Frank Robinson: Still A Passionate Pioneer

By Nick Peters
Updated: August 3, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO — Frank Robinson is baseball’s version of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, a renaissance man still going strong as manager of the Washington Nationals, 50 years after his major-league debut.

Robinson, who turns 71 on Aug. 31, is best remembered for a Hall of Fame career that included 586 home runs. He’s also in his 16th season as a manager and has served as a coach, front-office executive and administrator.

And he’s etched in baseball history as the first African American to manage in the American (Cleveland, 1975) and National (San Francisco, 1981) leagues, not to mention his status as the only MVP of each league.

“To me, he’s like Jackie Robinson,” Nationals first-base coach Davey Lopes said. “They both made history and helped a lot of others. As a player, the thing I remember most is how intense he was and how he played the game.”

In an interview during the just-completed series against the Giants, he looked back on his career and said he is proud of his efforts.

“As a player, being the MVP in both leagues is special to me, but the Hall of Fame is No. 1,” he said. “As a manager, I’m proud that I opened some doors for minorities. But I just wanted to manage. I didn’t aspire to become the first black manager.”

Robinson was born in Beaumont, Texas, and moved to Alameda when he was very young. He learned the game on East Bay sandlots and was a baseball and basketball star at Oakland’s McClymonds High School.

Robinson was such a good athlete, he was better on the court than teammate Bill Russell. In baseball, Robinson was proficient enough to be the youngest player on the national champion American Legion squad from Oakland.

Robinson honed his skills under legendary prep coach George Powles and matched them with an intense desire to succeed.

He credits his mother, a single parent, for teaching him responsibility and toughening his skin, qualities that served the eager young African American well when he encountered racial prejudice as a minor leaguer in Ogden, Utah; Tulsa, Okla.; and Columbia, S.C.

“I didn’t fight it because I was determined to be a major leaguer,” Robinson said. “It was rough along the way in the minors, but I accepted it because I wanted to play baseball.”

Robinson made his major-league debut on Opening Day in 1956 — nine years after Jackie Robinson’s pioneering efforts — in Cincinnati. He doubled in his first at-bat at Crosley Field, finished with two hits and proclaimed big-league pitching wasn’t so tough.

He went hitless in his next 23 at-bats before recovering to finish with a .290 batting average, 122 runs, 83 RBIs and N.L. Rookie of the Year distinction.

Robinson’s 38 home runs tied Wally Berger’s rookie record and stood until Mark McGwire hit 49 in 1987. Robinson quickly established a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-nosed player, the type opponents loved to hate.

A Hall of Fame career

By 1961, Robinson was an established star. Although overshadowed by Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, he ranked among the N.L.’s elite, and in 1961 led the Reds to the World Series and was the league MVP.

Giants manager Felipe Alou, who with Robinson posted his 1,000th managerial victory this season, was a player then and recalls how Robinson was a fierce competitor who didn’t win any popularity contests.

“Frank was killing us, and in a meeting before a series with the Reds, (manager) Alvin Dark said: ‘Forget about the rest of the players. Let’s just go over Frank Robinson — he’s the one.’…”We decided to pitch Frank inside, even hit him, but don’t throw anything over the plate”.

“The game starts, and that first pitch to him is a fastball in. Frank hits a line drive that disappears. He put a number inside the Crosley Field scoreboard. Nobody said anything. Next at-bat, first pitch, and he hits it over the scoreboard.”

Said Robinson: “When I was knocked down, it did make me more determined that the pitcher was not going to get me out. But getting hit was part of the game.”

Alou also recalled Robinson as an outstanding right fielder “who charged the ball well and was incredibly accurate. … He also had great speed. He was a great baserunner, just a notch below Mays.”

Of course, the right fielder of that era was fellow N.L. player Roberto Clemente, who stole Robinson’s thunder. That all changed after the 1965 season, when Robinson was traded to Baltimore for pitcher Milt Pappas.

Robinson was an instant hit with the Orioles. He won the Triple Crown with a .316 average, 122 RBIs and a career-high 49 home runs as the A.L. MVP. He also was the World Series MVP.

“Going to Baltimore helped me a lot,” he said. “It was a new league, and I had success right away.”

The Great Experiment II

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey advised him to turn the other cheek because he realized a lot of verbal and mental abuse was forthcoming.

So how could Robinson, 28 years later, become the first African American to manage a major-league team when his reputation was to battle rather than give in? But the time was ripe, and he wanted the job badly, swallowing pride in the process.

He gained experience managing in Puerto Rico from 1967 to 1969. Although reluctant to depart from the Los Angeles area, he left the California Angels for Cleveland as a player at the end of the 1974 season.

“After that season, (GM) Phil Segui offered me the manager’s job, but I practically did it for nothing, and people don’t realize that,” Robinson said. “I had a $180,000 contract as a player, and they only added $20,000 to manage.

“I protested, but Segui said, ‘Don’t you want to manage?’ I gave in because I couldn’t afford to pass up the opportunity. How would it look if it got out that a minority was offered a job and turned it down? What if the opportunity didn’t come up again?”

Robinson had a difficult time adjusting to the Indians.

Giants announcer Duane Kuiper played for Robinson in Cleveland and San Francisco, and he remembers how difficult those early days with the Indians were — even before he was named manager.

“The first day I got there, he challenged Gaylord Perry to a fight,” Kuiper said. “Gaylord had said something in the newspaper about wanting a new contract, and one dollar more than our new player, Frank Robinson.

“Frank came into the clubhouse, went over to Gaylord and said, ‘Get off the stool, we’re going to fight.’ Gaylord didn’t move, so after that we knew if Frank was named manager, how long was Gaylord going to be there? Well, he was there until June.”

Kuiper grew to admire his new manager. Soon, veteran malcontents were weeded out, and Robinson earned the respect of younger players.

“Nobody liked him,” Kuiper said of opponents. “We saw it as teams playing harder against us. He had run-ins with umpires. He’d yell at guys from the dugout. He wanted a few of us to be like that, and if you did, you were golden in his eyes.

“He was intense. He really wanted everyone to play like he played, and that was impossible.”

After three stormy seasons with the Indians, Robinson was hired as the Giants’ manager during the 1981 season and went 56-55. A year later, surprising San Francisco was 87-75 and finished two games out of first place.

That ties Robinson’s best record — he also did it with the 1989 Orioles as A.L. Manager of the Year — but then the Giants’ brass greased his slide by not bringing back Joe Morgan and Reggie Smith.

“I thought we established a winning attitude with Joe and Reggie, and they were gone,” he said. “I called (owner) Bob Lurie and told him trading Joe took the heart out of the club. They did it for contract reasons, but we weren’t the same after that.”

Robinson was fired during the 1984 season, and in 1985, the franchise endured its worst season (62-100). Current announcer Mike Krukow remembers those days well. He was among the Philadelphia players for whom Morgan was traded.

“Frank didn’t want any part of the deal, and it was very obvious in spring training that he wasn’t enamored with me,” Krukow said. “So I took that as a challenge, and Frank knew how to push my buttons.”

Giants veteran Steve Finley became a major leaguer as a Baltimore rookie in 1989.

“I’m in my first big-league camp, and the first thing Frank tells the club is, ‘This is the first day of your championship year.’

“He instilled pride and confidence right away, making you believe in yourself. He just expected you to play hard. We finished second, losing to Toronto on the last week of the season on a wild pitch.”

A return to the dugout

Following an absence of more than 10 years, many of them spent as the major leagues’ administrator in charge of fines and suspensions, Robinson was lured back to the dugout when baseball took over the crumbling Montreal franchise.

He intended to do the job for one year. But the 2002 Expos finished 83-79, and he keeps coming back for more. Last year, amid the excitement of relocating to Washington, the Nationals were in first place at the All-Star break.

Robinson’s future is in the hands of the Nationals’ new ownership group. The game has changed; he says he hasn’t, contrary to some observations that he has mellowed. He is concerned about the lack of minorities in decision-making positions and the decline in the number of black players, a reflection, he believes, of the need to reach out to the black community.

Now he enjoys being a manager.

“I like being involved with baseball,” Robinson said. “It was difficult at first. It took a lot of give and take for me to grow into the job. I enjoy it, and the 11 years off from managing gave me a better understanding. …

“I’ll know when it’s time to retire, but I’m not there yet. I enjoy what I’m doing.”

Despite his business-like demeanor, there are signs Robinson has mellowed, although he denies it. Earlier this season, for instance, he was in tears during a postgame news conference.

Why? Because he felt bad about removing third-string catcher Matt LeCroy during an inning after visiting Houston stole seven bases and took advantage of his two throwing errors.

“When he cried after taking his catcher out, it absolutely was Frank,” Krukow said. “The toughest time for him is when he’s dealing with a veteran and has to make a tough decision. He really cares about his guys.

“There’s one thing that makes Frank tick, and it’s as simple as the sun coming up: It’s love of the game. That’s what it is, and what he is.”