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"Do you believe a kid 2½ hours south of Nacogdoches, Texas, could throw a perfect game?"
If household televisions and the Illinois Lottery existed in 1922, you would probably see this advertisement a lot. Sure, Philip Humber's perfect game came out of nowhere, but he had nothing on Charlie Robertson.
On April 30, 1922, the Dexter, Texas, native made his fourth career start, facing the Detroit Tigers at Navin Field ... and retired all 27 batters he faced in order for the sixth perfect game in major-league history.
As far as lineups go, this was a tough one to crack. Detroit fielded a pair of Hall of Fame outfielders (Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann), with a Hall of Very Good third outfielder (Bobby Veach) and one of the era's great on-base guys (Lu Blue). They finished the year second in runs scored behind the St. Louis Browns, who were led by George Sisler's .420 batting average.
Their track records just slightly exceeded that of Robertson, a 26-year-old rookie. He served in the Army during World War I, then came back to pitch for a club in Sherman, Texas, before the White Sox signed him in 1918. He spent 1919 through 1921 as White Sox property with the Minneapolis Millers, although he did surface to make one start for the Black Sox. He was a workhorse for the Millers, clearing 300 innings in both 1920 and 1921.
He joined camp in March after coaching at Texas A&M. He wasn't just in the best shape of his life -- he was in "prime condition." He got his shot to help fill in the White Sox pitching staff behind Red Faber and Dickie Kerr, but there wasn't a whole lot of buzz. In a Chicago Tribune season preview article from March 19, 1922, Irving Vaughn listed Robertson in the second division of contenders.
Beyond this pair there are some fourteen hurlers hoping to set the world afire, but exactly half of these have as yet shown nothing. even in the other half there are some doubtful ones, and when it comes time for the survival of the fittest, it is a safe bet that only last year's men will stick. [...]
The few other hurlers who may prove of some value are Charles Roberston, Jose Acosta and G.V. Leverette. Roberston was first with the Sox in 1917, and since then has been in the minors trying to develop. Last season at Minneapolis he built up a reputation of being one of the best in the American association.
But Kerr never pitched for the Sox in 1922. After winning 19 games for the scandal-stripped Sox the year before, Kerr thought his performance, integrity and loyalty might merit a $500 raise. Charles Comiskey wasn't for it, and so Kerr quit, with Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis suspending Kerr for violating the reserve clause.
Robertson stepped into the void left by Kerr and handled himself admirably, finishing second behind Faber in innings (272), wins (14) and complete games (21), with the third-best ERA on the staff (3.64).
But his season -- and the Sox's season -- peaked during a perfect afternoon on April 30, 1922.
How did he do it?
Much like Humber's perfect game, the Tribune said Robertson didn't need any spectacular plays, only "ordinary fielding."
What made Robby the pitcher he was today, was control. He shot fast ones, slow ones and hooks right through the spots where the other fellows didn't like 'em.
As a sample of his effectiveness, it might be mentioned that only seven balls were hit on the ground. Fourteen were slammed into the air, and six of the twenty-seven batters took their medicine in the form of strikeouts.
Only six balls were driven into the outfield.
The Tigers tried to knock him off his game. The Tribune account said that in the fifth inning, Heilmann called for umpire Dick Nallin to inspect the ball for a foreign substance. Nallin found nothing. That didn't stop Heilmann from kvetching again, but his complaints had no grounds.
Cobb joined in. The Tribune said he checked the mitt of first baseman Earl Sheely to see if he was gooping up the ball. Nothing there.
Later, the irrepressible Tyrus inspected all parts of Robertson's uniform. He was foiled again, but even after it was all over, he still insisted there was something wrong. To a spectator it sounded like the squawk of a trimmed sucker.
Even after the game, the Tigers wouldn't let it go. Team owner Frank Navin wouldn't formally protest the game, but according to the Tribune on May 2, 1922, he added:
"There must have been something wrong with some of the balls," as the umpires threw out several when the complaints were made by Manager Cobb during the game. He emphasized, however, that he was "unwilling to cast any reflection on Robertson's pitching or in any way detract from his performance."
The final out
Now here's where it gets fun. Here's how it ended, according to the Tribune gamer:
He suddenly became a hero, and when [Johnny] Bassler, a pinch hitter, sent a fly to [Johnny] Mostil for the concluding out, Robby got an ovation that an athlete seldom is granted on a foreign field.
It was more than standing ovation, as Tigers fans swarmed the field and carried Robinson off the field. However, the act wasn't entirely uncommon back then. There's a great story in Cait Murphy's Crazy '08 of New York Giants fans hoisting Honus Wagner under similar circumstances -- even after the Pittsburgh star trolled the Giants hard:
The bigger story that day is Honus Wagner, who takes over the lead in the batting race from Turkey Mike [Donlin]. A mild-mannered man beloved by players, fans, and even umps, Wagner does a 1908 version of trash talking, holding up a finger to Donlin each time he gets a hit. By the end of the game, he is flashing his entire hand: he goes five for five , with two doubles. The usually merciless Polo Grounds crowd knows a bravura performance when it sees one. At the end of the game, they give the Flying Dutchman a standing ovation, then try to carry him off the field. He survives the adoration unscathed, albeit with a torn shirt and a cap filched as a souvenir.
So it was rare, but not mind-blowing, that Tigers fans carried Robertson off the field after his perfect game. But I'm more curious about the description about Johnny Mostil's catch.
If you've been reading South Side Sox for a while, you may remember the Hall of Fame Library profile of Mostil from October 2011. If you do remember it, it's probably for the horrific suicide attempt. But after those grisly details, I mentioned that he talked about catching the final out of Robertson's perfect game.
I made a ninth inning catch that gave Charley Robertson his no-hitter in '22. It was in the old Detroit hat box with Bassler up and rightfielders hugging the foul lines. That's the way we had to play Bassler. I was up against the left foul line only a dozen feet from the crowd that spilled onto the turf. Bassler's line smash was just inches inside the foul line. I made a big dive and stabbed it to end the game. Some fan snatched the ball out of my hand. In the dugout Manager Kid Gleason said: "Where's the ball?' I told him what happened. He said: "Go get a ball, any ball." I grabbed a practice ball and went to the clubhouse where everyone was making a big fuss over Robertson. We all autographed the ball. I guess Charley still has it, and I don't think he knows it was one we used in batting practice. Some fan has the McCoy.
That sounds like something more than "ordinary fielding," no? I only have access to the Tribune and The Sporting News from that period, but I can't find any description of the play being anything more than a line drive that Mostil caught. It's possible Mostil is exaggerating, but I'm not going to call him a liar. The poor guy might not take it too well.