A few seasons after the American baseball legend Jackie Robinson retired in 1957, Frank Robinson (no relation) 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: Eddie Mathews of the Atlanta Braves.
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, who has died aged 83, was respected for what he didn’t take.
The 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 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 rumour 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 characterised 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.
Robinson became reflective of a burgeoning confrontational black America that was leaving the more conciliatory freedom movement behind. To be sure, 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.
Robinson, who debuted on 17 April 1956, in the leftfield of Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, 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 post-reconstruction, pre-civil rights era America. He wasn’t like the three most-celebrated black athletes in America from the First World War 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.
He 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 Sixties of black athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), all of whom began to confront their condition as athletic labour and join the civil rights movement, traditional and radical.
Race was never lost on Robinson. He experienced the same slights and taunts of other black ballplayers then in small southern minor-league towns as well as some big-league 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, according to a 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 colour 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 reintegrating 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.
Frank Robinson, baseball player, born 31 August 1935, died 7 February 2019
Kevin B Blackistone is a visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland
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