A rookie from the Lone Star State pitched his way into the major-league record book on April 30, 1922 by retiring 27 batters in a row.
The rarest achievement in baseball is a perfect game. To accomplish this incredible feat, a pitcher cannot allow a single batter to reach first base. Only 21 have done it since 1900, and one of those was a nobody from North Texas.
Charles Culbertson Robertson was born in 1897 at Dexter in the northeastern tip of Cooke County four miles from the Red River. The gifted athlete attended Austin College, where he played baseball, basketball and football while studying for the ministry.
Robertson left college in 1918 to go to spring training with the Chicago White Sox. Failing to earn a spot on the regular-season roster, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and won his wings just before the First World War ended that November.
The White Sox gave the right-hander another tryout in 1919, and he hung around long enough to pitch two innings for the infamous club that threw the World Series. Recalled by Chicago in 1922 after three seasons in the minor leagues, Robertson started three games in April and recorded his first big-league victory.
On the last day of the month, the rawboned rookie took the mound against the Detroit Tigers in front of an overflow crowd at Navin Field. Since there were not enough seats for the 25,000 ticketholders, hundreds ringed the playing field.
The Tigers were led by player-manager Ty Cobb, who at age 35 would hit .401. Detroit had a team batting average of .305, the highest of any team in history ever held hitless. That was one reason a baseball historian called Robertson’s masterpiece “perhaps the most perfect game ever pitched.”
In the opening inning, Robertson disposed of the first three batters, including the immortal Cobb, without breaking a sweat. In the top of the second, his teammates scored two runs, all he would need on that perfect afternoon.
The lead-off batter for Detroit in the bottom of the second drove a fast ball deep into left field. The spectators politely parted for center fielder Johnny Mostil, who caught the fly ball “just inside the ropes separating the crowd from the players.” The next two Tigers also knocked the horsehide into the outfield, but both were long outs.
It was smooth sailing for Robertson until the fifth, when for the first and only time he fell behind on a batter. “I had a 3-2 count on him, and I threw a fast ball that didn’t come close. But Bobby (Veach) bit on it and popped it up. The rest was like batting practice.”
Fiery Cobb, who could not believe some no-name rookie was making fools of his mighty Tigers, blew his stack. Convinced Robertson was putting a foreign substance on the ball, he demanded that the home-plate umpire frisk him. When the ump announced the hurler was clean, the Georgia Peach insisted he inspect the White Sox first baseman, too.
By the eighth inning, the hostile throng had switched sides “and were openly rooting for the rookie to give them a memory for a lifetime.” They roared in approval as Robertson sent the 22nd, 23rd and 24th Tigers in a row back to the dugout.
In the bottom of the ninth, the first Tiger was called out on strikes, and the second popped up to second base. Johnny Bassler, a .323 hitter who had taken the day off, came up to bat for the pitcher.
Robertson called time, walked over to shortstop Eddie Mulligan and said, “That little fat fellow stands between me and a no-hit game.” Without saying a word, Mulligan turned the rookie around and shoved him back toward the pitcher’s mound.
The pinch-hitter sent a high fly ball into foul territory that Mostil caught for the 27th out. The Detroit fans rushed onto the field and carried Robertson off on their shoulders.
The Texan won 12 more games in 1922 for a total of 14, second highest on the White Sox pitching staff. However, that was one less than his number of losses, which may explain the pitiful hundred-dollar raise he received from stingy owner Charles Comiskey.
Robertson was the workhorse for the 1923 White Sox with 34 starts and 255 innings but again lost (18) more than he won (13). Plagued by arm trouble, he was 12-22 his last two seasons in Chicago before being traded to the St. Louis Browns and the next year to the Boston Braves. He retired after the 1928 season with a career record of 49 wins and 80 losses.
After Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, every sportswriter in the country wanted to interview the last pitcher to throw one. Those that went to the trouble found Charlie Robertson hard at work in his North Texas pecan grove.
“Baseball didn’t give me a particularly bad break,” he said. “But I went through it and found out too late that it is ridiculous for any young man with the qualifications to make good in another profession to waste time in professional athletics.”
That was not what anyone expected to hear from a member of baseball’s most exclusive fraternity.
Read all about Spindletop, Mexia, Roarin’ Ranger and Bloody Borger in “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil.” Order autographed copies from the author for $28.80 at barteehaile.com or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.