Childlike Wonder In His Golden Years

By Carla Peay
Updated: October 8, 2005

Nationals manager Frank Robinson with lifelong friend Sonny Webb. Photo by Mitchell Layton.
Nationals manager Frank Robinson with lifelong friend Sonny Webb. Photo by Mitchell Layton.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—There is a huge grin on his face as he stands in the batting cage, swinging at pitches thrown by National’s pitching coach Randy St. Claire. In the dugout, the coaching staff alternatively laughs and cheers as Sonny Webb swings, makes contact, and sends St. Claire’s pitches into the outfield. Webb is not a coach, nor is he player. And despite the fact that he’s wearing a National’s uniform, taking batting practice, and shagging ground balls in the outfield, he’s not a part of the team in any way. He is manager Frank Robinson’s friend of fifty years. He is, thanks to Robinson, living a dream.

Hitting coach Tom McCraw laughs at Sonny’s efforts in the batting cage. It is a laugh born of years of affection and friendship.

“Sonny loves this game more than anybody I’ve ever seen”, says McCraw, as he watches Webb hit.

Seventy years old, and he’s out there hitting”, McCraw continues, as Webb and St. Claire continue their dual in the cage. Afterwards, Sonny jogs into the dugout, a wide grin on his face. He is tired and sweaty, but exhilarated. McCraw is correct. This man loves baseball.

“I’ve played this game all my life. I remember coming to Washington D.C. at old Griffiths Stadium when the Homestead Gray’s used to play their games there. We made the trip in an old 1929 Packard. I played the game in little and in high school. I even had a brief tryout with the Negro Leagues with the Detroit Stars, but by the time I got there, I was working for General Electric, where I’ve been for forty-nine years. I was employed, and the Negro Leagues had nothing to offer me at that time”, Webb says.

Sonny stops to clean his cleats. He’s taken batting practice, and as soon as he is rested, he’s heading out into the field to shag grounders. He ponders the path not taken, a career as a major league player.

“They were looking for Negro ballplayers to send to what they called organized baseball at the time, and I was selected to go to spring training in Laredo Texas. It was very racist. When I look back in retrospect, maybe I should have stayed, maybe I shouldn’t. But I was a good ballplayer. But I’ve had numerous conversations with number 20 (Frank Robinson) about his ordeals as far as racism was concerned when he was in Columbia, South Carolina and when he was in Utah, and how the racism prevailed out there. He used to tell me all the time if you want to be a ballplayer, you have to endure. You have to get through it, or you have to find something else to do. My dad gave me the same advice, and I always admired what Frank said”, adds Webb.

It is clear that Sonny Webb and Frank Robinson have a great admiration for one another. Webb lives in Cincinnati, and doesn’t see his old friend as often as he would like, but when Webb comes to town, Robinson gives him the best gift he can – a uniform and a glove. I asked Frank why.

“That’s been his dream. To play in the major leagues. It still is. I can’t play him in a major league game, but I can give him the next best thing. I can give him a uniform and let him go out there and hang out there with the major league players and run around on a major league field. If it had been at all possible, I wish he had had that opportunity. Here’s a man that really just dreams about baseball, and playing at the major league level”, says Robinson.

“He tells me he could have been better than I was”, Frank adds with a smile. Webb is eager to talk about Robinson.

“I met Frank in Cincinnati in 1957. It was right after his rookie year. He had a little pickup basketball team and he used to play against one of his teammates, and we used to go up there and play basketball at their YMCA against him. Frank and I just struck up a rapport and it’s just been everlasting. He went on with his great career, phenomenal career, and there were times when I wouldn’t see him or be in touch with him for a long time, but it was the type of relationship that when we saw one another other, it just reverted right back to a friendship.

“When we met, we were both twenty years old. From twenty to thirty, we grew up together. You take young guys from twenty to thirty, those are your growing years. He’s had a tremendous impact on my life, as I’ve seen him have impacts on other people’s lives. He’s one of the few ballplayers I know with superstar status who is able to get along with blue collar workers very well. Regardless of what your stature was, he would give you advice. He had no fear of people hounding him, he was just a guy who could mingle.”

Few people know Frank Robinson as well as Sonny Webb. And Webb has seen some changes in his old friend over the years. It has, after all, been fifty years.

“He’s changed with his temperament. He’s still competitive, but not it’s not the same competitive nature that he had. It was unbelievable. He knew he could play this game and regardless of what it was, he was not going to let you beat him. Not only in this game (baseball), it could be bowling, it could be bid whist. He was a competitor, but he was fair. If you were right, you were right. If you were wrong, you were wrong and that’s the way he saw it.”

Does he have a few insights he can give the rest of us about Robinson that we may not know. Webb smiles at the question.

“I don’t know if people know how compassionate he is. If he saw a guy getting laid off, he would offer his assistance. Players weren’t making a lot of money back then, but he would offer his assistance”, he says.

With a look of awe and wonder on his face as he watches the National’s players take batting practice, his tone becomes wistful.

“As you get older, you have a different approach to what life is really all about. Some of the things you thought were important back in the day as a young man you find out as an older guy, they’re not as important. Money is one of them. It’s about this, what I’m doing here, what he’s allowing me to do here”, he says, as he points to the field and the batting cage he just stepped out of.

“You can’t measure this with money. I’m here as a friend, just coming here having a good time because he knows I love this game. I have a camaraderie with all these players and the coaches. I rip and run, and I have a rapport with some of these guys and they like to kid me and I can take it. If I go in the clubhouse and he (Frank) is having a bad time, I like to come around and make him smile. This is a tough game, and there are some awful tough situations going on, so what more can a friend do? Obviously I can’t get any base hits for him, or strike anybody out, but I can come in and take some of the heaviness away”, he says.

Mellowed by age and wisdom, but with an uncanny ability to reach both the high school players he coaches back in Ohio, and the players on the National’s, who delight in stopping by during our conversation to tease him about his turn in the batting cage. He smiles and jokes with them all. Clearly, he’s a positive influence.

“I’m a staunch believer in character. I character and fundamentals. I believe that if you instill character into a kid, you can teach him anything.

Sonny breaks into yet another wide grin, rested now, as he prepares to take a turn in the outfield, clearly loving every minute of being here.

“I get to hit and run around, and just be a boy again”, he says, a twinkle in his eyes. “It’s utopia.”