Frank Robinson

The great baseball player and manager Frank Robinson died yesterday.  He was a Hall-of-Famer twice over, having been Rookie of the Year in 1956, Most Valuable Player in both leagues (Cincinnati in 1961 when the Reds won the NL flag, and Baltimore in 1966), a twelve-time All Star, with a tidy 107.3 WAR in a 21-year career.  One stat that jumps out at me is his 198 career hit-by-pitches, which means he did not back off the plate, and was an aggressive hitter.  Robinson was also the first African American MLB manager, and the manager of the Washington Nationals in their first two seasons, 2005-2006.  In all his roles he was hard-driving, assertive, and successful.

Frank Robinson as a Cincinnati Red in 1962.

For years I thought my favorite Frank Robinson story came from the excellent Jim Brosnan book on the 1961 Cincinnati pennant-winning season, Pennant Race.  Turns out I was wrong, though.  It’s actually from the March 21, 1960 Sports Illustrated story “The Private World of the Negro Ballplayer,” by Robert Boyle (see URL below).  The article itself is something from another era, 59 years ago, when persons of color were called “Negro” with no insult intended, when racial stereotyping and classifying was taken for granted, when there were all of 57 African Americans in MLB, and when callow politicians-to-be put on blackface to enter dance contests.  Needless to say, these 57 big-league players of 1960 would have had something of a world of their own; it was only 13 years after Jackie Robinson became the first big-leaguer of color.

The story in the article is about Robinson’s advice to Vada Pinson, then a young player hustling to make good.  Robinson was a four-year veteran in 1959, while it was Pinson’s first full year.  A couple of years later when the Reds won the pennant race, Pinson was the other half of a “dynamic duo” with Robinson:  Pinson batted .343, got 208 hits, 87 RBIs, and 16 homers, while Robinson batted .323, got 176 hits, 124 RBIs, and 37 homers.  As the story is told, it seems that Boyle wants to cast Robinson as the savvy veteran who gets by with minimum effort, while Pinson is the gullible youngster who tries very hard, almost too hard, given the innate laziness of his race.  The whole article has that feel.  But I always thought, from the time I first read the piece in 1960, that what it really shows is how much Robinson enjoyed playing the game, and how he reveled in his role as slugger—big, powerful, menacing and yet playful, attuned to the sense of the moment.  Some players went barnstorming after the regular season, and

they take it so easy barnstorming that they refused to allow Pinson, a youngster who doesn’t know how to stop hustling, to make a trip. Pinson was told, “It’s best you don’t go. You wouldn’t know how to play it. You wouldn’t know how to slow down.” Poor Pinson doesn’t know how to slow down when he hits a homer. Once last year he sprinted all the way home even though he saw the ball clear the fence as he was rounding second. When he got back to the bench Frank Robinson, Cincinnati’s Negro first baseman, said, “Listen, kid, you’d better just stick to singles and leave those long balls to us cats who can act them out.”

Few players ever enjoyed acting them out, while at the same time playing the game for all he was worth, as much as Frank Robinson.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019.

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