I am not a fancy guy. I am not a glamour boy," says Frank Robinson. "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."
Such one-track devotion to the game that he plays, backed up by a most remarkable assortment of physical gifts, has made Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds one of the superstars of the National League—a distinction currently shared, in the minds of ballplayers themselves, only with Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that ballplayers are willing to concede him such mastery for, unlike Mays, a legend in his own time, and Aaron, so quietly competent that his greatness is accepted almost as a matter of course, Frank Robinson is not universally admired. This Robinson brushes off with a shrug.
"Baseball isn't a popularity contest," he says. "Some players are afraid of losing friends. Not me. I'm not out there to win friends. Just ball games, and I'll do that any way that I can."
The friends that Robinson does not win are generally ready to say an unkind word in his behalf. When asked why the Dodgers hate Robinson, Don Zimmer once said, "Some players play to win. Others"—significant pause—"play to hurt somebody." Shortly after being sold to the Reds, Don Newcombe said of Robinson: "I try to get along with all the guys but, even though he's my teammate, I can't take Robinson. That guy is out there trying to maim people."
June 16, 1963
In 1957 Robinson put Johnny Logan out for six weeks when he spiked the Milwaukee shortstop sliding into second base. In the first game of a 1960 double-header with the Braves, Robinson crash-dived into Eddie Mathews at third base in an unsuccessful attempt to break up a double play. Mathews dived right back at Robinson. It was not, Robinson admitted later, a fight he should have taken. Mathews bloodied his nose, purpled his eye and jammed his thumb. Nevertheless, Robinson managed to pull himself together for the second game and later astonished teammates in the locker room by announcing blandly, "I won the fight." "What do you mean, you won the fight?" they asked. "Mathews doesn't have a scratch on him, and look at you." "Yeah," admitted Robinson, "but figure it up. 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. We won the second game 4-0. I won the fight."
Robinson's most abiding feud has been with Don Drysdale of the Dodgers. Every season Robinson leads the league in being hit by pitched balls, and Drysdale leads the league in hitting Robinson. Always when they face each other Robinson feels like the man in the carnival stall who has to put his head in the hole for the customers to throw at. Drysdale, for his part, denies any criminal intent. "A touch of wildness," he calls it. Robinson says if that's so, then why does Drysdale throw behind him, right in the direction he'd be falling if he were trying to get away from a normal wild pitch? "Drysdale," he says, "is supposed to be a control pitcher. I know he tries to bean me."
In some ways Drysdale can hardly be blamed. During the heat of the 1961 pennant race, Drysdale lapsed into a fit of wildness (his word, not Robinson's) and bounced a pitch off Robinson's body. Robinson proceeded to hit two home runs, a double, a single and drive in seven runs. Robinson now delights in pointing out that he makes substantially more money than the glamorous Drysdale.
Incidents like these have contributed to the description of Robinson as "a black Ty Cobb," ruthlessly devoted to beating the other guy any way that he can. It is this image that hides the second part of the Robinson personality, a man whose only motivation is baseball, a man whose only expression, only accomplishment, is baseball, a man so painfully alienated that he remembers his early days with the Reds, back in 1956 when he was only 20 years old, as "the time I didn't belong."
"All the players were older than me then," he says. "We had nothing in common. I used to tag along with Brooks Lawrence and Bob Thurman after a ball game, not because it was fun but because I didn't know anyone else and I had nothing else to do. They liked to go to clubs. You know, play celebrity. They'd talk to the singers, to everybody, and have some drinks. Me, I don't drink and I had nothing to say. All I'd do is just sit there, in a corner or in a booth, looking at my watch and hoping they would get tired and we could go back to the hotel.
"It was worse when we were playing at home. I hated to stay in my room by myself. I just hated to. Before I'd go to bed at night I'd check the papers to see what time the movies started next day. If there was one in the morning I'd make it. And the afternoon show, too, if we were playing a night game. Afterward I'd have just enough time to get down to the bowling alley."
The loneliness began to end for Robinson when Vada Pinson came to the Reds in 1959. Robbie didn't become any more gregarious, but at least he had someone to be ungregarious with. They became fast friends. Vada had Frank's simple tastes, which ran to hurrying to the hotel after a game to get a bite, then up to the room to watch the late show.
It is a unique part of the Robinson character that whatever happened—more accurately, whatever did not happen—off the field never affected his play on it. "I don't know what his IQ is, but his BQ, his baseball quotient, has always been genius," says Cincinnati Scout George Powles. Powles was Frank's coach at McClymonds High School in Oakland and first came to know him when Robinson was 13 years old and trying out for a junior baseball team. "He was a terribly shy, skinny kid," Powles remembers. "I told him to go home and do some pushups to develop his shoulders and wrists."
Robinson's mother, Mrs. Ruth Shaw, remembers the day Frank got Powles's advice. "From that day on, that boy shook the house down doing those silly exercises," she says. Like the Mantles, Drysdales and Treshes, Frank Robinson seems to have spent all his childhood playing baseball. Unlike them, however, his family objected to the idea, ridiculed him for it and more than one of his 10 brothers and sisters hinted he was daft.
"Frank would be gone from daybreak to long past dark," Mrs. Shaw remembers. "He'd never get home in time to eat with the family, no matter what I'd say. When he got older and came to me for movie money, I'd tell him to quit playing baseball all the time and get himself a job. But it never did any good."
"I bet I played every kind of baseball ever invented," says Robinson. "I played with golf balls, tennis balls, sock balls. I played with no infielders and I played with no outfielders. I'd play in the park until it got dark, and then I'd go over to the community center and we'd play indoors. I can't remember ever having a hot meal from the time I was 12 until I signed with the Reds. I'd get home when everybody else was in bed and there'd be my supper in a cold pot on the stove."
The Reds were first attracted to Robinson by the sound of line drives hitting the fence at the 350-foot mark when he was a 14-year-old playing American Legion ball. He signed at 17 for a $3,000 bonus; at 19, when he was at Columbia in 1955, Birdie Tebbetts saw him and said he'd be the only Robinson people would remember in years to come.
As a lonely but sensational rookie with the Reds during 1956, Robinson made a prophet out of Tebbetts. He tied the major league rookie home run record (38), batted .290, led the National League with 122 runs scored, drove in 83 runs, was named to the All-Star team and was the National League Rookie of the Year. He also led the league in being hit by pitched balls (20). Word was getting around fast.
Time passed. Balls kept whizzing past Robinson's ears (one thrown by Camilo Pascual of Washington in an exhibition game in 1958 sent him to the hospital), and he remained pretty much on the level of the second tier of stars. "Then one day in 1961 I looked around and suddenly discovered there was nobody left from the '56 team but me," said Robinson. "I was the senior man. This was different. Now I felt I was really part of the team. And the guys seemed to have the same feeling for baseball that I did. Midway through the season we got our confidence; we felt like we could win the pennant. It was wonderful."
In his book The Long Season, written about the 1960 season, Relief Pitcher Jim Brosnan called Robinson "a hard man to know. He's not the kind of person you would go out to have a beer with." Although the phrase was ill-chosen—Robinson does not drink beer and Brosnan seems to drink nothing but Martinis—the sentiment was clear. "If I were the general manager," continued Brosnan, "I'd trade Robinson for two ordinary ballplayers." Said Robinson: "I'm glad he's not general manager."
After the 1961 season Brosnan came out with a sequel—Pennant Race—and obviously the events of the past year had shaken the author-pitcher's judgment of Robinson's value. He called Robinson 25% of the Reds' attack, the "big man" in the offense. "Without him we might be challenging the Cubs instead of the Dodgers," wrote Brosnan. "He couldn't be replaced." Robinson, giggling over this with Pinson, said: "I'm still glad he's not the general manager."
Robinson was named Most Valuable Player in the National League for 1961. He hit .323, was second in runs scored (117) and runs batted in (124), third in doubles (32), home runs (37) and stolen bases (22). He was, wonder of wonders, also roundly recognized as the team leader. Brosnan said it wasn't so much that he was the leader, it was that he thought he was the leader, and that charged him up. Other Cincinnati players denied this. They said he was the leader and that's a fact. Now, by golly, if there was going to be any nightclub sitting Robinson would pick the spot—except he had just married pretty Barbara Ann Cole, so who needed nightclubs?
Reggie Otero, a Cincinnati coach, believes Robinson could be the next "big league batter to hit .400, "and he's apt to do it the same year he hits 62 home runs. He's just in his baseball adolescence. He is already superb. As good as Mantle or Mays. When he reaches his peak in three or four years there is no telling what he'll do."
To be a great baseball player, says Otero, "a man can be stupid in making a speech, dumb in geography, a dud at anagrams. But at baseball he must be brilliant. That's what Robinson is. Brilliant about baseball. Mantle, Mays, Aaron—you see them pull a rock every now and then. But Robbie, he never does. Take base running, for example. When he's running nobody has to tell him what to do. He's watching to see how the ball was hit, who'll get it, how fast the outfielder is, how good his arm is. He makes up his own mind whether to try for the extra base. The coaches never give him signals. He's on his own. Much of that is good baseball thinking, but a lot of it is instinct. Robbie's instinct is better than our advice."
Batting Coach Dick Sisler says he never tells Robinson anything. "There's nothing I can tell him. This guy must have the quickest, strongest wrists in baseball. He has what we call perfect stop-and-go control of the bat. He's almost impossible to fool."
"You're a fool," says one rival pitcher, "if you throw Robinson a strike."
Robinson has led the NL in slugging percentage the past three years. His strikeout total—62—was the lowest of any of the big home run hitters in 1962. His name appears like a pitcher's recurring nightmare in six important categories: average, home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, hits and stolen bases.
"With Mays and Aaron and some of the other big gunners, you can find a spot and pitch them there and sometimes you do O.K.," says Met Catcher Norm Sherry. "But not with Robinson. He makes you look sick—and feel sick, too—no matter what you try." Says Cardinal Outfielder Charley James: "Everything that Frank hits screams at you. They're either line drives or hot smashes. Even his outs scare you." Quite aware that Robinson also covers the outfield like a brush fire and runs the bases well, Manager Fred Hutchinson says succinctly: "He's the most complete ballplayer in the game."
With Robinson, however, it is not a game at all. It is a war between batter and pitcher, and he calls it an unfair fight. "The pitcher has all the advantages," he says. "If I get a couple of hits, the pitcher can brush me back, walk me, throw me nothing. Or if he's desperate, bean me. What can I do? Nothin'. Just stand there and keep hoping."
Into this war Robinson has brought a double-dare-you stance that somewhat resembles a TV stakeout man watching around the corner for the cops to come. He leans out over the plate, his head bent down and toward the pitcher, directly in Concussion Alley. He says he figured that "when I got to the majors I couldn't afford to give the pitcher the outside of the plate. So J moved up close and hung my head in there to get the best possible view."
Pitchers—Drysdale included—therefore find that often the only way to deal with Robinson is to hit him before he hits you. "Last year," recalls Cardinal Catcher Gene Oliver, "Robinson smashed three of Ernie Broglio"s worst pitches. He hit a high, tight fast one out of the park. He hit a low fast one out of the park. He singled off a pitch that almost bounced on the plate." When the rule-makers raised the strike zone this year, one of the few uncomplaining batsmen was Robinson. "It helps me," he said. "When the pitcher tries to take advantage of the higher zone, he's actually putting the ball where I see it best. Most of my home runs this season have been hit off high pitches."
For all his intramural recognition, Robinson still travels a strangely undistinguished trail. Some fans find it difficult to place him. Robinson? Why sure, he's the third baseman for the Orioles, isn't he? No, that's Brooks. Oh yes, that good average guy with the White Sox, no power, right? No, that's Floyd Robinson. Well, he sure ain't Jackie. Jackie doesn't play anymore and, besides, the last time anybody heard, Jackie had gone to Birmingham. It is characteristic of Robinson—Frank Robinson—that Birmingham and the "integration marchers" belong to another world.
"Jackie and Floyd Patterson were brave men to go there, but I couldn't," he says. "Not now. Not until I'm through with baseball. I don't believe baseball should be a fight for anything except baseball. And I don't think players should be taking sides." Despite personal defeats while trying to settle his family in "respectable neighborhoods" in Cincinnati, this is the way Frank Robinson feels.
"The one thing in life I am proud of is my baseball accomplishments," he says. "These I've made myself."
Only twice has Robinson made news off the field, and he is hardly proud of either incident. The first came a few weeks before spring training in 1961. Robinson was arrested in Cincinnati for carrying a concealed weapon, charged with pulling a gun during an argument with a short-order cook in a sandwich shop. He had the gun, he explained, because he often carried large sums of "walking-around money," and the area in which he usually parked his car was extremely dark. Robinson pleaded guilty and was let off with nothing more than a $250 fine. He refuses to discuss the incident today, other than to say that it was a stupid thing to do and that he knows better now.
And then, last September, Robinson announced that he was quitting baseball. The players treated it as a gag. They presented their retiring teammate with a lunch pail and wished him well in his 1963 factory job. Fred Hutchinson, however, failed to laugh. The Cincinnati manager hotfooted it to the office of General Manager Bill DeWitt and recommended that Robinson be given an eye-popping raise. DeWitt agreed. No one was completely certain, it seems, that the sometimes uncertain Frank Robinson didn't mean what he said—and the Reds weren't going to take a chance.
"When I said it, I meant it," says Robinson. "I was tired, sore and depressed. Nobody can know how much I wanted us to win that second pennant. If I had waited a few days, I never would have said it. I know it sounded foolish, like a gag, but it wasn't. I honestly meant it at the time. It had nothing to do with money. I was ready to quit."
The Reds are at present dillydallying in sixth place and Robinson has hardly set the league on fire, but neither Hutchinson nor the players have reached a state of panic yet. "When the big man, Robbie, gets going," they say, "we'll get going, too." Robbie usually begins to go along about mid-May. In the recurring pattern of his seven-year career he hits .200 for the first six weeks of the season and .350 for the next 22. This possibly is due to a chronic muscular condition in his right shoulder which, when aggravated, leaves the arm weak and shaking. Twelve different doctors have probed, kneaded and X-rayed, but the problem remains unsolved. The arm is always sore in the spring and is never at full strength until warm weather sets in. Robinson has learned to ration his hard throws from the outfield, but he must still swing a bat. The Reds have learned to live with his infirmities—and to wait.
This season Robinson has been even slower than usual in breaking out of his early-season slump. Against Houston one day he drove in seven runs with a 5-for-5 performance, including two home runs. Then he had a relapse. But last week National League pitchers were preparing for Robinson's annual coming-out. He hit four home runs in two days, climbed into the league lead in RBIs and the Reds began to close the gap on the Giants, Cardinals, Cubs and Dodgers. Despite his .273 average (an increase of 15 points in a week), Robbie also found himself among the leaders in home runs, stolen bases and runs scored. "I still don't feel right at the plate," he says. "My coordination, sight and swing have not clicked yet." His shoulder is sore and so is his elbow, and his arm has been late coming around. "But any day I expect things to click," he says. The Reds are right there listening.