Frank Robinson did it his way
He was the proudest, orneriest, most competitive man in Major League Baseball
For several days, the death of Frank Robinson had been expected. Editors called reporters to prepare appreciations. But Frank, no respecter of deadlines or demise, didn’t depart on schedule. Some of us who covered him for years enjoyed the thought of Death trying to cope with Frank.
Robinson was the proudest, orneriest, most competitive man in baseball from his arrival in 1956 — as a rookie who hit 38 homers at age 20 — until 2006, when, in his 16th year as a manager, his old fierce eyes still made his Nats players seem tame.
“You know you can’t beat me,” says the Grim Reaper. Frank, silent, just glares and digs in. Robinson didn’t just crowd the plate; he crowded life.
On Thursday, Robinson passed away at 83. Many will recall his Triple Crown season leading the Baltimore Orioles to a World Series title in 1966. Others will find the most lasting value in his dignified barrier-breaking work as the first African-American manager in 1975 with Cleveland and then as manager of the year back with the Orioles in 1989.
Washington fans will remember Robinson’s fiery leadership of the 2005 Nationals, D.C.’s first team after a 33-year wait. They were supposed to be awful. Robinson refused to allow it. They were in first place at the All-Star break, in contention in September and weren’t losers — they finished 8181. Once, Robinson, almost 70, pushed through a melee trying to punch tough-guy Angels manager Mike Scioscia. With big fists and an upper body that recalled a 541-foot homer he hit out of Memorial Stadium, Robinson truly wanted a piece of Scioscia.
But Robinson had other sides beyond the need to intimidate opponents or drive teammates to their competitive limits or respond to any challenge with flashing eyes, a smart, quick tongue and, if necessary, his fists.
In 1988, after the Orioles started the season 0-6, Robinson replaced Cal Ripken Sr. as manager. When their record reached 0-20, the whole sports nation watched, aghast and empathetic. Long before the 21st game, Frank sat alone in his office. I handed him a lapel button that read, “It’s Been Lovely, but I Have to Scream Now.”
He burst out laughing. And put the button in his top drawer.
A few years earlier, Frank and I had broken the ice when he was a coach on Earl Weaver’s staff. One day, I wrote that the Nos. 1-23 hitters in the Orioles’ order should all be benched.
“Firemen go into burning buildings for $10,000 a year,” I said. “For $1 million, Fred Lynn won’t pinch-hit with the bases loaded in Yankee Stadium if he has a cold.”
The next day, Lynn stopped talking to the media but also immediately got red-hot and won the American League player of the week award. A few days later, Robinson said, “Could you rip Freddie again next week?”
These days, the notion that a manager can lead a team, and add to its win total, through the force of a scary-intense personality, through anger as well as inspiration, through stop-being-a-dog criticism is treated as a silly, irrational anachronism. Do they do that in middle-management at Apple?
That’s wrong. I covered two Robinson teams that finished 20 to 30 games better than MLB experts thought they should. There were many reasons, but none bigger than Frank’s back-of-the-plane to top-step-of-the-dugout leadership.
The 1988 Orioles started 0-21 and ended 54-107. But they improved the next season by 31 1/2 games and missed the postseason only on the last weekend of the season. They were a six-month national story. At that time, just two teams had ever improved by more games.
Robinson’s leadership — nobody can define it or measure it, which is why few currently value it — was essential. He believed in players who, objectively, did not merit it. So they believed in themselves. Some, such as Steve Finley, panned out as stars. Others, such as Curt Schilling — who tried out purple hair, looked like Billy Idol and when called in from the bullpen once said, “So, who’s up?” — weren’t Frank’s guys.
They crashed walls, stole bases and threw strikes. But most of all, they loved the endless details of the game, studied them, revered them as Robinson did and believing that demanding unfailing fundamentals from each other would win.
Perhaps the lesson should be: Analytics are great, but leadership is real, too. Ask the military academies whether they believe it’s all just numbers.
Because Robinson could be so cantankerous and didn’t care what you thought, he was exciting to cover. He grasped the concept of an “adversarial relationship” with the press. That didn’t mean he liked it. Once, after I criticized his managing, he made a sweeping gesture of stabbing himself in the back as he passed me. And he wasn’t smiling.
When I was growing up, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics became the first African-American coach in any major U.S. pro sport. Eight years later, Robinson, who was Russell’s basketball teammate at McClymonds High School in Oakland, Calif., broke the managing color barrier in Major League Baseball. That two close friends could face challenges so similar with such dignity and honesty was impressive. But that they did it so uncompromisingly, never turning away from the first-hand hard truths they’d learned about race in America, made them two of my heroes.
For me, Russell and Robinson were the next step after Jackie Robinson. Because he’d laid the groundwork, they didn’t have to turn the other cheek. They could be their entire selves — or close to it. Remembering what social progress looked like then is a reminder why it’s worth battling to keep and extend now.
Frank Robinson always had the severe comportment, the hard eye for enemies, the basic sense of right and wrong, of a pioneer. He walked into a room and others stood up straighter, heads higher. Now, we bow our heads in respect.