Frank Robinson defined a certain kind of baseball that is long gone to legend now. Not for Frank was the joyful expression of playfulness that made his contemporary Willie Mays so popular. Robinson’s game was defined by toughness, by will, by the grim but absolute determination to beat down his foe.
He drove himself and his teammates to greatness, particularly in his peak era seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, whom he helped take to four World Series. In Robinson’s final three years with Baltimore, they averaged 106 wins, and went to the World Series three straight times, winning once.
We’ve all heard the stories over the last 24 hours — that Frank enforced a strict “no fraternization” policy among his teammates, and ran the kangaroo courts that defined what it meant to play for his teams. More than anything he willed his teammates to match his intensity.
Frank came to the majors in 1956 on a Cincinnati Reds team that had suffered through 11 consecutive losing seasons and his Rookie of the Year campaign helped lead them to a 91 win season. He quickly became one of the league’s premier players, helping Cincinati to their first World Series since before World War II in 1961.
Robinson was part of the wave of great talent that came in the wake of Jackie Robinson’s debut — a legendary generation of African American players who helped bring the National League back to prominance: Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Banks, McCovey, Gibson. It is not for me to talk about what it must have been like for proud and talented African Americans to play in the game in the 50s and 60s, or the toughness that swallowing daily injustice took. In Cincinnati, Robinson played literally across the river from a state with a full slate of Jim Crow laws in effect for his years there. For Robinson, as with his famous peer Gibson, whatever rage resulted was channeled into a fierce competitiveness, a drive that knew no cease. He led the NL in Slugging percentage and OPS three straight years from 1962-64, against contemporaries like Mays and Aaron who would always have just a little more acclaim for their achievements.
After the 1965 season, the Cincinnati Reds traded Robinson to Baltimore for Milt Pappas — a deal so bad that it was memorialized in the famous opening scene to Bull Durham:
Cincinnati’s GM, Bill DeWitt famously justified the trade by calling Robinson “not a young 30.” If there was ever a player who was going to rise the occasion of a such a slight, it was Frank and he went on to ensure that DeWitt’s words — and that deal — were his baseball epitaph. An “old 30?” How about a Triple Crown Winning 30 my good man? And a sweep over the LA Dodgers to win a ring. Robinson opened that series with a two-run homer off Drysdale in the top of the 1st inning to lead to the game 1 victory. And he closed it with a solo HR off Drysdale that was the only run scored in the final game. That’s responding to a challenge!
Frank famously became the game’s first African American manager, when he became the Player-Manager of the Cleveland Indians. It’s less commonly noted that Robinson also was the first African American manager in the National League six years later when he took over the San Francisco Giants.
San Francisco had just struggled through a miserable decade, losing or giving away all the stars from their great 60s teams and stumbling through six losing seasons in eight years. They needed Robinson’s gravitas, his persona. They needed his strength of will.
The Giants made Robinson’s toughness a key component of their marketing. Before the 1982 season, a scowling Robinson featured in most of the commercials. In one of my favorites, a young player (possibly Tom O’Malley) was effusing that Frank told him to crowd the plate so he could get to the outside pitch. And the youngster was told that was just the way that Frank had racked up 198 HBP in his career (9th most in history). I can’t find that one, so let’s enjoy this little gem with Duane Kuiper (who had previously played with Frank in Cleveland) showing Chili Davis how to get on the Manager’s good side.
Of course, it goes without saying, that Frank got the joke of these commercials, and was willing to take part in a series of promotions that made his “old fashioned” virtues a punch line. That doesn’t mean he necessarily enjoyed it though. He was famous for glaring down rookie reporters, testing them to see how they’d react, as we get a sense of from this Hank Schulman tweet:
I can't say I knew Frank Robinson or even interacted with him much, but I did get his Stare of Doom one time for a question I asked, one that I'm sure more than a few of his player and opponents saw over the years. He fulfilled Jackie Robinson's practically dying wish to see ...— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) February 7, 2019
Ultimately Robinson wasn’t enough to lead to the Giants back to glory, though they were over a .500 team in his first three seasons there. which was no small accomplishment. And he did preside over one of the great late season storm runs. The ‘82 Giants sat at 66-67 and 9 games back in the standings on September 1. But they ripped off 11 wins in the next 13 games to insert themselves in a terrific division chase with the Dodgers and Braves. They would come within a game of 1st place three different times in the final two weeks, before finally being eliminated in the final weekend against the Dodgers — a series that famously ended with the Joe Morgan Game.
You can relive that, I guess, “tarnished magic” season in the following You Tube clip, which comes with the additional virtue of lots of Hank Greenwald audio — another reminder of how many losses we’ve suffered this winter.
That season presaged another tough finish for Frank seven years later when he led the ‘89 Baltimore Orioles on a quixotic run at the title. The Orioles had lost a MLB high 107 games the previous season, but Frank and star Cal Ripken, Jr. had Baltimore clinging to a narrow 1st place lead throughout the summer. Like the ‘82 Giants, that team would fall just short, being eliminated on a walk-off single on the final Friday night of the year.
After the game, Frank kept the locker room closed for an extended period while the media waited outside. When at last he opened up, it was clear that the tough man had been weeping. “We could win the division by 10 games next year, and it wouldn’t mean as much to me as to win with these boys this year” he would tell the beat guys. He just couldn’t will them across the finish line.
In some ways, it’s odd to try to commemorate Frank Robinson in 2019, because so much of the game he typified has fallen from favor for today’s fans. His game was a hard game, a tough game, in many ways a violent game. A game that younger fans are wont to mock. And thus the generations fail each other in their myriad misunderstandings.
He was a proud, gruff man who willed his way through a world of indignities with an undeniable determination and strength. As a Player-Manager, Robinson kept himself off the field, appearing in just 15 games in his first year and taking just 289 PA over three years. As a result he cost himself the opportunity to reach 600 HRs (he ended with 586) and 3000 hits (2,943) numbers that would have burnished his reputation in a game that obsesses over milestones. But he felt the historic nature of his position and wanted to focus on succeeding as a manager, and denied the temptations of personal success.
Robinson personified most of the virtues of the American culture of my youth — for better or for worse. A tough man who played a tough game and steered a course by his own lights. A true original respected by everyone who knew him. And my god, how he could play that game of his!