Robinson was re­spected for abuse he didn’t take

Hall of Famer broke down racial bar­ri­ers his whole MLB career

Albuquerque Journal - - SPORTS - BY KEVIN B. BLACKISTONE

Afew sea­sons after Jackie Robinson re­tired, Frank Robinson did some­thing Jackie only dreamed of, some­thing he swore never to do, some­thing that ate at him for as long as he was on the di­a­mond.

Frank Robinson fought back. Against a white player. A star white player, too, the Braves’ Ed­die Mathews.

Robinson lost the fight but won the war.

“I had a homer and a dou­ble, drove in one run, scored an­other and made a catch that robbed Mathews of an ex­tra-base hit,” Robinson ex­plained after his eye was black­ened. “We won the sec­ond game, 4-0.”

Jackie Robinson was revered for the abuse he took. Frank Robinson, if you read the mem­o­ries that poured out Thurs­day upon the news of his death at 83, was re­spected for what he didn’t take.

The Mathews in­ci­dent re­ver­ber­ated not un­like when Larry Doby be­came the first black player to re­tal­i­ate against a white player by punch­ing out Yan­kees pitcher Art Dit­mar in 1957. Wil­liam Jack­son in the black-owned Cleve­land Call and Post wrote: “They say that Abe Lin­coln freed the

slaves about 93 years ago and de­liv­ered the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion. But it wasn’t un­til Doby threw that left hook to the chin of Dit­mar that the Ne­gro base­ball player was com­pletely eman­ci­pated.”

Frank Robinson was an eman­ci­pated black ath­lete. He played not just fiercely, as was re­counted Thurs­day, but, most im­por­tantly, fear­lessly. It was so ev­i­dent to those who played with and against him that they dreaded him.

In Jackie Robinson’s rookie sea­son, 1947, he was spiked pur­posely by Enos Slaugh­ter, the south­erner who ru­mor held con­sid­ered strik­ing that year rather than play against the majors’ first black player since the 1880s.

Ten years later, in his sec­ond sea­son, Frank Robinson did the spik­ing. He side­lined Mil­wau­kee short­stop Johnny Lo­gan, a white player, for six weeks.

Frank Robinson was re­mem­bered im­me­di­ately for the Hall of Fame base­ball player he be­came over 21 sea­sons, most no­tably the first 10 years he spent in Cincin­nati and the next six in Bal­ti­more. He was Rookie of the Year, the first to be named MVP in both leagues, a Triple Crown win­ner, the first black man­ager, “a Grade-A Ne­gro” player, The Sport­ing News char­ac­ter­ized him upon be­ing traded to Bal­ti­more.

But the de­scrip­tors of Frank Robinson as a man made him im­por­tant rather than merely his­toric. He was in the van­guard of the lib­er­ated black Amer­i­can ath­lete of the sec­ond-half of the 20th cen­tury. He was in the tip of the spear in their re­mas­cu­la­tion.

Frank Robinson be­came re­flec­tive of a bur­geon­ing con­fronta­tional black Amer­ica — like Robert F. Wil­liams’ armed Mon­roe, N.C., NAACP that en­gaged the KKK in a shootout in 1957 — that was leav­ing what was a more con­cil­ia­tory free­dom move­ment be­hind. To be sure, Frank Robinson walked around strapped. He was ar­rested for bran­dish­ing his pis­tol in 1961 after a con­fronta­tion with white cus­tomers and a white short-or­der cook in a late-night Cincin­nati eatery.

Frank Robinson, who de­buted April 17, 1956, in the left field of Cincin­nati’s Crosley Field, wasn’t like the black ath­letes this coun­try cham­pi­oned for most of the first half of the last cen­tury. He didn’t sub­ju­gate him­self to per­form and act in the non-con­fronta­tional man­ner that was ex­pected of and ac­ceded to by many black Amer­i­cans in postRe­con­struc­tion, pre-Civil Rights era Amer­ica.

He wasn’t like the three mostcel­e­brated black ath­letes in Amer­ica from World War I through the Korean War — boxer Joe Louis, track and field ath­lete Jesse Owens and his base­ball pre­de­ces­sor Jackie Robinson — who were de­picted synec­dochally by a white Amer­ica in pur­suit of racial peace and unity as long as it was sep­a­rate.

Frank Robinson didn’t fit the col­lec­tive nar­ra­tive in white Amer­ica’s de­sire to ex­co­ri­ate its apartheid so­cial ar­range­ment by pro­mot­ing black ath­letes it al­lowed to per­form within it as coura­geous.

A 1963 Sports Il­lus­trated pro­file was ti­tled “The Moody Tiger of the Reds: Unloved by op­po­nents, shy among friends, Frank Robinson has com­bined his vast tal­ents and fierce will to be­come a su­per­star and one of base­ball’s most feared men.”

Frank Robinson was like his high school bas­ket­ball team­mate Bill Rus­sell. He was part of the birth in the 1960s of black ath­letes such as Muham­mad Ali, Jim Brown, and Lew Al­cin­dor, all of whom be­gan to con­front their con­di­tion as ath­letic la­bor and join the civil rights move­ment, tra­di­tional and rad­i­cal.

Robinson hadn’t planned to be that guy. When he was traded to Bal­ti­more in 1966, the Bal­ti­more NAACP asked him to join. It was re­ported that he de­clined un­less the or­ga­ni­za­tion promised he wouldn’t have to make pub­lic ap­pear­ances while he was a player. But house hunt­ing for him and his fam­ily, which in­cluded a son and daugh­ter, changed his mind.

As re­counted in a So­ci­ety for Amer­i­can Base­ball Re­search ar­ti­cle, Robinson and his wife Bar­bara thought they’d found a house un­til the univer­sity pro­fes­sor who was sub­let­ting it met Bar­bara.

“He must have thought I was Mrs. Brooks Robinson,” Frank Robinson’s wife quipped. They wound up in a rental home “grimy and in­fested with bugs, its floors cov­ered with dog (mess).”

The ex­pe­ri­ence in­spired Frank Robinson to change his mind about be­ing ac­tive with the city’s NAACP.

So it made sense Thurs­day that Frank Robinson’s fam­ily re­quested that con­tri­bu­tions in his mem­ory be made to the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum in Mem­phis, Tenn., or the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture in Wash­ing­ton.

Race was never lost on Robinson. He ex­pe­ri­enced the same slights and taunts of other black ballplay­ers then in small south­ern mi­nor­league towns as well as some bigleague parks once he grad­u­ated to the majors. While with the Ori­oles in 1968, he wrote his autobiography, “My Life in Base­ball,” and noted of ma­jor league own­ers and ex­ec­u­tives when won­der­ing whether black play­ers could ever be­come man­agers: “It’s the same old story. The own­ers are just afraid. They are a step be­hind the pub­lic.”

Seven years later, or 28 years after base­ball al­lowed Jackie Robinson to in­te­grate its base paths, Cleve­land made Frank Robinson the first black man­ager in the game. It gave him a one-year con­tract.

One of Robinson’s pitch­ers was Gay­lord Perry, a white South­erner and 21-game win­ner for the In­di­ans the pre­vi­ous sea­son. Perry, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991, didn’t like Robinson’s at­ten­tion to con­di­tion­ing and com­plained to the me­dia, “I’m no­body’s slave.” Then a white catcher, John El­lis, pub­licly feuded with the first black skip­per, au­thor John Rosen­gren noted in his His­tory Chan­nel Mag­a­zine piece on Robinson’s first sea­son as man­ager. Cleve­land fans re­sponded by threat­en­ing Robinson’s life.

Robinson was un­bowed. Rosen­gren noted that when Robinson sus­pected his skin color re­sulted in um­pires treat­ing his team less fairly, he didn’t bite his lip.

“Cer­tain um­pires are get­ting back at me through my club,” Robinson com­plained aloud. “Ev­ery close call goes against us, and I think they are tak­ing out on the club the way they feel about me.”

In 2008, the Hall of Fame did some­thing it said it never does: It edited Jackie Robinson’s plaque to re­flect the his­tory he made re-in­te­grat­ing the ma­jor leagues. It should do the same for Frank Robinson.

His most-in­deli­ble con­tri­bu­tion can’t be summed up in statis­tics, un­less they are num­bers that some­how take the mea­sure of a man.


In this 1966 photo, Frank Robinson, left, and Brooks Robinson pose after lead­ing the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles to a vic­tory over the Los An­ge­les Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Se­ries. The O’s swept LA for their first Se­ries cham­pi­onship.

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