The Trailblazing, Uncompromising Baseball Life of Frank Robinson
Frank Robinson never dwelled much on his surname. The father who had given it to him stayed behind in Beaumont, Texas, when an infant Robinson, his mother, and nine older siblings moved to Oakland. Frank resented him for it. Yet he spent much of his adulthood thinking about the courage and sacrifice of another Robinson—Jackie—who cleared the path for him to one day manage in the big leagues. Frank became MLB’s first black skipper in 1975, 28 long years after Jackie made his debut in Brooklyn.
He said in his 1982 Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, “Without Jackie, I don’t know if the door to baseball would have been open again for a long, long time. I know I couldn’t have put up with what Jackie put up with.”
Still, he put up with a lot. In the minor leagues, his white teammates would stay in air-conditioned hotels while he and the other black players would sleep at the YMCA. Fans and opposing players showered him with slurs; Robin Roberts, the Phillies star, once called him “nigger” during a brawl. The year he won his first MVP, in 1961, Robinson and his wife, Barbara, went house hunting in Cincinnati. When they found the home they wanted, the realtor said, “I can’t sell you this house, but I can build you the exact same one in a black neighborhood.” (More of the same happened in Baltimore, after he was traded there in 1966.)
When the Reds went out in Cincinnati to celebrate their NL pennant in October ’61, Robinson and Vada Pinson, the team’s two best players, were stopped at the door of the party—“no Negroes allowed.” The doorman let them through when he was told who they were. But the damage had been done. Wrote Robinson in his 1988 memoir Extra Innings, “We marched into the place, through the bar, and out the back door. I never looked back. I wanted to be at that celebration with my teammates, but I couldn’t be. And there was nothing I could have done about it except make a scene and mess things up for everyone.”
Robinson, who died on Thursday at age 83, never got all the credit he deserved as a player or as a pioneer. His on-field achievements—only nine men have hit more home runs; only 12 had more total bases; no one else has won MVP awards in both leagues—are obviously enough, perhaps just lost somewhat to time. But the minefield through which he had to tiptoe as a proud, ambitious and complicated black superstar presented a more potent challenge to Robinson, one that persisted long after his playing days were over.
The great tragedy of Robinson’s life was that baseball, sports media, American culture, you name it, wasn’t ready to appreciate him and his mission until he had left the stage.
Robinson played hard, which meant more in the ’60s and ’70s than it does now. One principle of his was, “Win any way you can within the rules,” which meant hard slides and crowded plates and an occasional scrap afterward. (Robinson’s highest ranking in any statistical category is his 198 times being hit by pitches, ninth all time.) He once slid hard into Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews, spikes high, in the first game of a 1960 doubleheader. Mathews slugged Robinson so hard his nose bled and his right eye essentially swelled shut. He had to leave the game. But he returned for the second game and not only homered but robbed Mathews of a hit in the outfield.
And his public persona matched his playing style. He was standoffish, rigid, all baseball, not one for schmoozing with writers or teammates. Sometimes, before he had to report to the park for a night game, he’d watch three movies back-to-back-to-back in the theater rather than socialize. “I was essentially a loner,” he wrote, “and I loved to escape into the fantasy of films. Movies filled my time pleasurably and relaxed me until I could engage in my overwhelming interest: playing baseball.”
Robinson told SI in 1963, for a feature headlined 'The Moody Tiger of the Reds,' “I am not a fancy guy. I am not a glamour boy. I don't believe I intrigue the fans, and obviously I don't interest the sports writers. All that I am is an uncomplicated, single-minded guy. And my single-mindedness is baseball."
He drove hard bargains with his teams’ owners, who enjoyed wide latitude to essentially dictate players’ salaries back then. And owners made him regret it. For example: in spring training 1961, Robinson spent the night in jail after pulling a handgun on a knife-brandishing cook. Bill DeWitt, the Reds’ owner, refused to bail his superstar out until morning. (In his memoir, Robinson referred to him repeatedly as Bill CheapWitt.) He openly campaigned to become a manager during his playing days, while also grumbling to writers that no owner would ever hire a black man for a manager job. And even when the Indians made history by naming him player-manager in ’75, he complained about not getting a raise to go with it. He told his agent, “I just want you to know I don’t like it, and that next year we’ll stick it to them.”
For all his fire, though, he stayed away from the racial-justice movement that enlisted many elite black athletes in the ’60s. He wouldn’t even discuss racism at home with Barbara.
He told her, “To survive and to achieve what I am out to achieve, I have to be the best ballplayer that I can possibly be, and I cannot be coming home and discussing racial issues in baseball and in society every night. Those issues are going to be there every day no matter what I say or do. You just have to accept the fact that this is the society we live in and go forward and do the best you can. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
But with the passage of time, and his graduation from playing to solely managing, Robinson felt compelled to speak up. By 1988, when he wrote Extra Innings, Larry Doby and Maury Wills were the only other black men to have landed big-league managerial jobs—and they had managed a combined 170 games. No matter the success a black player had on the field, Robinson argued, baseball’s old-boy network excluded him. Owners and executives would say that black candidates lacked managerial experience, then turn around and hire white players with similar credentials. (Baseball’s managerial ranks remain awfully white.) And even though Robinson would go on to manage 2,241 games (No. 50 all time) at four different stops, he was never handed a team with elite talent. Though he won AL Manager of the Year for turning around the Orioles in 1989, and though he skippered the misbegotten 2002 Expos to a second-place finish in the NL East, no team of his ever made the postseason. Surely Robinson would have killed for opportunities like the ones Aaron Boone and Alex Cora received before 2018.
It’s a bit of a puzzle, trying to think through how baseball and sports culture at large would receive a figure like Robinson were he to come along today. His impassioned advocacy for his own cause would win him fans and foes in equal measure, but then his perfectionism as a player and manager—he was fond of fining players for disrespecting his rules—might flip both camps. And his overall inscrutability would confound and frustrate those who wanted to believe they knew him.
In any case, it wouldn’t be easy to be Frank Robinson. Then again, it never was.