Lovers of baseball, particularly ones of a certain age, were saddened on Thursday to learn of the passing of Hall of Famer and manager Frank Robinson. Since I myself am *only* a mere 28 going on 29, my sole memories of Robinson are of him as the feisty and no-nonsense manager of the Montreal Expos/current Washington Nationals. But I remember hearing as a young baseball fan how he was the first (and as of now, still the only) player to win the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in both the National and American Leagues. I later learned that he was the first black man to become a manager in the Major Leagues–so while he was not related to Jackie Robinson, the first black player in MLB, he was a groundbreaker in his own right.
This post is somewhat different from my usual posts, as Robinson did receive many of the accolades he so rightly deserved for his abilities during his lifetime, including the two MVP awards, becoming the first black manager, and being elected to the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible (see stats here if you are interested in learning more). So in that sense, Robinson by definition does not fall into my criteria for an Underground Groundbreaker–fortunately for all of us who love the game, there are still many ex-players and fans out there who remember him well, as well as plenty of videos, photographs, etc. At the same time, however, and judging by the condolences that have been pouring in, in his own quiet way he too was a Groundbreaker.
In my posts on Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson and Negro Leaguer turned MLB coach Buck O’Neil, I provide some history on the Negro Leagues and how, even though there were plenty of players who did make it to the Major Leagues, they were something of a treasure trove of players who would never play on a Major League field. It’s a tragedy that we likely will never know about some of these players and how skilled they were. Jackie Robinson, of course, was the first player from the Negro Leagues to be brought up to the Major Leagues, and many stars such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron followed in later years.
Born relatively late in 1935, Frank Robinson did not play in the Negro Leagues at all; as Michael Bauman explains, “Robinson was part of the first generation of African American players to be developed entirely within the Major League Baseball pipeline, rather than coming up through the Negro Leagues as his contemporaries […] did.” In this sense, while Robinson surely experienced discrimination just as any Negro League player would have, not having that experience that some of his fellow players did was certainly a difference. He was part of the first group of black players to be accepted, at least officially, by the Major Leagues. So from the outset, he was already something of a groundbreaker.
One story about Robinson really told me exactly what I needed to know about him and his quiet fierceness. An article by Mike Klingaman in The Baltimore Sun from 2016 told the little-known story about Robinson’s struggle to find a house when he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles from the Cincinnati Reds in 1966. He and his wife were repeatedly rejected from all-white neighborhoods in the city despite their residents being fans of their baseball team’s newest player. In a telling moment, according to the article, in one neighborhood “15 white kids recognized Frank and swarmed around” and Robinson “gave all of them autographs.” Kids often have more wisdom than adults give them credit for.
In that same article, Robinson, at age 80, was asked about his experience during that time. He said:
“I didn’t ever want to set African-Americans backwards and have people say, ‘See, I told you so.’ That was my thinking,'” he said. “I didn’t have a torch and I stayed out of politics. I wasn’t out there to change laws. I really admired the people fighting for changes, but my job was to play baseball.”
His story did have a happy ending, though. With some help from the team’s ownership, he and his family did eventually settle in a Baltimore neighborhood that was more integrated than other sections of the city at the time. His neighbors became good friends, and when the Orioles won the World Series that year, he made a special effort to celebrate with them. The neighbors also temporarily had his street named for him during the World Series, which everyone, black and white, was excited about.
So in this sense, while Frank Robinson was not the same type of iconic figure as Jackie Robinson, who faced horrific racism during his career, he was certainly not spared from it either. And, despite all of this distraction in his first year in Baltimore, he still managed to win the Triple Crown that year and help win the World Series for his team. How he handled all of that while dealing with the turmoil in his personal life is quite admirable.
Robinson was especially a groundbreaker in that he became the first black manager in the Major Leagues–and not just a manager, a player-manager. Jackie Robinson had advocated for MLB to hire black managers. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see this happen. But when Frank was hired to manage the Cleveland Indians in 1975, he was honored that Jackie’s widow, Rachel, was in attendance for his first game and threw the first pitch (fun fact: Frank hit a home run that day that ended up winning the game for his new team).
Robinson recognized the gravity of becoming the first black man to manage a Major League baseball team. In an interview with the Baseball Hall of Fame, Robinson explained how while he was hesitant about accepting the job, he knew that if someone as qualified as he didn’t do it, the opportunity might not have presented itself again for quite a while. So while he wasn’t out in the streets fighting for racial equality, he was doing so in his own way in the sport he loved.
In 1981, Robinson was named the manager of the San Francisco Giants, making him the first black manager in the National League–yet another groundbreaking moment in a career full of them.
At the end of his Hall of Fame induction speech, Robinson made a statement that I believe finely encapsulates who he was a baseball player and a man. He thanked all of the black players who paved the way for players like him. He spoke directly to Rachel Robinson, who was in the audience, expressing his belief that if Jackie had not made the sacrifice of being the first, that the door may have been closed off to others for years–similar to his feelings about becoming the first black manager. This got me thinking–surely if it hadn’t happened in 1947 as it did with Jackie, it would have happened eventually, right? But knowing the history of this country, and what Frank had to deal with just to find a damn house, it did make me think twice.
Though I was not born early enough to have seen Frank Robinson play, I’ve greatly enjoyed learning more about the player and, more importantly, the man. While he was known to have some ‘tude particularly in his later years as a manager, his intensity was only due to his great respect for the game he was involved with his entire life. I am glad that he received the recognition he was due in his lifetime. And while he was not a trailblazer or civil rights activist in the same way as Jackie Robinson, I will also always think of him as a Groundbreaker at heart in his own quiet way.
Sources & Further Reading:
Michael Baumann, “Remembering Frank Robinson, a Trailblazing Baseball Titan.” The Ringer. https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2019/2/7/18216306/frank-robinson-obituary-hall-of-fame-orioles
Mike Klingaman, “Fifty years ago, Frank Robinson’s search for housing in Baltimore helped in ‘opening the door for others.'” The Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/orioles/bs-sp-frank-robinson-housing-0124-20160122-story.html
Mike Peticca, “Frank Robinson’s debut as Cleveland Indians player-manager was historic.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. https://www.cleveland.com/tribe/index.ssf/2017/05/frank_robinsons_debut_as_a_pla_1.html
Frank Robinson entry on Baseball Hall of Fame website: https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/robinson-frank
Maxwell Kates, “Frank Robinson.” Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/c3ac5482
[Image from Baseball Hall of Fame announcement of Frank Robinson’s death: https://baseballhall.org/discover/robinson-left-mark-on-and-off-the-field%5D