A few 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, North Carolina, 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 leftfield 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 post-Reconstruction, pre-Civil Rights era America. He wasn’t like the three most-celebrated 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 sixties 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.
He hadn’t planned to be that guy. When Robinson 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, Tennessee, 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 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, 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.