Robin­son: racial pi­o­neer

A ‘John Wayne in spikes,’ Frank Robin­son was one of base­ball’s greats

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Wil­liam J. Thomp­son

The first time I saw Frank Robin­son play was at Me­mo­rial Sta­dium on my ninth birth­day in May 1966. The Bal­ti­more Ori­oles were play­ing the Detroit Tigers on a Sun­day af­ter­noon, and were down 3-2 in the bot­tom of the ninth in­ning. Frank hit a dou­ble, then was thrown out in a close play at home plate try­ing to score. What I re­mem­ber vividly was his ag­gres­sive base run­ning from sec­ond base and his putting up a beef with the um­pire af­ter be­ing called out.

That play and his re­ac­tion per­son­i­fied the force­ful, take-charge at­ti­tude that Frank Robin­son brought to his ca­reer as both base­ball player and man­ager. Robin­son, who died Thurs­day at 83, was ac­knowl­edged as one of base­ball’s all-time great play­ers, as well as an im­por­tant racial pi­o­neer.

His 586 home runs ranked fourth all-time when he re­tired af­ter a 21-year ma­jor league ca­reer in 1976 (even to­day, be­yond the “steroid” era, Frank ranks 10th); he drove in 1,812 runs, had 2,943 hits, and had a ca­reer .294 bat­ting av­er­age. Robin­son won two Most Valu­able Player awards, the only player to be MVP in both leagues, and was elected to base­ball’s Hall of Fame in 1982.

Robin­son is an iconic base­ball fig­ure in two cities (Cincin­nati and Bal­ti­more) with stat­ues com­mem­o­rat­ing his achieve­ments. Pri­mar­ily a right fielder, he spent his first 10 sea­sons with Cincin­nati, win­ning Rookie of the Year (1956), and win­ning MVP of the Na­tional League and lead­ing the Reds to the World Series (1961). Af­ter the 1965 sea­son, Robin­son — con­sid­ered an “old 30” by the Reds — was dealt to Bal­ti­more, in what is con­sid­ered one of base­ball’s worst trades. In his six sea­sons with the Ori­oles, Robin­son won the MVP in the Amer­i­can League and “Triple Crown” (first in homers, RBI’s and bat­ting av­er­age) in 1966 and led the Birds to four World Series (1966, 1969-1971) and two cham­pi­onships (1966, 1970).

The hard-nosed play that Robin­son showed that Sun­day af­ter­noon in 1966, he ex­hib­ited through­out his ca­reer. A bat­ting stance, lean­ing over the plate, re­sult­ing in brush-backs and be­ing hit by pitches (of­ten he would get up and de­liver a key hit, oc­ca­sion­ally a home run); ag­gres­sive base run­ning; a no-non­sense at­ti­tude on the field; and his lead­er­ship in the club­house were all part of Frank’s per­sona. When strid­ing up the plate, Robin­son al­most seemed a John Wayne in spikes.

But just as im­por­tantly, Frank Robin­son broke racial bar­ri­ers. As an AfricanAmer­i­can player signed af­ter Jackie Robin­son (no re­la­tion) broke the color bar­rier, Frank en­coun­tered racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in the mi­nor leagues, then at times dur­ing his years in Cincin­nati and Bal­ti­more. Af­ter ar­riv­ing in Bal­ti­more, he had prob­lems find­ing hous­ing un­til Ori­oles owner Jerold Hoff­berger in­ter­vened. Robin­son was the Ori­oles first black mar­quee player, and he be­came the most prom­i­nent African-Amer­i­can player in the Amer­i­can League (which lagged be­hind the Na­tional League with black and Latino play­ers).

Robin­son strongly de­sired to man­age, skip­per­ing in the Puerto Rico win­ter league while an ac­tive player, but ma­jor league base­ball never had a man­ager of color. That changed when the Cleve­land In­di­ans hired Frank as player-man­ager in 1975, the first African-Amer­i­can man­ager in MLB. In his first game, Robin­son hit a home run and the In­di­ans won.

Sev­eral years af­ter Cleve­land dis­missed him, Robin­son was hired by the San Fran­cisco Gi­ants, be­com­ing the first black man­ager in Na­tional League his­tory. Later, he man­aged the Ori­oles, and the Mon­treal Ex­pos/ Washington Na­tion­als. De­spite com­pil­ing a ca­reer los­ing won-lost record as man­ager, in al­most ev­ery man­age­rial stop, Robin­son im­proved his team’s per­for­mance. Later, Robin­son was in the Ori­oles front of­fice, and spent his last years as a spe­cial as­sis­tant to the base­ball com­mis­sioner.

Although he down­played as­ser­tions that he was a racial pi­o­neer, Frank Robin­son was as im­por­tant as any AfricanAmer­i­can in base­ball his­tory, and the his­tory of Amer­i­can sports it­self. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush hon­ored Frank with the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom in 2005 in recog­ni­tion of his con­tri­bu­tions to base­ball and sports in Amer­ica.

Forty years af­ter see­ing Frank Robin­son play for the first time, I went to RFK Sta­dium in Washington to see the Na­tion­als. When he came out of the dugout to change pitch­ers, jacket on, cov­er­ing his uni­form, some­one near me asked, “Who’s that?” Well, no­body had to tell me who the man was walk­ing with the John Wayne stride to­ward the mound; the same walk that for over 2,400 base­ball games struck fear in the heart of many an op­pos­ing player. That was Frank Robin­son.

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