the Clippers’ and Yankees’ rights to any financial benefit from the Mittpad and Robbypad. In exchange Letendre and Robinson agreed to exclude mention of the Clippers and Yankees in all marketing and the devices. There was no formal signing ceremony, recalled Ray, who drafted the release. “I would also expect that Mr. Steinbrenner signed when he visited Franklin County Stadium to watch his aspiring Yankees, which he routinely did during the applicable time-frame,” said Ray.
Just three days after executing the release Robinson and Letendre took the first step to protect their inventions. On their behalf, Ray sent a letter to Columbus Congressman Chalmers Wylie asking for research assistance in the restricted-access U.S. Patent and Trademark Office near Washington, DC. Perhaps a member of Wylie’s legal staff could determine if anything like Robinson’s catcher gear inventions were already patented.
The funding of legal expenses on minor league player and trainer salaries was a challenge for Letendre and Robinson. “I was so poor,” said Robinson. “I didn’t know how much it was going to cost so I tried to defray expenses…He had more money than I did so I brought him in.” Letendre wrote the check to cover the first sixty dollars in legal fees.
Clippers trainer Mark Letendre wrote the check for the first Robbypad patent search.
“Had it gone to patent he was going to be the pre-eminent owner and designer and I was going to have a percentage of the patent,” said Letendre. The patent research would continue for a year. It would take twelve years to resolve the legal questions concerning the Robbypad.
In August, a pall fell over the baseball world when perennial All-Star Yankee catcher Munson died in a plane crash. The devastating shock was felt throughout the New York organization, yet a quick decision was needed to promote a catcher from Columbus. Unfortunately for Robinson, his slow start at the plate prompted the Yankees to call up the Clippers’ other left-handed hitting catcher, Gulden.
The Clippers wobbled as they finished first in the International League regular season, winning just 13 of their last 34 games. Still, fans packed Franklin County Stadium. Bringing the competitive Yankees Triple-A team to the renovated facility broke a 31-year old minor league season attendance record, according to the baseball attendance history website Number Tamer. Attendance of 599,544 exceeded that of the major league Oakland Athletics.
Robinson rebounded at the plate, hitting .272 during the last three months of the season, with a .419 slugging average. He started six of the seven games of the championship series against Syracuse. On September 15 he caught all 12 innings of Columbus’ walk-off Game Seven win, which brought to Columbus its first International League championship. Less than 48 hours later Robinson was back in major league baseball, this time with the Robbypad.
“Yankees were salivating over him because he was left-handed hitter,” said Ray. “He could hit. His average was not that great but Bruce Robinson could play. He was lean. He was quick. Had a gun for an arm. Everybody was in awe of Robinson…He could throw from his knees.”
Robinson was the starting catcher for the Yankees in the first game of a doubleheader against the Indians in Cleveland on September 17. He played in five more games, had two hits and two RBIs in thirteen plate appearances, all verified by Baseball-Reference.
Verification of the Robbypad’s debut in Cleveland on September 18 was documented by an award-winning photographer from United Press International. Ron Kuntz was in his 27th year covering the Indians (not to mention Presidents, Olympiads and headline news stories).
The Robbypad (circled in red) was first photographed in MLB on September 18, 1979.
In the bottom of the first inning Rick Manning hit a ground ball to second base. The runner at third base, Mike Hargrove, broke for the plate. The throw from second baseman Willie Randolph cut down the sliding Hargrove. Kuntz’s picture shows Robinson looking to first base after applying the tag. A portion of the Robbypad is visible on Robinson’s right shoulder.
On September 29 Robinson caught pitcher Tommy John’s 21st win of the season, and the 68th since the pitcher’s pioneering reconstructive elbow surgery in 1975. Robinson, with the Robbypad, was behind the plate with umpire George Maloney, one of the last umpires to use the outside balloon chest protector.
A crowd of 30,016 at Yankee Stadium saw the second and final complete game major league appearance by the Robbypad. In the bottom of the second Robinson singled to center field scoring Graig Nettles, to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead in an eventual 9 to 4 win. It would be Robinson’s last major league hit, but the Robbypad had earned a place in baseball history.
Robinson with the Robbypad in
Yankee Stadium on September 29,
1979 with umpire George Maloney
The Van That Saved Dave Righetti's Career
Spring training in Fort Lauderdale established the 1980 season’s starting catchers for the Yankees --- Rick Cerone in New York and Robinson in Columbus. It also affirmed interest in the Robbypad beyond the International League. Wilson Sporting Goods of Chicago contacted Robinson.
Robinson wearing the Robbypad as photographed by Wilson Sporting Goods
“They had sent me letters that they wanted to work with me and then they came into the locker room and brought me out[side],” said Robinson. “I remember right outside the front door of the Fort Lauderdale spring training complex in the sun it was real early before practice. They wanted to take pictures of the Robbypad.” Wilson interviewed Robinson and left spring training with pictures and notes, assuring the catcher they would evaluate the Robbypad.
During spring training, Attorney Ray’s patent search generated guidance on how to legally protect the Robbypad invention. The request for Congressional patent search assistance in Washington, DC had hit a dead end, so Ray pivoted. He contacted a patent lawyer with the Columbus firm now known as PorterWright which proudly traces its roots to 1846 to nearby London, Ohio.
On March 26 Ray received a detailed, three-page review of the patentability of the Robbypad and Mittpad. Unfortunately, in the era of paper letters it was misfiled. The 1980 International League season started without the information being forwarded. The patent research stalled, but the Robbypad evolved.
Letendre and Robinson had observed that there was constant wearing friction on the shoelaces that wound through the nylon chest protector. They tried leather instead of shoelaces. “Rawhide was more durable but also put more strain on the nylon,” said Letendre, as they experimented to find the best combination of materials.
On Sunday, June 1 heavy rains fell in Columbus, postponing the final game of a series against Charleston. The team did not leave the stadium until midnight.
Robinson shared an apartment with a 21-year old pitcher in his first full year in Triple-A, lefty Dave Righetti. The pitcher was off to a strong start. He was 4-1 with a 3.79 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 38 innings. Righetti had caught the attention of the Yankees front office, building on a solid 1979 season in the minors.
The pair carpooled to and from Franklin County Field from their Columbus apartment. They rode in Robinson’s beige 1979 Chevy panel van outfitted with two captain’s chairs. “Being roommates I was comfortable with him,” said Righetti. “I always thought he was going to be a player. He had it all in terms of size and nice swing and ability.”
Roommates and battery mates Bruce
Robinson (C) and Dave Righetti (R) with
Clippers Manager Joe Altobelli in 1980
It was a 15-minute ride from the ballpark to the Lincoln Village Apartments, a sprawling grid of multi-family units. Much of the trip was on West Broad Street, a major route through Columbus. “It was a basement apartment in a blue collar working class neighborhood,” said Robinson. “Most of the team lived north so they could frequent the hot night spots. I wanted to go home, cook a steak, watch “Carson” and get my rest.”
The Clippers had games scheduled every day for the last two weeks. They had arrived at Franklin County Stadium the previous morning for the scheduled 2 p.m. game. As Sunday turned to Monday, Broad Street was deserted. The van’s captain’s chairs provided comfort, but it was the van’s size and structure that mattered.
Robinson’s 1979 Chevy van.
Captain’s chairs in an upgraded Chevy van.
“We pulled into the left-hand turn lane and the guy behind us must have been so drunk he was just following lights,” said Righetti. Robinson estimated they were hit at 50 miles per hour.
“The car the kid was driving was an accordion,” said Righetti. The Fire Department dispatch log in the Columbus Dispatch stated the car’s driver and passenger required treatment at 4048 West Broad Street.
“The van, thank God. It saved us,” said Righetti. The van frame collapsed and absorbed the impact. Miraculously the blue-chip pitching prospect was not hurt. Three days later, Steinbrenner and Yankees General Manager Gene Michael were in the stands, the Columbus Dispatch reported. Righetti pitched a strong seven-inning no-decision start, giving up three runs and striking out six. A year later he was en route to a 16-year career in which he was a two-time All-Star reliever and saved 252 games.
Robinson was whiplashed when his seat back dislodged and bent at a 45-degree angle. His right shoulder absorbed the impact. There was no Robbypad for protection. “I don’t recall missing playing time,” said Robinson, “but do remember my shoulder getting progressively worse with each passing week.” He eventually stopped taking pregame infield warm ups.
Robinson's 1980 Baseball Card
The Clippers’ talented pitching kept the team at the top of the standings into the summer. In mid-July, eight pitchers had ERAs under 3.00, and Columbus moved into first place. On July 17 a team-record 20,131 fans filled Franklin County Stadium to see the renowned San Diego Chicken mascot. For the fourth consecutive year, the Clippers were leading the International League in attendance.
In July Ray forwarded to Robinson and Letendre the misplaced patent research. It analyzed six existing similar sports equipment patents and found that all were expired. This meant the Robbypad could be produced and sold without paying for patent rights. The letter also concluded that Robinson and Letendre could protect the Robbypad design by patenting a modified version. It would cost about $1000.
“We probably should have made them and it probably would have given us protection,” reflected Robinson, but he and Letendre had major league ambitions and minor league salaries. The Clippers were also pursuing a second consecutive International League championship for the Yankees top farm team in owner Steinbrenner’s favorite Ohio city.
On August 4 the Clippers were in first place and with an eight-plus game lead over Toledo. The pitching staff anchored the team and Robinson was the primary catcher. (Eight of the league’s top 20 pitcher ERAs were Clippers.) Now in his sixth professional season, Robinson, 26, was hitting .235, with eight home runs and 38 RBIs. He was throwing out attempted base stealers at a sixty percent rate, the La Jolla Light reported. Robinson’s willingness to play with an injured shoulder did not surprise Letendre. “Robby was one of those guys who could really take a lot of pain,” said Letendre. Of the discomfort, said Robinson, “I didn’t let anyone know.”
Columbus won the International League championship for the second year in a row, the first IL repeat since 1937-38. The Clippers drew over 500,000 fans again, 200,000 more than the next IL team. On September 12 when the Clippers clinched the championship Robinson was behind the plate, with the Robbypad.
The Yankees called up Robinson but his injured shoulder limited playing time. He started one game, was twice a late-game defensive replacement, and pinch hit in a fourth. He played nine innings in the field and was 0-5 at the plate. His one start was on October 4, the second game of a doubleheader. The crowd of 55,410 was the largest ever to see the Robbypad.
The championship battery of pitcher Chris Welsh (L) in Toledo, OH, with Robinson (R) and the Robbypad. Welsh is in his 27th year as the Fox Sports Net Ohio TV color analyst for the Cincinnati Reds. Welsh pitched for four MLB teams, including the Reds, in five seasons. (Permission requested from Newsbank, Naples, FL)
Year of Transition
During 1981 spring training, the New York media saw Robinson as a left-handed option behind the plate for the Yankees. The New York Times reported that Robinson “will be the No. 2 man unless he plays himself out of a job.”
Robinson’s shoulder had not recovered from the accident trauma, however. During the off season he saw doctors, chiropractors and tried acupuncture. “My arm wouldn’t get better,” he said, “but I didn’t want to tell them…I couldn’t push buttons on the car radio without hurting my arm.” With a major league roster spot within reach, he was reluctant to leave the field.
It took persuasion by MLB players’ union to convince Robinson to reveal the extent of his injury so he could be placed on the team’s official Disabled List (now the Injured List). That would prevent Robinson from being assigned to Columbus based on a subpar spring and losing his major league roster spot (and salary).
It took weeks, including a five frustrating rehabilitation games with Single-A Fort Lauderdale and multiple medical exams to convince the Yankees of the injury. In May Robinson underwent shoulder surgery and was out for the season. It was the first time there was no baseball season for Robinson since he played Little League.
The Clippers started slowly. They won just nine of their first twenty games. More was expected of the Yankees top farm team, as it was stockpiled with talent. “The only way to get to New York was if someone [on the MLB team] got hurt or traded,” said Ray, who rarely missed a home game in his seats a few rows behind the Clippers dugout.
Ray believed the Clippers would have been even better with Robinson catching. During the 1981 MLB players’ strike an uninjured Robinson would have been “the best catcher playing professional baseball,” said Ray, who was told by Sisler that the Yankees held Robinson in high regard, even on the disabled list.
After the slow start, the Clippers won two-thirds of their remaining games with a boost from an extraordinarily dramatic and publicized win. It came on June 12, the day after major league baseball players went on strike. It was the fifth of eight MLB work stoppages over the 24 years needed to achieve labor-management harmony.
The Columbus Dispatch lists ESPN’s broadcast of the June 12, 1981 Columbus Toledo game. (Permission requested from Newsbank, Naples, FL)
Without major league baseball the national media, including 21-month old fledging ESPN, scurried to Franklin County Stadium. The Yankees and Mets top farm teams were scheduled for a doubleheader with first place at stake. The Clippers were in first place one game ahead of the Tidewater Tides.
In the seats behind third base, an eleven-year old boy and his father celebrated the grand slam. Hugs. High fives. Unbridled joy. The lightning bolt moment transformed J. David Herman into a passionate Clippers and baseball fan.
Fifth-grader Herman lost track of the Clippers when his family moved to the West Coast in August, but he never forgot them. Thirty-eight years later he published the book “Almost Yankees: The Summer of 1981 and the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of.”
Herman told the thrills and frustrations of the team, and shared his coming of age joy as a fan, and as his father’s adult son. The book begins with the memory of Robertson’s game-winning home run: “My Dad has been gone for several years now, but I can still hear his voice, rising above a chorus of others, urging the ball to clear the right field wall.”
The Clippers finished first in the regular season and beat Rochester in the first round of the playoffs. Columbus was declared league champion in a rain-shortened final series by virtue of their two games to one lead over Richmond.
For three consecutive years the Clippers were the International League regular season and playoff champions, a first in the history of minor league baseball’s top tier. Other Triple-A teams had won three consecutive regular season pennants before the playoff era. Other teams had won three consecutive playoff championships without winning three straight regular season pennants. The three-peat achieved by the Clippers was without precedent, and still is in 2020.
Columbus led the International League in attendance in 1981, again drawing over 500,000 fans. As of 2020 the Clippers have attracted over a half-million fans 33 times, the most in International League history.
The three consecutive championships and big crowds pleased the Yankees. When Sisler asked Steinbrenner to extend the Clippers’ working agreement for one or two years, the Yankees owner said, “Why not five years?” The surprised Sisler agreed, as reported by The Sporting News.
Letendre’s work in the training room also received notice. After the season he was promoted to MLB. From 1982 to 1985 he was the Assistant Athletic Trainer for the Yankees. From 1986 to 1999 he was the Head Athletic Trainer for the San Francisco Giants, serving as Director of Medical Services in the last three years.
In 2000, Letendre was appointed as the first director of medical services for the officials of a professional sports league. For twenty years he was MLB’s Director of Umpire Medical Services. “No one had ever taken care of their officials before,” said Letendre. He ensured that umpires were physically able to withstand the rigors of officiating. For an umpire returning from extended medical leave, Letendre scheduled minor league rehabilitation games to allow for a lower profile test before returning to MLB. “If you’re out for 30 days we bring major league umpires through just like players,” he said. “They really took to it.”
Righetti, 22, had been promoted to New York in May and was the youngest Yankee to appear in the 1981 Wor1d Series. He began his career as a starting pitcher, and later was an All-Star closer. As pitching coach for the San Francisco Giants from 2000 to 2017, he offered a testimonial for the Robbypad. “I remember (catcher Buster) Posey getting hit in the shoulder and I said, ‘You should have had a Robbypad,’”
Robinson spent 1981 in southern California recovering from surgery, so he missed the Clippers’ three-peat celebration. But under the provisions of MLB players’ contract Robinson had his most financially lucrative year in pro baseball. His disabled list status allowed him to collect his full season major league salary of $45,000 even though all other active union members went unpaid during the 50-day players strike.
His disabled list status also generated full Yankee playoff and World Series shares totaling about $40,000. Plus, “I got half meal money every time they (the Yankees) went on the road even though I was home in La Jolla,” said Robinson. “That was my biggest (salary) year.”
Of the original Robbypad team, only Ray remained in Columbus after 1981. The Ohio native continued as the Clippers legal counsel while developing his private law practice. He has served as Clippers’ sole legal counsel for 44 years despite the demands of being a successful trial attorney. “My very first client in my private law practice was the Clippers organization,” he fondly remembered.
“It's a legal matter, baby. A legal matter from now on.”
- Lyrics from the song “A Legal Matter” by The Who
It took twenty months for Wilson Sporting Goods to reconnect with Robinson after they met in Fort Lauderdale in March, 1980. In November, 1981 Wilson wrote to Robinson and asked him to sign an agreement in order to proceed with an official review of the Robbypad for possible product development. Robinson refused, as the language suggested Wilson might prevent Robinson from getting credit for inventing the Robbypad.
In January Robinson returned an edited version of the agreement, which he believed would better protect his origination of the concept. Below his signature, on the “Title” line, he wrote “designer of the ‘Robbypad’ arm/shoulder protector for chest protector,” to emphasize its origin.
Four months passed. There was no misfiled letter, but instead an illness in Wilson’s legal department. On May 19, 1982 with Robinson still recovering from his shoulder surgery, Wilson wrote again, asking him to sign the agreement in its original form. Eager this time, Robinson returned the completed document on May 21. Wilson evaluated the Robbypad quickly. On June 7 it advised Robinson that it “would not fit into our line” based on its “novelty and utility.”
Robinson got back on the field for Columbus in late 1982, playing fifteen games. Rusty, with an impaired shoulder, he had just three hits. As a minor league free agent in 1983 he signed with Pittsburgh and played 58 games for Triple-A Hawaii. In 1984 he signed with Oakland, hoping that their limited catching depth might allow him to return to MLB. Instead, roster changes and his sub-par shoulder kept him in Triple-A. In mid-season the Athletics asked Robinson to transfer to Single-A Modesto as a player/coach. That was where he had reported nine years earlier as a 21-year old first-round draft pick. Modesto was the last stop in professional baseball for Robinson, the Robbypad and its predecessor, the Mittpad.
Page E-5 of the March 26, 1990 San Diego Union showed New York Mets catchers wearing a shoulder device like the Robbypad.
In the spring of 1990, Robinson was working in real estate development in his hometown of La Jolla, California. On March 26 he opened the Sports Section of The San Diego Union to read the San Diego Padres spring training update. Next to a story about talented utility player Bip Roberts was an Associated Press picture of three New York Mets catchers doing fielding drills. All three wore Wilson chest protectors, with flexible flaps covering their right shoulders, just like the Robbypad. Robinson was stunned.
The next day Robinson’s attorney, Rod Toothacre, wrote to Wilson asking about the source of the product idea, hoping it was not a result of a violation of the confidentiality agreement signed by Robinson and Wilson in 1982.
Two weeks passed without an answer, so Toothacre pressed harder, stating Robinson would take legal action, if there was no response. On April 17 Wilson responded, stating its preliminary investigation showed its protective shoulder device was developed about 1988, independent of Robinson’s invention. “Wilson developed the concept in or about 1988, based on information which was communicated, received and developed independently of Mr. Robinson’s efforts and disclosures.”
Was this a coincidence or a cover-up? Wilson photographed the Robbypad in 1980. Robinson signed Wilson’s disclosure agreement in 1982. Wilson was marketing the right shoulder protective device in 1990. Robinson conferred with Toothacre, and kept notes to organize the complex case. Toothacre in his letter to Wilson alleged the company had misappropriated trade secrets, breached confidentiality and committed fraud.
“Cost to try this case [would] probably be in the $25,000 range and more with travel to Chicago!” Robinson wrote. “How do you put a dollar estimate on this case?”
Robinson conferred with Ray, a past president of the Ohio Academy of Trial lawyers. He recommended Robinson seek specialized counsel in California. The consultations were sobering. One attorney “didn’t seem optimistic because of the low dollar potential of the innovation and ten years [has passed, going beyond] the statute of limitations.” A second outlined a legal team that included “the highest rated, most expensive” lead attorney and a patent lawyer with “the highest rating.”
In October Robinson hired one of San Diego’s leading law firms, now known as Procopio, to engage Wilson. On November 8 attorney Thomas Laube asked Wilson to explain how it developed its shoulder protective device independently from the Robbypad.
The front page of Robinson’s 1991 complaint against Wilson Sporting Goods.
On November 21 Robinson filed a complaint against Wilson in the Southern District of California U.S. District Court. He sought from Wilson damages exceeding $50,000, plus punitive damages, for breaching its agreement with Robinson and concealing and denying him compensation for the use of his idea.
In February, 1991 Wilson provided the requested background, stating about 1981 a Chicago Cubs catcher approached the company and “asked whether the flexible leather flap which Wilson had laced to the bottom of his catcher’s mitt could also be attached to the right shoulder of his chest protector.” The company assisted and the catcher used the shoulder flap from 1981 to 1985, Wilson said. Was this a transformation of a “Mittpad” into a “Robbypad?”
Pictures now publicly available identify the Cubs catcher as Jody Davis, who played for Chicago from 1981 to 1988. He retired in 1990 after three season with the Atlanta Braves.
In defense of its position, Wilson said that it was working with Davis in 1981, which predated Robinson’s signing the confidentiality agreement in May, 1982. Wilson asserted that the date of the confidentiality agreement constituted Robinson’s disclosure of the Robbypad concept, and by then its work with Davis was already underway.
“Wilson was under no obligation, following any disclosures by Mr. Robinson, to reveal Wilson’s activity in the field relating to the idea,” wrote Corporate Counsel Raymond M. Berens on February 1, 1991. “Additionally, Wilson was free to utilize its idea, without compensation to Mr. Robinson, to the extent the idea was already known by Wilson prior to any disclosures by Mr. Robinson.”
Catcher Jody Davis awaiting the sliding Keith Hernandez with a right shoulder protective pad attached to his chest protector. (6/17/87)
Clearly it would take a team of lawyers, months of document discovery, claims and counter claims to prepare and try the case. Would Robinson and Procopio be able to convince a jury that the March, 1980 spring training meeting between Robinson and Wilson in Fort Lauderdale was constructive disclosure of the Robbypad concept to Wilson, the agreement notwithstanding? In 1980 Davis, 23, was in St. Petersburg with the St. Louis Cardinals preparing for his fifth season in the minor leagues. He would start the season in Single-A St. Petersburg and later be promoted to Triple-A Springfield (IL).
Robinson evaluated the case and concluded, “This is going to end up costing me a lot of money and I don’t think the prognosis is good.” He filed for dismissal of the case and it was withdrawn on June 10, 1991.
Unknown to Robinson and Procopio six days earlier Wilson was granted Patent 5,020,156 for a catcher’s chest protector. It included a flexible right shoulder flap attached to the chest protector, just like the Robbypad.
The Resurrection of the Robbypad
In November, 1995 Robinson was Director of Sales for 3DO, a technology licensing company in the video game industry. It was based in Redwood City, California and Robinson flew to New Jersey to meet an East Coast region sales manager. When Robinson arrived the manager advised that a close friend had died the day before. Robinson delayed the meeting for two days so the manager could grieve and better prepare for the meeting.
It had been more than ten years since Robinson had retired from professional baseball. He had played for two of baseball’s most storied franchises, the Athletics and the Yankees. His older brother Dave Robinson was the first player signed by the expansion San Diego Padres in 1969. He remembered his father, a Minneapolis, Minnesota native, describing the excitement of watching 19-year old Ted Williams hit .366 for the 1938 American Association Millers. Robinson had never visited the Baseball Hall of Fame, so he rented a car at the Newark airport and drove 190 miles to Cooperstown, NY.
A’s pitcher Brian Kingman, Robinson’s 1976 Chattanooga Lookouts teammate.
Robinson’s penchant for detail had made him a valuable catcher. Brian Kingman, who pitched for Oakland and San Francisco from 1979 to 1983, was Robinson’s teammate in Double-A Chattanooga in 1976. When Robinson would call time to discuss pitching strategy, he said, “It was like having a scout come out to the mound.”
So as Robinson walked from room to room of the Hall of Fame he paid close attention to the display descriptions. “I found three or four errors on their placards on the exhibits,” he said. Robinson alerted an employee who contacted operations staff. Director of Development Greg Harris, 29, met with Robinson.
In Harris’ office they reviewed Robinson’s observations. The conversation shifted to Harris’ work involving the museum’s audio collection, which included the 1961 radio broadcast of Ted Williams’ home run in his final career at bat. When Robinson shared stories about his career, he mentioned the Robbypad and an original 1979 prototype stored at home. Robinson recalled that Harris said, “We’d love to have it.”
The Baseball Hall of Fame in 2020 has about 40,000 items in its Artifacts Collection. Historically, donations were reviewed by the Accessions Committee, which includes specially-trained staff, such as the Curator of Collections and Chief Curator, said Harris. The three-step process is rigorous and familiar to Harris, now in his third decade at the senior level of museum management. Since 2013 he has been President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
At the Baseball Hall of Fame, Harris said, the first part was authentication by the Accessions Committee. “The museum is a stalwart,” he said. Everything must be authenticated… so you are reviewing things that came directly ideally from players or their families or the league. If there is anything questionable about it, it’s rejected.”
The second part evaluated whether the item was museum worthy. Harris said the committee asked, “‘Does it tell a story?’ It’s not just collecting for collecting sake. Does it fit into some important narrative or some important moment? Was it directly tied to a moment of significance or a career of significance?”
Greg Harris, President/CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, began his career in museum management at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was on the team that evaluated the Robbypad when it was submitted by Robinson as an artifact donation.
The third aspect of review considered the museum’s limited space and budget. Harris said the committee asked, “Do we want to take it and incur the costs of preserving it forever?” Accepted donations must be conserved in accordance with museum standards. Harris said artifacts are “stored in temperature and humidity controlled storage. It’s handled with white gloves. It’s preserved. Everything that’s been accepted is preserved as if they are van Gogh paintings being preserved forever.”
When Robinson returned from his business trip in mid-November, he shipped one of the two Robbypad prototypes to Cooperstown. The Accessions Committee convened to evaluate it. The checklist was ready. Was it authentic, tell an important baseball story and worthy of scarce museum space and resources?
“We put it out on the table, it was surrounded [by staff],” said Harris. "It was pretty raw. It looked literally like he took a big knife and he cut a hunk off a chest protector then sewed it by hand on to the other one. When you saw it, it was exactly what they were wearing ten years later as the formal protective gear…It was so cool that it’s [just a] cleaner version that they are using today.” Harris said the 1979 picture of Robinson wearing the Robbypad tagging out Hargrove at the plate in Cleveland was important to the committee. “That authenticates it right there,” he said.
The story of the Robbypad was also compelling. “It wasn’t used in a record-breaking moment,” said Harris. “Bruce is not a Hall of Famer, but it’s an important piece of the game. The museum tells the entire story of baseball not just the story of the inductees and their performance, but innovation, the story of expansion, the ongoing ever changing history of baseball.”
On November 21, 1995 the Robbypad was officially accessioned by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Harris said, “It was pretty fascinating to know that this piece of gear that people were wearing then. In 1995 every catcher in the league[s] had it and it was invented by another ballplayer after getting drilled a few times.” It had met the third test. The original Robbypad would be preserved with other baseball artifacts documenting the sport’s 200-year history.
The Hall of Fame maintains an official Abstract and Biographical/Historical Note for each artifact. The near-anthropological description reads:
“Catcher's chest protector, with adjoining throwing arm protector, developed and used in 1979 by Bruce Robinson of the New York Yankees' AAA Columbus Clippers. Black nylon chest protector with orange trim; arm protector on right side; "Wilson, made in USA, A3200 HN" label near back buckle. Three panels of horizontal foam cells with black nylon covering and orange fabric-covered piping around perimeter. Separate solid foam throwing arm protector with orange fabric backing. Attaches to proper right side of main chest protector at three points with black fabric lacing. One metal D-ring on each side of the lower portion of the protector for strap attachment. Strap is made up of two upper elastic straps, an adjustable leather, plastic, and metal buckle, and two lower elastic straps which clip onto metal D-rings.”
The abstract chronicled the facts, and ironically noted that it was a Wilson chest protector that Robinson used for the prototype. It affirmed the 1979 invention by Robinson of the catcher’s throwing shoulder protector. “I don’t recall how that stuff landed with Wilson and those other companies,” said Harris, “but there’s no doubt he did it before they did.”
Robinson’s father John and son Scott view the Robbypad at the Hall of Fame in 2003. Scott was in his first year of professional baseball with the Tri-City Valley Cats, the Houston Astros’ short season Single-A team in Troy, NY.
Forty-One Years Later
Professional baseball can be unforgiving. Robinson was a first-round draft pick with eye-catching major league ability. He played 38 games with 101 at-bats for the Athletics and the Yankees. Robinson’s Double-A pitcher teammate and lifelong friend Kingman said, “Some things you just can’t overcome…baseball has very little patience because there are a lot of competitors coming up through the ranks and the next thing you know you’re not playing anymore.”
Jousting with the legal department of an 80-year old sports equipment manufacturer with $400 million in annual sales can also be unforgiving. Over two years passed from Wilson’s introduction to the Robbypad to the date Robinson signed their letter of agreement. Seventeen days later Wilson said it was no longer interested in the Robbypad.
Now 66, Robinson is retired and dedicated to his other lifelong passion --- music. He has a website “Bruce Robinson Music” and is producing his fourth album. He enjoys the complexity and satisfaction of combining lyrics with the sweet sounds of music.
Among his baseball keepsakes, is one of the two original Robbypad prototypes. It is framed and on permanent display at his home to share with family and friends. The second is at the Baseball Hall of Fame so baseball fans can learn the story of how in 1979 the Robbypad started a quiet revolution in catcher’s protective gear.
The Certificate of Donation from the Baseball Hall of Fame to Robinson, for his gift of the Robbypad. The certificate was updated in 2020 to correct an error in the original 1995 document.
This account of the invention of the Robbypad was inspired by a shared passion for baseball. Much of the rich detail which brings this story to life was provided and inspired by Bruce Robinson, who was so responsive to my constant emails and text messages. Frank Ray and Mark Letendre contributed vivid background and expert perspective. Greg Harris provided insight into the unique world of museum management.
Other sources contributed through my first story about Bruce, his biography for the Society for American Baseball Research --- Brian Kingman, Dave Righetti and Rene Lachemann. Other sources were “Almost Yankees” author J. David Herman, radio broadcaster Kevin Kennedy, Clippers outfielder Garry Smith and baseball attendance guru David Kronheim, the Number Tamer. Finally, major statistical and historical detail was provided by Baseball Reference, The Columbus Dispatch, and The Sporting News.
Two other factors contributed to creating the time needed to research and write --- the pandemic of 2020 and my first baseball injury ever. In February I pitched too many innings in too few days at a baseball tournament. When adult baseball resumed this summer my sore shoulder converted me from a pitcher to a coach/designated hitter.
My final appreciation is for my wife Liz, who provided a fresh view of the story when it was needed. Also, when I would say day-after-day, “I’m going to work on the Robbypad story,” she would supportively respond, “Okay.”
August 8, 2020