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Frank Robinson

By Lawrence Richards, August 16, 2016
1956 National League Rookie of the Year Frank Robinson

All-Star Yankee hurler, and author of the highly controversial Ball Four, Jim Bouton was asked how he prepared to pitch to Frank Robinson. Bouton responded with wit and wisdom, “Reluctantly.” He sure wasn’t alone.

Robinson’s entire game, mentally and physically, was suffused by intensity. He fearlessly crowded the plate, daring the pitcher to throw inside. No surprise he led the league in being hit by a pitch seven times. He said, “Pitchers did me a favor when they knocked me down, it made me more determined. They say you can’t hit if you’re on your back, but I didn’t hit on my back. I got up.” This resulted in an opposing manager’s quandary. If he instructed his staff to pitch inside too often, let alone hit him, he knew there’d be a reprisal.

Frank was often referred to as a “Black Ty Cobb.” He embodied the motto: “’Tis better to give than to receive.” In baseball history, he ranks 10th all-time in intentional walks. Opponents were very cautious and judicious with Mr. Robinson.

He felt the base paths were the runner’s domain, and he ran with abandon, sliding hard regardless of the game situation. With a 6-foot, 1-inch, muscular 195-pound Frank Robinson hurtling toward him, an infielder’s survival mechanism understandably kicked in, creating a fraction of a second hesitation—oftentimes the difference between safe and out. Robinson summed up his base-running philosophy thusly: “There are only 27 outs in a ballgame, and it was my job to save one for my team every time I possibly could.”

Enter Mr. Steven Arocho, MLB Communications Department. I reached out to Steve. Could he, would he, try and arrange an interview for me with Mr. Robinson? He came through, and I had the great pleasure of speaking with a very gracious Frank Robinson from his home in California.

I first asked Robinson what he thought about some of the new regulations that discourage contact on the base paths—careful you don’t completely cover the bag; heaven help the catcher who tries to block the plate; the runner who has the nerve to try and jar the ball loose. Frank felt it was understandable, all things considered, positive for baseball. My follow-up question referenced his very aggressive base-running style; could he have adapted? He paused, “I would have had to,” but he chuckled, “It wouldn’t have been easy.”

He was a slugger with enviable power numbers throughout his outstanding career. He also consistently hit for average. His multi-talents earned him the distinction of being the only player to earn MVP honors in both leagues, and he earned a Triple Crown in the NL. Robinson, along with several future Hall of Famers, formed the core of one of the finest teams in history, the Baltimore Orioles, World Series champions in 1966 and 1970. Brooks Robinson stated, “He solidified the club. We became a great club when he came to know us and how much he could do for all of us.” In 1982, he earned the honor of being one of only 15 players, at that time, to be elected into the HOF his first year of eligibility.

Teammates Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson led the Orioles to four American League pennants and two World Series titles in the six seasons they played together in Baltimore.

Quickly, can you name the first African-American manager in the American League? How about the first African-American manager in the National League? The envelope please. The answer is . . . Frank Robinson and . . . Frank Robinson. Robinson was about establishing benchmarks in MLB history, on the field and in the dugout. Ruling bodies can establish and perpetuate “gentlemen’s agreements,” as did Major League executives for many decades. On a far larger scale, government can enact laws prohibiting discrimination. But neither can eliminate core hatred, prejudice, and embedded fear. While freedom of speech remains a cornerstone of Democracy, so are the ensuing consequences from exercising that right. Robinson, an immensely proud man, spent many years biding his time.

He was born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1935, at the height of the Depression. His mother, Ruth, and father, Frank Robinson Sr., a railroad worker, separated when he was an infant. When he was four, she moved the family to Northern California, settling in Oakland. The neighborhood was poor and most struggled; the challenges were many. However, the area was also a repository of athletic brilliance, an incubator for greatness.

Young Robinson made his presence felt. Quite probably the pain of his absentee father fueled his desire to excel. At 15, he starred on an American Legion team that won consecutive national championships. At McClymonds High School, his teammates included Curt Flood and Vada Pinson. He played basketball with a skinny center named Bill Russell. One might surmise McClymonds had a fairly successful sports program.

After graduating in 1953, he was signed by the Cincinnati Reds and reported to Ogden, Utah, a Class C club in the Pioneer League. Robinson impacted on arrival, ending the season with an average of .348. His biggest obstacle wasn’t the quantum leap of a 17-year-old kid from high school to pro ball, it was encounters with racism. One tends to think that after Jackie broke the race barrier in ’47, black ballplayers that followed were for the most part “accepted.” Think again. The insults and baiting from fans were relentless; Robinson couldn’t room or eat with his teammates. After Jackie, by Cal Fussman (Random House, 2007), covers him in a separate chapter, a sad and compelling read.

The next year, he moved up the ladder, starring with Columbus, Georgia, in the South Atlantic (Sally) League. He batted .336, hit 25 homers, and had 110 RBIs. After experiencing sustained discrimination in Utah, Robinson thought he was ready for Georgia. He wasn’t. This star ballplayer was refused admittance to most restaurants; not allowed to use many public facilities. The vicious taunts and slurs didn’t abate. Robinson answered with his bat, glove, arms, and legs. He couldn’t change much off the field, so he dedicated himself to doing everything he could on the field; whatever it took.

Future Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Jackie Robinson chat prior to a Reds–Dodgers spring training exhibition game in 1956.

After an impressive second season with Columbus, he made the parent Cincinnati club in the spring of 1956. In his three-year minor league stint, Robinson learned to hold his tongue and his temper against injustice; he coped but never forgot. In his first year in the big show, opposing teams were the recipients of retribution. He debuted with an average of .290, 28 homers, and led the National League with 128 runs scored. He was an All-Star Game selection, his first of 14 appearances, and was named Rookie of the Year.

His nine-year stellar career with Cincy was highlighted in 1961 when he was named National League MVP—.323 average, 37 homers, 127 RBIs. He was the driving force as the Reds won their first pennant since 1940. Realistically, no one expected him to equal those stats in ’62. He didn’t. He exceeded them, batting .342, with 39 homers and 136 RBIs.

When the ’65 season ended Robinson was firmly entrenched as a superstar. He expected to be paid as such. His new contract negotiations with Cincinnati GM Bill DeWitt became increasingly contentious. DeWitt traded Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for Pitchers Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. He openly bragged that Cincy got the far better deal. He told the press, “Robinson was an ‘old 30’; a diminishing talent.”

Robinson was reluctant to report. Years earlier, Cincy played an exhibition game in Baltimore. An avid film buff, he was refused admission to a movie theater; Whites Only! It affected him profoundly. But his sense of pride, desire for respect, and passion to prove something fueled his decision to join the Orioles. More pointedly, DeWitt’s mean-spirited, incendiary statements had to be addressed.

In his first year with the O’s, he was a Triple Crown winner and, in a rare unanimous vote, was named American League MVP. Some diminishing talent! In six seasons with Baltimore, he batted over .300 four times and had 25-plus homers five times. Robinson led by example, a force to be reckoned with between and outside the lines. In his six-year tenure, Baltimore went to the World Series four times.

Bill DeWitt also carved a niche for himself in baseball immortality. He’s widely credited for making one of the dumbest trades in Major League history. I asked Frank if he’d spoken with DeWitt after his MVP year. He never did. We both agreed DeWitt wouldn’t have been “terribly anxious to shoot the breeze.”

Young fans Mike Sparaco and Bill Wheatley present Frank Robinson with his home run ball—the first to be hit out of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, on May 8, 1966.

In ’66 Robinson not only tore up the AL, but his private life took a dramatic and permanent turn. When he arrived in Baltimore he experienced blatant and systemic segregated housing policies. He’d declined membership in the NAACP because he was expected to make public appearances on their behalf; he simply wasn’t ready for that. But after a short while, he’d seen and had enough. It was time to take a stand; he could be silent no more. When I broached this radical shift to Frank, he added, “The biggest factors in my change-of-heart were age and maturity.” A civil rights activist emerged.

In 1967, a serendipitous incident occurred that put Robinson on the path to fulfill his nascent dream to manage a big league club. Frank told it this way: “I was sitting in the dugout after batting practice. Earl Weaver was talking to a man I later learned was Senor Cuevas, owner of the Santurce club, in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Earl was telling him [Earl’s voice was loud and louder] he couldn’t manage during the offseason, too many commitments. I said half-jokingly, half-seriously, ‘How about me?’ then walked on the field. That evening Senor Cuevas called me; was I really serious? I said yes. That was my first managerial job.”

After the ’71 season ended, the O’s traded Robinson to the Dodgers. He later signed with the California Angels, and he ended his career with the Indians. Of far greater significance, in 1975 he was named player-manager by Cleveland. Purists might like to know his last game as a player was September 18, 1976, appropriately against the Orioles. He pinch-hit and drove in a run—a stylish farewell.

When Robinson made history as baseball’s first black manager, he said: “We’re working towards the day when no one will have to put the word ‘black’ before the name of a new coach or manager or general manager. On that day, the old boy network that has held back minorities for so long will be finished. That’ll be the day.” I asked Frank if that day had arrived. He paused a few seconds. “Not yet. But we’re getting close. The media could help; report the man’s name, not make a point of his race.” I believe Dr. King would have said, “Amen.”

After his historic stint helming the Indians, he managed the San Francisco Giants, then returned to the AL to pilot Baltimore. A team doesn’t meet owner expectations? Can’t fire the whole squad. Manager has to go. Back to the NL to skipper the Montreal Expos, who were re-named the Washington Nationals when they moved to DC.

Herewith is an example of keeping grounded; a brief lesson in humility: In 2005 a rookie, upon meeting Robinson, asked him, “Ever play in the Majors?” (True story!) Don’t know what Robinson replied, but I doubt if we could print it anyway.

Robinson claimed the Most Valuable Player Award twice—with the National League Cincinnati Reds in 1961 and the Baltimore Orioles of the American League in 1966.

On an April 6, 1987, broadcast of ABC-TV’s Nightline, Al Campanis, vice president and general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was asked by Anchorman Ted Koppel, “40 years after Jackie Robinson, why is there a lack of black managers, executives and owners in baseball?” Campanis had the answer. “Blacks lack some of the necessities to hold down responsible positions.” To further clarify his insight, Campanis offered this illustration. “Blacks lack buoyancy. That’s why they’re not good swimmers.” His “analysis” created a national firestorm. Two days later, Campanis was fired.

Best rebuttal? I’ll go with Frank Robinson: 1989 named AL Manager of the Year; four-year assistant Oriole GM; 1997–2002 MLB VP of on-field operations; 2007–09 special advisor baseball operations; 2009, promoted senior vice president operations; 2009–10, special assistant to the commissioner; 2010–11, special advisor to MLB; 2012, executive vice president of baseball development; 2015, senior advisor to commissioner and honorary American League president.

In 2005, George W. Bush awarded Frank the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive. When I mentioned it, Robinson commented, “I’m still overwhelmed and humbled by that. I don’t know exactly why I got it.” I was puzzled. “You really don’t know why Frank?” He replied, “No, I’m not really sure.” At that point we’d been talking for over a half-hour, and the conversation was flowing. My smart-ass gene kicked in. I said, “Then maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was intended for Brooks Robinson.” Frank laughed deeply. “Maybe, but I’m not giving it back.”

These days he still lives in California with Barbara Ann, his wife of 55 years; his son, Frank Kevin, and daughter, Nichelle; and their grandchildren. He occasionally accepts speaking engagements and is still active in civil rights. He remains on-call with the Commissioner’s Office.

He wanted to emphasize that as a ballplayer, coach, manager, and executive—regardless of his perspective—he tried to make the game better. “Was that the legacy you wanted?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to talk about legacy. I still have lots to do.” I wouldn’t bet against him. With a bow to Simon & Garfunkel: “Here’s to you Mr. Robinson!”

 

 

 

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