Stafford, Robert

Position: First Base
Birthplace: Oak Ridge

First, Middle Names:  Robert McGibboney Jr.
Date of Birth:  June 26, 1872  Date and Place of Death: Aug. 20, 1916. Moore’s Springs, NC
Burial: Oak Ridge Cemetery, Greensboro, North Carolina

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 180

Bob Stafford, according to most baseball references, was barely in the major leagues long enough for that proverbial cup of coffee — one at bat in the last game of the 1890 season. That Bob Stafford, though, may not have gotten close enough to a big-league clubhouse to even smell the java brewing. It seems likely that researchers a century ago mistakenly linked the “Stafford” who was listed in that box score with the sheriff’s kid from Oak Ridge, North Carolina, who starred in the minor leagues. Though it’s unlikely that he ever made it to the majors, Stafford appears here to help set the historical record straight.

The Athletics were one of the six charter members of the American Association when the professional league formed in 1882.[1] They had won a pennant in their second season, but 1890 was a disaster. The team had lost 21 straight at the end of the season on the way to a next-to-last-place finish. It faced Syracuse on October 12 in Gloucester, New Jersey, for mercifully the final game of the season. Manager Bill Sharsig picked four locals to play. All we really know about them are the last names that appear in the box score of the day’s game: McBride, Sterling, Sweigert, and Stafford. Researchers for early baseball encyclopedias came along later and gave them the first names of known baseball personalities. John McBride was an umpire at the time and John Sterling, Hampton Sweigert and Robert Stafford were minor leaguers.

That Bob Stafford had been born in Oak Ridge, in eastern Guilford County, in 1872, the son of the county’s longtime sheriff. He had a 17-year career in the minors as a player, coach, and umpire. There’s no evidence in the existing historical or genealogical records to suggest that the 18-year-old in North Carolina had any reason to be in New Jersey when the Athletics manager was casting about for players.

He began his playing career in 1894 for a minor-league team in Petersburg, Virginia. By the turn of century, Stafford was a well-known ballplayer whose name appeared often in North Carolina newspapers. None of the stories that survive in online archives note his alleged one at-bat in the majors. It wasn’t until after he retired that a newspaper reported in 1913 that “Bob once went up to the big show but did not remain for a full season, going back to Atlanta, from which place he was drafted.”[I] The writer was either trying to be kind or, more likely, didn’t know that his supposed big-league career didn’t last an inning, let alone a season. Stafford did play for the Atlanta Crackers in 1903-04, but that was more than a decade after his mysterious appearance in New Jersey.

Biographers at the Society of American Baseball Research are a particularly persnickety bunch in their quest to ensure that facts about these early players are correct.[2] They determined more than a decade ago that the four Athletics’ players were misidentified. “Since these players have not been positively identified, I am removing all the biographical information we have and we can start from scratch to figure out who they are,” Bill Carle, the committee’s chairman, wrote in his report in October 2007. “I doubt we will ever be able to identify them.” He added that doubts existed about the identities five other players on that 1890 Athletics’ team. “This might be baseball’s most ‘mysterious’ team,” Carle concluded.[II]

Footnotes
[1] The American Association existed for 10 seasons from 1882 to 1891. It set out to distinguish itself from the rival National League, which formed in 1876, by chartering teams in what the puritanical leaders of older league pejoratively called “river cities” – Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Louisville – because of their implied lower moral and social standards. In contrast to its rival, the American Association offered cheaper ticket prices and allowed games to be played on Sundays and beer to be sold at the ballparks.
[2] The Society for American Baseball Research is a membership organization founded in 1971 to promote historical and statistical baseball research. It’s acronym SABR was used to coin the term “sabermetrics,” the use of sophisticated mathematical tools for statistical analysis.

References
[I] “Bob Stafford Ill.” Charlotte News, April 18, 1913.
[II] Carle, Bill. “Biographical Research Committee September/October 2007 Report.” Society of American Baseball Research.