I recently received an email from a fellow named John C. Martin who wanted nothing more, really, than to chat about an old pal who had died.
A photocopy of a business card was attached, showing a cartoon bird wielding an oversized baseball bat along with five words and a Las Vegas telephone number.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES. HANK ROBINSON. SCOUT.
Hank Robinson was John C. Martin’s pal. But he was a lot of other things, too, some of which were mentioned in his obituary after he died April 7, a day on which the Orioles beat the Minnesota Twins, 8-2.
That is how Hank Robinson, who spent the last 23 years of his life around Las Vegas baseball diamonds, probably would have wanted that day remembered. He was 89 when he died. Like his business card said, he was a baseball man. First, if not foremost.
He was born in 1923 in rural Tennessee, a southern gentleman who could hit a baseball a country mile – provided it was pitched in a straight line. He had a little more trouble with the curveball.
Hank played 13 seasons in the minor leagues, at Hollywood, Albuquerque, Yakima, Little Rock, Grand Rapids, Denver, Laredo, Saginaw, Gladewater, Lamesa, Tyler, Laredo (again), Tyler (again), Beaumont, Galveston (for two years), Lubbock, Galveston (again), Yuma, Thibodaux and Lake Charles. He hit for average and power, drove in lots of runs.
Then he became a cowboy on TV.
Blame it on those cattle calls in Laredo, Galveston and Yuma – and on keeping the bar near the set open after hours for the movie people at MGM Studios, where he worked as a security guard.
Hank Robinson could act a little better than he could hit a curve. His TV credits include two episodes of “The Big Valley,” 11 of “Gunsmoke” and two of “Bonanza.”
After riding the Ponderosa with Ben, Hoss and Little Joe, he went on to “The Rockford Files” and “Columbo” and “Quincy, M.E.” and “Fantasy Island” and “Lou Grant” and “The Greatest American Hero” and “Bret Maverick.”
And “The Powers of Matthew Star” and “Riptide” and “Perfect Strangers” and “Newhart” and “Simon & Simon” and “Quantum Leap” and “Murder She Wrote” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
Some people remember their loved ones by looking at old photographs dug from darkened closets. Hank Robinson’s family and friends just change the channel.
In the westerns, his roles ranged from “Saloon Brawler” to “Townsman” to “Cowboy in Black Hat” to “Deputy” to “White-haired Man in Bank,” which is how he’s credited in the Internet Movie Database. In the non-westerns, he was almost always an umpire.
He was the home plate umpire in “Brewster’s Millions” starring Richard Pryor and John Candy, but moved to the bases in 1988’s “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” because Leslie Nielsen was calling balls and strikes.
Remember the rundown scene toward the end where the umpires themselves wind up in the pickle? Nielsen, Robinson and real-life major league umpire “Cowboy” Joe West were the men in blue.
Robbie Robinson, Hank’s 61-year-old son, played for his old man in 1973 with the Portland Mavericks, an independent Class A franchise owned by Bing Russell, father of actor Kurt Russell, who also was on the Mavericks’ roster. The Robinsons and Russells became close friends.
Another ex-Maverick named Ken Medlock played Oakland A’s scout Grady Fuson in 2011’s Academy Award-nominated “Moneyball.” Both Robinsons and Medlock appeared in “Brewster’s Millions,” which Robbie Robinson ranks as his second-favorite scene involving his dad.
The first was when Hank was cast as an extra in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Hank Robinson played a T.H.R.U.S.H. agent, and multiple takes were shot of Hank meeting his demise.
Robbie Robinson, a Hollywood agent with a sharp sense of humor who specializes in finding acting roles for former ballplayers, said his father was shot, gassed, stabbed, shot again and thrown off a cliff. Maybe even tossed under a bus by Napoleon Solo.
“When you’re a teenager, it’s kind of cool seeing your father get killed,” he said.
In real life, you die only once. But when it came to real life, Hank nailed the first take.
“Coming from a hillbilly, sharecropper farm to playing for the Hollywood Stars, with all those celebrities in the stands, to the movies, to being Santa Claus at Dolly Parton’s Christmas party … he never could have dreamed any of it,” Robbie Robinson said.
On Friday night, when I decided to turn John C. Martin’s email into a column about his friend, six Seattle pitchers combined to no-hit the Dodgers at roughly the same time “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” reruns were airing on TV Land.
That might’ve been Hank Robinson’s idea of a perfect evening.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.