The early twentieth century marked the beginning of the heyday of aviation. Following the Wright Brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the world became captivated by flight, and the rush to go the highest, furthest, and fastest was on. Whether events were momentous, such as the first transcontinental flight across North America (made by Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who flew from Sheepshead Bay, New York to Long Beach, California from September 17 to December 10, 1911); or spectacular (such as the first loop, flown by Pyotr Nesterov September 9, 1913); or downright weird (November 4, 1909 marked the first time a pig–or any animal, for that matter–flew on a plane, when John Moore-Brabazon took a pig named Icarus II aloft as a joke to prove the adage that pigs could fly)–avionic stunts were all the rage.
Back on the ground, however, America’s favorite past time remained baseball. The introduction of the American League provided a kinder, more family-friendly alternative to the rowdy and often reckless National League game. Attendance began to soar, the World Series became a fall staple, and greats such as Cy Young, Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb became household names.
But on March 15, 1915, the worlds of aviation and baseball collided in a horrifying and ultimately hysterical way.
Orioles’ catcher Wilbert Robinson was a beast of a man. At 5’8” and 215 pounds, he was much beefier than most players of his time. His size and strength made him a star defender during his time in league, spending most his career behind the plate with the Baltimore Orioles before retiring in 1902. After retirement, he acted as manager for the Orioles.
It didn’t go well.
Nevertheless, it did give him hope of a career in baseball outside of his catcher’s gear, and he eventually went on to have a more successful run as manager of the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) starting in 1914.
Old habits die hard, however.
In only his second year as manager, as a way to prove he was still the best catcher in baseball despite being in his 50’s, Robinson agreed to participate in a stunt during the 1915 spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida. Female aviator Ruth Law was in town, dropping golf balls from her plane to garner publicity for a local golf course. She agreed to fly over the field with a member of the Dodgers’ team and drop a baseball from 500 feet, which Robinson claimed he could catch effortlessly.
On the day of the event, Robinson waited below, surrounded by a crowd of excited onlookers. All eyes watched as Law flew overhead. An object hurtled towards the ground. Robinson dove for it, arms out-stretched, and caught the object easily–only to have it explode in his hands. Eyes stinging, Robinson reached towards his face, only to find it covered in something sticky and wet. Believing the ball had somehow knocked him in the head, despite landing in his glove, he reportedly cried out “Help, I’m dying! I’m bleeding to death!” only to have his panic met with roars of laughter from the crowd.
It turned out that there was never a baseball. What had actually dropped from Law’s plane was a grapefruit, which had exploded on impact. Citric acid had gone into his eyes, leaving them watering and rendering him momentarily blind. The “blood” on his face was merely pulp. Robinson walked away with no injuries (physically, at least).
The official story was that Law had forgotten the baseball when boarding her aircraft and substituted the fruit instead. The truth, however, was never quite so cut and dry.
Many believed the incident to be the work of Brooklyn outfielder Casey Stengel. Stengel was a notorious prankster and later claimed he was the second person on the plane and took responsibility for the stunt. He later recanted, however, and said it was the team’s trainer, Fred Smith, who had actually dropped the fruit.
Law, Stengel, or Smith aside, Robinson was able to (eventually) laugh off the prank. He went on to manage the Dodgers for eighteen years, during which he accrued a winning record and snagged the pennant twice, in 1916 and 1920.
Unfortunately, however, he was lovingly known as “Grapefruit” to his players for the rest of his career.