Back in 1966—or so it seemed to those who cannot resist sniffing about the dead ashes of racial conflict in baseball—an odd couple had been joined, one that was certain to become just as prominently inseparable as Vidal-Buckley, Quixote-Panza, Yin and Yang. The quake of the union would not miss the Richter scale or—if the Orioles were fortunate—the couple would mold the club into a Freudian delight. The thinking at the time seemed strained, but it was a situation worth a glance over the winter grayness.
Who could ignore, the whispers went, the portent of their backgrounds? Frank Robinson: black, raised in black Oakland, broodingly distant but forever at the center of tempest in Cincinnati; a towering talent, cataloged as a chronic dissident and not worth the trouble. Brooks Robinson: white, raised simply and quietly in Little Rock, charmingly bland, already a Musialian figure in Baltimore; a truly gifted performer and a species of player baseball presses to its bloodless heart.
The milieu of Baltimore, it was noted, would be the perfect backdrop. Racism in the town seldom stepped out in dramatic view, the sort that is anathema to blacks. It breathed heavily in dark parlors in the city where they sit and listen for the footsteps of change, charred slowly on the steak-scented lawns of Baltimore County. It was the kind that did not kill the spirit but just left the black (prayerfully) enough to inspire him to stay off welfare.
Of special interest, too, was this aspect of Oriole baseball: its audience, heavily white, had never had a black star of Frank Robinson's dimensions. The reasons why this was so range from the Orioles' bad luck with big-bonused blacks to, some said, plain indifference. It was certain that the fans, as is their tradition, would be suspicious of Robinson, or any star acquired in a trade (especially a black one with a big mouth). The hunt for flaws would be meticulous; only the ordinary go the distance in Baltimore.
October 4, 1970
To use that great American word without which no athlete could survive banquets, it was simply a challenge for Robinson. Inwardly he was embarrassed by the implication back in Cincinnati that he was through, his pride scarred by the talent the Orioles gave up for him in the trade. "I kept thinking of Mays, Mantle and Aaron," he says. "Where was Robinson? Over 30 and out, they tried to make me believe." At Baltimore his prestige would be in a precarious position. For the Orioles, he alone could mean a pennant. The only question was what, on or off the field, would tip the delicate balance that was Frank Robinson, and would his vast presence change B. Robinson?
The scene and the casting, though a bit too neat, where promising but the denouement had the emotional range of a cap gun. What the alliance between the two Robinsons has wrought, instead of destruction, is one of the most fearful machines in baseball: two pennants and one World Series within the last five years. The people (except for a brief incident when he was trying to find a house) have been sensitive and admirable in their behavior toward Frank; Brooks has long been deified. But outside of the city of Baltimore the Robinsons cannot escape the glance, the hunt and peck for discord or even just a particle of racial dandruff on the shoulder. Whispers are not easily muffled.
The fact remains that the Robinsons are like two Shriners lost in the blue light of a Manhattan morning. The wing-spread of Frank never showed on the face of Brooks when he suddenly became the other Robinson. The town still belongs to him but the club, at least visually, is the property of Frank. He brought the Orioles a pennant and, like a munitions fire, he swept over the club. The term, leader, an abused, loosely bestowed recognition in athletics, fits Frank like a stick in the hand of Buddy Rich.
Brooks could be tenacious, wreck the opposition with a glove and bat, but a certain force, a third-rail quality, if you will, never surfaced. He is not sure what leader means anyway, but he senses that Frank does vibrate the club. The guess is that Brooks—with a shotgun at his back at that—would only admit one annoyance concerning Frank, his noisome practice of kangaroo jurisprudence in the Oriole clubhouse after victories. The bit was meant as comic relief during a long season but it has been obliterated by the press—and Oriole success—into a juvenile bore. Only once has Frank indicated the pressure of the other Robinson's presence, and that was early in 1966 when a scoring decision provoked him. With knifing, brutal language he humiliated the scorer in front of the entire clubhouse, even though public criticism, when used by managers, is a tactic he abhors. The play in question, he told the scorer, was identical to one involving Brooks a few weeks before. "I guess," he said, "it depends on who the hitter is, huh?"
The unsubtle point was ignored and rightly so. It was too early to stake out Frank, and what evolved over the years justifies the discretion. The Robinsons emerged as more compatible than they could ever realize. For one thing, neither belongs, by action or thought, to what has become labeled as the underground of baseball, that creeping tide of players who balk at the consummate silliness of The Game's decrees. Those who have finally reached what they thought would be the golden ideal but wonder now whether it was only just a dream all the time; nobody told them to cut their hair in that dream; nobody, neither player nor executive, played petty, pernicious little games in that dream.
A game that demands more imagination than any other from its audience, baseball has always been notable for a certain stock of athlete—socially incubated, doltish, a gleaming reflection of the American Dream. They have always been children from the factories, prairies and farms of the country, and baseball embraced them, merchandised them as such; all that they were could be found on the back of a bubble-gum card. Slowly change has enveloped the player. The Game itself is no longer sanctified in the waters of the Ganges. The performer, too, from ghettos and colleges, has become conscious of where he is, what he is.
It is difficult for an increasing number of players to listen to the daily crunch of statistics, the drowsy hum of endless summer days and not feel the Gregorian melancholy of our times. "Hell," says one, "if some players can be paid for their opinion on a deodorant or hair spray, why can't I express an attitude about Vietnam or anything for no money? Why do I have to be ridiculed or warned for thinking?"
The Robinsons, though, stay above the ground; no disillusionment, no waves, each sublimely encapsulated in the largess of an ancient duchy, each adjusted to its dictums and hidebound, unspoken canons, and each certain that all they ever wanted to be and are can be found inside two white lines. "That's the way it is," says Frank. "It's me. Baseball. Just baseball. Right now I'm here standing and talking baseball. A few years from now those players over there will turn and say, 'Look at that jerk over there talkin' baseball.' I don't pop off. Take the money and shut up. Baseball has been telling its players that for years." He smiles.
With each question that smile fades to a squint and then surfaces again with each answer. It is a curious smile, amiable yet faraway, and it suggests that he is as insensitive as a redwood, or else a very clever man. The war, the riots in Baltimore, the quality of life of the black man elicit empty responses. He belongs, he says, to no strain of black thought, but "if I were not in baseball I wouldn't be a diplomatic black." He is. he says, uninterested in having any black role in baseball. The Jim Bouton book, he thinks, though he has not read it, was not a nice thing for Bouton to do. The reserve clause, yes, could use some modification, but that's Flood's business. He smiles.
The smile on the face of Brooks is serious, intense, unset, until he slides into a certain Rotarian ease. He seems to take a secret pride, like a big-city evangelist, in his way with people. Gracious and off the mark quickly, he never slips a question and always manages to be earnestly dull. That is his trademark, one that would not impede him in Maryland politics. He has no political thoughts himself, he says, but he does endorse Senator Tydings and he did support Spiro Agnew for governor. "He was a fine Ping-Pong player," he says. He cannot help think, he adds, of the sorrows of the world, but "the saddest day of my life is still the day they sent me to Vancouver." He does not smile.
He belongs, of course, in some boyhood novel now lost in the mustiness of a church rummage sale. John R. Tunis, the boys' author, would have loved him, but Tunis would have added some conflict. As it is, even in adolescence, there hardly seems to have been even the smallest crisis. It was all shade and warmly American anecdotes: Brooks delivering papers to the house of Bill Dickey, trying to impress the old catcher with his arm and then throwing the paper on the roof; Brooks blowing the biggest bubble in a contest for a bike; Brooks, the center of attention but always humble. His big decision seems to have been whether to play football and perhaps go to college or to go after a baseball contract. "Suppose I get hurt, what then?" he asked his mother. "Yes, that's true," his mother replied, worriedly. "We won't force you. That's not our way." Brightening, she then said, "Ready for your hot chocolate?"
Cut to Oakland and Frank Robinson, one of 10 children, solitary, silent, spending most of his time in the playground or in a movie house, where he would watch films over and over before he would go home. "He was awfully thin when I first saw him," says George Powles, his Oakland coach, "especially in the legs. He didn't talk much, and he was so shy about his legs that he wore an extra pair of socks and he pulled his pants down as low as he could." The slight body of Frank concerned Powles, and he prescribed a number of exercises. "Exercise!" says his mother. "That's all he'd do. He'd shake the house. Then he'd go out, come home for lunch and stay at the park till dark. Frank was old enough to work but he'd say he was goin' to play ball all his life. Lots of days he'd leave the house and say he was going to look for work, but we all know'd where he was. His brother would tell him, 'You ain't never gonna live long enough to see the big leagues.' "
No one back in Little Rock believed Brooks would see the majors, either, and, if so, not as an $80,000 player. "He couldn't run a lick," says his old junior high school coach. "He had good, quick hands but he didn't look like he'd ever be much of a hitter. If you were thinking about a baseball future, we had half a dozen other boys you'd pick ahead of him just on looks. But he'd always manage to do something to help you win." On the hoary scouting principle of speed plus great arm equals fine prospect, Brooks hardly deserved a cracked bat for signing. Only Paul Richards, hardly a hasty man, was convinced Brooks would be a star. "I'm telling you," he said in 1958, "this boy is going to be a star." Then, with a proper Ziegfeld pause, he whispered, "A star, I tell you."
The Reds thought similarly of Frank down in Columbia, S.C. but he had a seriously damaged arm and he had developed a hostility toward whites, which was understandable. It was ignited by merciless vitriol, mostly racial, from a brigade along the first-base line. Hurt and confused, Frank grabbed a bat and started toward the stands. His manager stopped him but the scar remained. Lonely, age 19 and with an arm that throbbed while he tried to sleep, Frank packed his bags but was talked out of going back to Oakland. The next year Cincinnati Manager Birdie Tebbetts said, "He'll be in the lineup if he can throw from left field to second base. He's a strange kid. He sits on the bench, shows no emotion at all. You wonder what's running through his mind."
Open and at ease, Brooks was almost instantly a part of the Orioles and the city, and he has not changed since. "I forget I'm living with a celebrity," says his wife Connie. "He's so patient. He's never moody, never sulks. I tell him, one of these days he's going to explode because he must be keeping it all inside." He is, though, somewhat of a militant advocate of player rights, especially involving schedules. Once, when asked if he was tired, he said certainly, his feet and legs were tired, and then, raising his voice, he added, "There are just too many night games. There should be an open date after a night game on a getaway day. The owners make money from it—do we? No, but when it comes time to battle for a buck all they want to know is what you did, they don't want to know the conditions under which you had to play."
The complaint by Brooks is familiar, an ancient grumble, not one to remain indelible in the memory bank of baseball. Had it been made by Frank Robinson first, though, there would have been resigned sighs and then a philosophical judgment like, well, "It's the old thing about spots and leopards." His days in Cincinnati remain relentless. He was a brilliant performer with the Reds and one of the most disliked men in the league. "He doesn't play hard," said Don Zimmer, "he plays to hurt you." Later, as a teammate, he would say, "I was wrong. He's just a hell of a competitor." Frank was beyond intimidation. Give him some "chin music" and he'd leave you with an L (loss) by your name; ask the obstinate Don Drysdale. Deck him with a punch, mess his face up and he'd wear your club out the rest of the season—ask the Braves and Eddie Mathews.
But Frank's style of play does not trail him into his 15th season. It is the word attitude or what was his attitude; stamp "bad" beside the word and it is a fatal prognosis in baseball. Frank's trouble with the Reds seemed to begin with the departure of Tebbetts. Avuncular and facile with con, Tebbetts chaperoned Frank, made a litany of his abilities. Often, slyly spotting Frank moving into the batting cage, Tebbetts would walk out to the outfield and stand with reporters with his back to the cage. Then he would suddenly say, "I bet I know who's hitting. Listen to that crack. It could only be Frank Robinson."
Then came the arrival of Fred Hutchinson, a tough, respected manager who hated to see talent squandered. Hutchinson admired Frank's ability, but his relations with him were strained. He was annoyed by Frank's attitude, sometimes careless and resentful. Robinson smelled prejudice. "Listen," a coach told Frank, "when he chews you out he's doing it for your own good, not because he dislikes you. Hutch never had your great natural ability. He hates to see you waste it." Then, in February of '61, he pulled a gun on a cook in an all-night diner, with whom he had been exchanging dark glowers. "The cook," he said then, "had waved a knife and made a motion as if he was going to slit my throat. I just warned to show him I had something a little better than a knife." In jail he kept muttering something about being called a boy, that he was a man. He could be bailed out by 8 a.m. and he was, but not by club owner Bill DeWitt or anybody else from the Reds.
Robinson never did forgive DeWitt for deserting him. Later DeWitt would tire of Frank's aggravations: mysterious maladies, intransigent postures with Hutchinson, his unexemplary behavior on planes, his obscenities toward a reporter, his influence on Vada Pinson and Leo Cardenas. "I'm much more mature now," he says. "I've learned a lot. At Cincinnati I was just speaking up for the players because they came to me." The move to Baltimore, of course, did alter his vision of himself. He came to understand what the kid in a Chicago ghetto once said: "Doin' good's a hustle, too. Ain't it?"
His view of last year's Richie Allen dramatized his metamorphosis from outlaw to Establishment. "It's a shame that a guy like Allen is wasting all that talent," he said. "It hurts the spirit and harmony of the club. He's done more harm with his behavior than his bat."
The quote, to some, was laughable, but Frank was quietly laying one more block in the building of the new Robinson; he would make baseball do what it so seldom does—forget; he would become the first black manager in the majors. His drive, once subtle, much more bold now, toward the only real racial barrier left in baseball draws a predictable reaction. The hard-line whites in baseball smirk, the blacks do not care. That is, except for Jackie Robinson.
Piqued by Frank's apathy on civil rights, he wrote to him, "I suppose, Frank, you feel your attitude will get you a manager's job and that some white people may like you better, but respect you is another thing.... But if this is your bag, so be it."
Frank is deep in that bag, which is purely a matter of survival to him. Time crowds, the arm is still a crane that must be lifted every day, and with each day he sharply feels what Brooks Robinson said: "I don't think anybody will care what I did here 20 or 25 years from now." The game has a place in Brooks' life, but that's all it has. Unlike Brooks, however, who seems indifferent toward the future, certain that another piece will fall neatly into the fabric of his life, there is no future for Frank outside of baseball. The game is the sum of what he is, and if you are black and aging and each spring is a little death, you begin to wonder what all that brilliance was for, wonder whether it all, which began in obscurity, will end there, too. "The day I have to quit," he says, "will be the saddest day in my life." He does not smile.