Frank DeHaas Robison - Pioneer in Street Railway and Baseball

193 Bratenahl Road
Frank DeHaas Robison
Frank DeHaas Robison

Early in the 1870s, Robison envisioned that one day the business of transporting people would become the most crucial concern for every American city.

Robison married Sarah Carver (Sallie) Hathaway in 1875, the daughter of Charles Hathaway, who built street railroads. He found a worthy partner in his youthful son-in-law.

Frank’s business career began when he joined his father-in-law. In 1877, they organized Hathaway & Robison to build a horse-drawn trolley system. The firm’s activity extended rapidly over the United States, from New Orleans on the south to Fargo, North Dakota on the north, and from Maine on the east to California in the west. In Canada, the firm’s interests extended into all the principal cities, except for Quebec. Within a few years, Hathaway & Robison had practically no competition in Canada.

Robison personally organized the Cleveland City Cable Railway Company in 1889 and built twenty-four miles of cable lines on Payne and Superior Avenues. Eventually, Frank’s brother, Stanley, joined him in the enterprise.

The cable lines constructed by Mr. Robison in Cleveland were considered to be the most perfect in detail in the country. Twenty-four miles of road was operated from a single powerhouse.

In 1897, Frank Robison merged with Marcus A. Hanna’s Woodland Avenue and West Side Street Railway to form the Cleveland City Railway Company. In the transaction, Robison lost his railway stock when his broker, John J. Shipherd of the firm Charles Potter & Co., fraudulently sold the stock and kept the proceeds. In a court settlement, Robison acquired a substantial interest in the new railway company.

By 1908, Robison had flourishing street railway lines in more than 100 cities in the United States and Canada.

Next to street railways, baseball was Mr. Robison’s chief passion, and by a curious twist of fate, the one led to the other. In 1886, James Williams, who managed the Columbus baseball club in the American Association, persuaded Mr. Robison that it would pay to build a ballpark on the Payne Avenue line. The Robison brothers acquired the Columbus club, and Frank became president of the company. The brothers constructed American Association Park on their Payne Avenue cable line at East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue to increase ridership and baseball attendance. The name of the park changed to National League Park. That served as the team’s home for four seasons until League Park opened in 1891.

The team competed for two seasons as a member of the American Association. The team was named the Forest Cities and the Blues. Eleven seasons were played in the National League. The team name Spiders emerged owing to the new black and gray uniforms and the skinny, long-limbed look of many players.

The Spiders were a powerhouse team marking a time of success and glory in Cleveland baseball history. There were seven straight winning seasons under manager Patsy Tebeau. While they never won the National League pennant, the Spiders beat Baltimore four games to one in a best-of-seven series in the 1895 Temple Cup, the World Series of the day.

The heady feeling didn’t last long.  The team had slipped to fifth place, and fan interest waned. Frank Robison was infuriated by the drop in attendance. In 1899, the Robison brothers purchased the National League St. Louis Browns baseball club out of bankruptcy and changed the name to the Perfectos. However, they kept the Spiders, a blatant conflict of interest.

Believing the Perfectos would draw a larger attendance in the more densely populated St. Louis, they sent all of the Spiders’ top talent to St. Louis, including future hall of fame players Jesse Burkett, Cy Young, Chief Zimmer, and Bobby Wallace, among others.  Any player that couldn’t make it in St. Louis was sent to Cleveland. They also shifted a large number of Cleveland home games to the road.

The Robisons announced after buying the Perfectos that they intended to run the Spiders as a “sideshow,” and Cleveland fans took them at their word. Stripped of their best talent, the Spiders' first 16 home games drew a total of 3,179 fans or an average of 199 fans per game. Due to these meager attendance figures, the other eleven National League teams refused to come to League Park, as their cut of the revenue from ticket sales didn’t cover their hotel and travel expenses. The Spiders only played 42 home games during the season, with only 6,088 fans attending in 1899, for a pathetic average of a mere 145 spectators per game in the 9,000-seat League Park.

Cleveland fans promptly dubbed the team “The Misfits,” and stayed away in droves. By 1899, only 500 showed up for the opening day doubleheader. The Spiders finished the 1899 season with 20 wins and 134 losses, a record which remains the worst for a single season in major league history.

The Robisons sold the assets of the Spiders team to Charles Somers and John Kilfoyle in 1900. The then minor American League fielded a team called the Cleveland Lake Shores. In 1901, after the team had American League status, the name was called the Cleveland Blues and eventually, the Cleveland Indians in 1915.

Louis Sockalexis, a Spiders outfielder,  played for the Spiders during the final three seasons and is often credited as the first Native American to play professional baseball. The Cleveland Indians have long cited Sockalexis as inspiration for their team name, though that claim is disputed.

In 1906, Frank Robison resigned the presidency leaving its management to his brother, Stanley, who continued as the Cardinals’ president. Stanley became the sole stockholder when Frank died in 1908. Stanley, a bachelor, died in 1911 and willed seventy-five percent of the ownership of the Cardinals ball club and ballpark to Frank’s daughter, Helene Britton, and twenty-five percent to Frank’s wife, Sarah.

Frank De Haas Robison was born on November 16, 1852, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He spent most of his boyhood in Dubuque, Iowa, where he and his brother developed their appreciation for the sport of baseball. He briefly attended Delaware University but left to start a business at age eighteen.

Frank and Sarah had three daughters: Marie, born in 1878, who died of heart failure at age 21, Helene (Britton) born January 30, 1879; and Hortense, born in 1883, who died of pneumonia at age nine.

Robison was a thirty-second degree Mason and a member of the Roadside and Union clubs. He was president of the Cleveland Athletic Club until the organization became defunct in 1898.

On September 26, 1908, Frank Robison was not in his accustomed place in the grandstand at League Park. He had hardly missed a game all summer. A slight attack of indigestion troubled him in the morning. Just as the sun had set, Frank DeHaas Robison clapped a hand to his head, sank to the floor, and died.

Frank Robison died at his Bratenahl home from a stroke on September 25, 1908. Sarah Robison sold the cherished family home in 1915 to Sophia Taylor, who demolished the house to build a new home for herself. Sarah died four years later on May 28, 1919. Both Frank and Sarah were buried at Lake View Cemetery.