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HOME AGAIN FRANK ROBINSON IS BACK WHERE HE BELONGS: IN THE GAME

June 02, 1997
June 02, 1997

Table of Contents
June 2, 1997

Faces In The Crowd

HOME AGAIN FRANK ROBINSON IS BACK WHERE HE BELONGS: IN THE GAME

Home is an odd concept for a baseball lifer. Frank Robinson
lives in a pleasant neighborhood in Los Angeles, where his
glamorous wife, Barbara, sells real estate to the city's sparkly
crowd. The Hall of Famer has owned his house there since 1973.
But how often is a career baseball man at home? "For a long
time, just about never," Robinson said one day recently. "Last
couple years, I've been home a lot."

This is an article from the June 2, 1997 issue

Since he was fired from his job as assistant general manager of
the Baltimore Orioles in December 1995, Robinson has been
unattached to a professional baseball team, and he has been home
day after day. Before his dismissal the 61-year-old Robinson had
worked in baseball for 42 consecutive years. The first was 1953,
when he signed with the Cincinnati Reds out of McClymonds High
in Oakland. He was the National League's Most Valuable Player in
'61, with the Reds, and the American League MVP five years
later, with the Orioles. Baltimore won four American League
pennants and two World Series in the six seasons Robinson played
there. He spent 19 years with the team as a player, a coach, the
manager and an assistant G.M. When the Orioles fired him, they
fired a Baltimore icon.

For a long while after his dismissal Robinson was furious, hurt
and confused. But over the past year or so a peculiar calm has
come over him. Peculiar because he is remembered as an explosive
player, an excitable manager, a man afraid of nothing, including
fastballs thrown at his head (as a player) and death threats
mailed to his desk (as a manager).

"In neighborhoods like this one, all the activity is in the back
of the house," Robinson said of his corner of Los Angeles. "In
white neighborhoods--middle-class, upper-class ones like this
one--everybody has the pool in the back, the grill in the back,"
he said. "They want their privacy. You see your neighbors less.
Where I grew up--Myrtle Avenue in West Oakland, 73rd Avenue in
East Oakland--all the action was in front of the house, on the
street."

Robinson and I had a plan to find Jackie Robinson's childhood
home, at 121 Pepper St. in Pasadena, near the Rose Bowl. Frank
Robinson has been talking about Jackie Robinson all year, at
seminars and in interviews, and he liked the idea of visiting
Jackie's roots. I asked him if he and Jackie shared an ancestral
link. The question did not intrigue him. The coincidence of the
first black major league player and the first black major league
manager sharing a family name is not meaningful to him. His
father never lived with Frank and his mother, and Frank was
never interested in learning the history of his surname. "My
father laughed when he heard I was trying to play professional
baseball, said I was too slow," Robinson said. "He owned a
funeral home and a general store in Silsbee, Texas. I still hate
the smell of funeral homes."

Pepper Street was easy to find, but number 121 was not. The
building no longer existed, having been torn down for new houses
years ago. Embedded in the sidewalk in front of the lot where
the house once stood was a square plaque with the words: JACKIE
ROBINSON RESIDED ON THIS SITE WITH HIS FAMILY FROM 1922 TO 1946.
Frank read the inscription and said, "The first thing they
should do is get this plaque off the ground. You should see it
when you're coming down the street."

Robinson looked up and down Pepper Street. He had never been
there before, but it felt familiar. The 100 block of Pepper
Street is lined with small, tidy houses, most of them owned by
working-class black families. "This was pretty much the way
Oakland was when I was coming up," Robinson said. "This is the
kind of neighborhood where the action's out in front. I could
see Jackie here, playing ball on the street, running everywhere,
grandmothers and mothers up on the porch, hollering."

Frank Robinson was 11 years old when Jackie Robinson was called
up to the Brooklyn Dodgers 50 years ago. Frank read about
Jackie's first days with the Dodgers in The Oakland Tribune, but
he did not fully grasp their importance. Black professional
baseball players, after all, were not foreign to Robinson. There
were black players on the Oakland Oaks, a minor league team in
the Pacific Coast League. In the five decades since then, Frank
Robinson has become a student of Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

"I could never have done what he did," Frank said, leaning
against a chain-link fence on Pepper Street. "The Dodgers chose
Jackie not because he was the best black player around, but
because he would take the verbal taunting and physical abuse and
just play harder. They told him not to fight back, not to say
anything. There's no way I could have done that.

"I had one long conversation with Jackie. After he retired, I
went to see him in his office, in New York. He told me, 'Always
be careful of the way you carry yourself. People will be
watching you closely, because you're a black man.' In 1972 he
made his famous speech at the opening game of the World Series,
in Cincinnati, about looking forward to the day he'd look in the
dugouts of major league baseball and see black men managing.
Nine days later he was dead. Three years after that, I became
the first black major league manager. What I faced was nothing
compared to what Jackie went through." Frank Robinson managed
the Cleveland Indians (1975-77), the San Francisco Giants
('81-84) and the Orioles ('88-91), winning 680 games and losing
751.

We got back in the car and headed for Los Angeles. Over lunch in
Encino we talked about Robinson's firing by the Orioles and
about why there are still so few black managers and general
managers in baseball 25 years after Robinson's World Series
speech. "Owners can look around and see there are qualified
blacks for these jobs; that's not the problem," Robinson said.
"The problem is the issue of social comfort. White owners just
feel more comfortable with white managers and general managers.
It's a social thing, dinner out with the wives, weekends
together."

Robinson said he always believed that Peter Angelos, the
Orioles' owner, would someday give him a chance to be general
manager. But in November 1995, when G.M. Roland Hemond resigned,
Angelos did not elevate Robinson, who was Hemond's assistant;
Angelos hired Pat Gillick, a former Toronto Blue Jays G.M.
Gillick phoned the team's top scouts and front-office executives
in a conference call and said, according to Robinson, "I am not
a hatchet man. I want to see what you all do over the course of
the next year, then I'll evaluate you." Robinson was relieved.

A week later Gillick fired Robinson, with Angelos's consent.
Robinson still loves Baltimore and the baseball team that plays
there. But he hasn't had a meaningful talk with Gillick, and no
talk at all with Angelos, since then.

Last November Robinson knew that the Boston Red Sox were looking
for a manager, and he asked for an interview, which they granted
him. "They made me put on these earphones and take this test,
all sorts of questions on it, math, other stuff, nothing to do
with baseball," Robinson said. "I just made circles, checked off
boxes. I paid no attention to it. What's a test like that got to
do with managing?" He shook his head.

When asked about Robinson's firing, Gillick said that he was
addressing only the scouts in the conference call in which he
said jobs would be safe for another year. He said he dismissed
Robinson because he wanted an assistant G.M. with an extensive
scouting background. He hired Kevin Malone, the former general
manager of the Montreal Expos.

Angelos also defended the dismissal. "As far as the fans are
concerned, he is the greatest player ever to play for the
Baltimore Orioles," Angelos said. "I think he's an excellent
judge of baseball talent. But he never learned the daily chores,
the nitty-gritty, the administrative routines of being a G.M.
And he had become very apprehensive about autograph seekers. He
thought they were out to exploit him. Letting Frank go was done
with extreme reluctance, but it was something that had to be
done."

On the day Robinson visited the boyhood home of Jackie Robinson,
there was a news release from the office of the baseball
commissioner. It said that Frank Robinson had been named
director of baseball operations of the Arizona Fall League, an
eight-week developmental league for minor leaguers showing
particular promise. The release said Robinson would also be a
consultant to baseball for special projects. (The particulars of
this position were not announced.) Robinson's new assignments
came about at the urging of Leonard Coleman, the National League
president, who has been responsible for the majors' seasonlong
tribute to Jackie Robinson. Along the way, he has come to know
Frank Robinson. Coleman realized, he says, that "Frank Robinson
should never be out of baseball. Period." And now he's not.

Back at Robinson's home the day of the announcement the message
light on his answering machine was going berserk. "Nine
messages," Robinson said. "Everybody's calling now to
congratulate me. It'll be, 'Hey, welcome back to baseball.'"
Robinson shook his head. It was an act. Robinson is no good at
feigning detachment.

He needs the job. Not for the paycheck. It's working in baseball
that he needs.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Robinson still broods about the shortage of black managers and general managers in baseball. [Frank Robinson]COLOR PHOTO: TONY TRIOLO The Baltimore icon won two World Series rings with the O's. [Frank Robinson batting]