Robert Virgil Swift (March 6, 1915 – October 17, 1966) was an American professional baseball player, coach, manager and scout. He played in Major League Baseball as a catcher.
Swift is pictured in one of the most famous photographs in American sporting history. He was the catcher for the Detroit Tigers on August 19, 1951, when St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck sent midget Eddie Gaedel to pinch hit during an actual MLB game. The stunt was inspired by the James Thurber short story You Could Look It Up and Gaedel was allowed to bat when the Browns showed the umpires a legitimate baseball contract. Swift knelt on the ground to receive pitcher Bob Cain's offerings — it is this kneeling stance that is captured in the photo — and Gaedel took a base on balls. He was immediately replaced at first base by a pinch runner and he never appeared in a big league game again; he had had no baseball experience in the first place.
While Gaedel was a novice, Swift, a native of Salina, Kansas, played 14 consecutive seasons (1940–53) in the big leagues. Primarily a second-string catcher, he toiled for the Browns (1940–42), Philadelphia Athletics (1942–43) and Tigers (1944–53), appearing in 1,001 games and hitting .231. A good defensive catcher, he batted and threw right-handed.
He became a coach and minor league manager immediately upon the end of his playing career, coaching for the Tigers (1953–54; 1963–66), Kansas City Athletics (1957–59), and Washington Senators (1960). During the 1959 season, Swift filled in for Kansas City manager Harry Craft when Craft missed 15 games due to illness, and the Athletics won ten straight games and went 13–2. But Swift was bypassed at season's end when the A's changed managers.
Swift was in his second stint as a Detroit coach in 1965 when manager Chuck Dressen was felled by a mild heart attack during spring training. As acting manager, Swift led Detroit to a 24–18 record until Dressen was able to return. The next season, in May 1966, Dressen suffered his second coronary in as many seasons. Again, Swift took the reins, but in July (with the Tigers 32–25 under his command) he fell ill and was hospitalized during the All-Star game break for what appeared to be food poisoning. Tests revealed, however, that Swift was suffering from lung cancer. Coach Frank Skaff took over July 14 as the team's second acting manager and finished the campaign.
Three months after stepping aside, on October 17, Swift died in Detroit at the age of 51. His record in 1965–66 as an interim manager was 56–43 (.566).
By Dean Hanley
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