It’s an unfortunate oversight that we now laud Frank Robinson’s accomplishments on the baseball field while we slip silently around the era in which he played and the historical obstacles he faced.
Robinson goes to his grave, at 83, with justifiable tributes pouring in. He was the greatest player in all the years of modern Orioles baseball, which now approaches two-thirds of a century.
When he arrived in Baltimore from Cincinnati in 1966, and thereafter led the team to four World Series appearances in six years, he was also one of the only African-American players of importance the club had ever employed.
This was nearly 20 years since Jackie Robinson had integrated major league baseball. It was a dozen years since the Orioles had returned to the big leagues. One year, 1955, manager Paul Richards shuffled 54 players on and off the roster in a frenzied attempt to win a few games. Every one of the 54 was white. They went through 10 different third basemen that year, all white.
Until Robinson, they’d had a pretty good slap-hitting first baseman, Bob (The Rope) Boyd, who lasted a couple of seasons, and a pretty good pitcher, Connie Johnson, who lasted a couple of years, both of them in the late 1950s. The handful of other black players who made the club were baseball drifters, part-timers mostly, who lasted briefly and then moved on.
Robinson might not have known about that history, though he probably noticed that he and a skinny young outfielder named Paul Blair were the only two blacks getting any playing time in 1966.
And he knew what kind of town Baltimore of ‘66 was when he tried to find decent housing and realtors steered him away from a succession of white neighborhoods.
So let’s not give the ball club, or the Baltimore area, a pass as we celebrate Robinson for the great player that he was.
Brooklyn’s Robinson – Jackie – broke baseball’s color line. But one of Baltimore baseball’s Robinsons – Frank – first broke some of the unspoken racial barriers here, and later broke the color line among baseball’s managers.
I knew Frank a little bit. He could be warm and engaging, or he could be difficult. The latter mirrored his playing style, which was combative. He didn’t just play to beat you – he played to beat you up, if that was necessary. Middle infielders who saw him bearing down on them can attest to that.
Two bookend images of Frank playing ball linger through the years. He told the story about sliding into second in a sandlot game back when he was a teenager, and ripping open both his pants and his leg. His mother scolded him for this. He explained to her that this was how the game had to be played. What he didn’t tell her was that the playing field on which he’d slid was asphalt.
The other image is the 1971 World Series, when Frank played on painful legs but somehow dashed home with the winning run on a short sacrifice fly hit by Brooks Robinson. The fly ball barely made it out of the infield. Frank should have stayed at third.
But he wasn’t that type of player. He was forever telling opponents: Try and stop me. That was Frank Robinson – not only a superb ballplayer, but an indomitable one.
And the best Baltimore has ever seen, of any color.
- Boog Powell: Frank Robinson Brought Attitude To The Orioles — PressBox
- Jim Henneman: Former Oriole Frank Robinson Typified Dedication, Excellence — PressBox
- This Jewish realtor helped keep baseball great Frank Robinson in Baltimore
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.