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Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008 | Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood first took root shortly before World War II in Logan Heights, not far from where Petco Park stands today.
George Robinson owned an auto repair shop at 16th and Imperial and was known as a trusted friend you could see for advice and help. Robinson, who lived until he was 94, also raised a son that grew increasingly well known in the neighborhood and beyond.
Floyd Robinson was a sports legend at San Diego High. In 1954, he turned down a football scholarship to the University of Arizona as a quarterback and instead started his minor league baseball career.
He would eventually play for the then-minor league San Diego Padres in the city’s first downtown ballpark, Lane Field, and set a fielding record for outfielders. He won a Silver Glove from Rawlings, an award for minor league players that was the equivalent of a Gold Glove for Major Leaguers.
Later, Robinson, a line-drive hitter, developed into one of the top hitters in the American League in the early 1960s with the Chicago White Sox. Robinson batted .312 in 1962, second to batting champion Pete Runnels, when the composite league average was .255.
“I could hit,” Robinson said. “I feared no one.”
That was a rare moment when Robinson, a reserved man, spoke proudly of his baseball career. A better way to get him talking is to bring up his successful construction and real estate business, Floyd Robinson Development.
Floyd, 73, and his wife Sandra, life partners and business partners for 44 years, are most proud of the Golden Age Garden, a low-income senior citizen apartment complex built in 1983 on 36th Street in Southeast San Diego.
“That’s our pride and joy,” Robinson said. “There was a need for it in the community.”
When Floyd and Sandra entered the Golden Age lobby on a weekday afternoon, they were greeted warmly with hugs by three elderly ladies.
The 76-unit building is immaculately maintained as if it opened only a few years ago.
“Hello! Mr. Robinson,” they called out.
“We don’t know where we’d be without this place,” said Mary Taylor, 82, a resident for six years. “We don’t know what would become of us. We feel safe here.”
Golden Age Garden provides HUD-subsidized apartments. Residents pay 30 percent, which amounts to about $150 to $200 a month.
“Those are some of the most grateful people you’ll meet,” Robinson said.
To limit Robinson’s identity to calling him a former Major League ballplayer is comparable to labeling Roberto Clemente just a ballplayer.
Robinson, continuing his father’s legacy, is now the benevolent and wise figure of Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.
His baseball career was cut short by a knee injury suffered in 1967, but despite a salary that topped out below $40,000, he was well on his way to a growing his business.
Most residents of Southeast San Diego knew him as a businessman that owned and operated “Floyd Robinson’s Liquor Store,” a shop on Market Street that included groceries.
Truth is, that’s the least significant business venture Floyd and Sandra opened. They ran it for 15 years, before selling it, deciding they didn’t like the liquor connection.
“He was more of a social worker at the store,” Sandra said. “People in the neighborhood would come by and say, ‘Mr. Robinson, I can’t pay my electric and gas bill this month.’ He would hand them money over the counter.”
Floyd bows his head and smiles at the memory. He and Sandra are seated at a family dining table of their sprawling home atop a hill in Encanto. The panoramic views include the Coronado-San Diego Bridge and the Pacific Ocean.
They could afford a fancier zip code, but Mr. Robinson won’t consider leaving his neighborhood.
“This is where we’re from,” said Floyd, whose wife also grew up in Southeast San Diego and graduated from Lincoln High.
Robinson bought his first apartment building in Chicago in 1964 when he was with the White Sox. Think about the wisdom of a bachelor ballplayer that invested money in real estate at a time when big league minimum for a salary was around $5,000 to $6,000.
“I guess it was just something in me,” Floyd said with a shrug of his shoulders. “My great, great, great grandfather was a slave who bought property in Arkansas after the Emancipation Proclamation.”
But to build Golden Age Garden required much more than a successful black businessman dreaming up an idea and presenting plans. It took five years for the Robinsons to convince banks that the $2.8 million loan they needed to build Golden Age was worth the risk.
“The only reason we got the loan is we wouldn’t go away,” Sandra said. “We did it for our community, but we wish we could have done more.”
Robinson played baseball before the advent of free agency that spawned multi-millionaire athletes (Robinson was one of the few ballplayers that attended the funeral of Curt Flood, the former player whose lawsuit brought about free agency).
Floyd and Sandra admire basketball legend Magic Johnson, who has used his millions from playing sports to build inner-city shopping centers around the country. But mention Johnson’s resources compared to theirs and they say they don’t regret missing out on big paydays playing baseball as much as they wish they hadn’t been forced to battle red-zoning laws that discriminated against minorities from buying homes in certain neighborhoods.
“We’ll just leave it at that,” said Floyd, politely dismissing the subject with a wave of his hand.
But 25 years later, the Golden Age Garden loan is nearly paid off, and the Robinsons, in their own golden age, are contemplating transferring to property to a Floyd Robinson Foundation.
Golden Age is an independent living home, but next door is a vacant lot. Before the economy went south, the Robinsons were exploring the investment required to build a comparable assisted living center.
The idea is on hold, but the projects in Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood have always been known as a safe haven.
Thirty-some years ago, Robinson’s store was the halfway point for a walk Marie Pipkin, the grandmother of future NFL star Eric Allen, would make to see Eric’s Little League baseball games at Southcrest Recreation Park.
“She would stop and rest before she continued,” Floyd recalled.
Eric would later work for Robinson as a teen-ager at the store. Ironically, all these years later, the two San Diego sports legends are entering the Breitbard Hall of Fame together when they’re inducted on Feb. 18 at the 63rd annual Viejas Salute to the Champions dinner put on by the Hall of Champions (my day job).
It remains to be seen how much Robinson talks about his sports career when he delivers his speech at his long overdue induction into San Diego’s sports Hall of Fame. But he will no doubt mention his parents and other significant adults that took an interest in kids and their development.
He does tell a story about some fatherly advice he received as an 18-year-old kid away from home for the first time playing minor league baseball in Boise, Ida.
The story is a window into the influence his father had on him, and, by extension, the neighborhood. It was the summer of 1954, just seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line.
Robinson won’t talk about the racism he endured in the small white town with a rustic ballpark, but it wasn’t the life he knew in integrated Logan Heights or playing at San Diego High with white, black and Hispanic teammates.
One frustrated night Floyd phoned his father and said he wanted to come home. His father told him, “You’re always welcome home, but anybody can be a quitter.”
Floyd bowed his head again at the sweet memory.
In the years to come, father and son worked together on Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, including the building of Golden Age Garden. George Robinson was 75 when ground was broken.
“He looked on as every nail was put in,” said Floyd, smiling at the memory of his father holding the workers to a high standard.
That was, and still is, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.