Always a Groundbreaker at Heart: Frank Robinson, 1935-2019

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

Groundbreaker #9: Buck O’Neil

“People say baseball’s dead. Baseball doesn’t die. People die. Baseball lives on.”

Continuing my baseball theme of this blog started with Josh Gibson, today I’ll be exploring the life and career of Buck O’Neil, another Negro League-era player. Unlike Gibson, however, he had the distinction of becoming the first black coach in Major League Baseball.

Buck O’Neil, born John Jordan O’Neil in 1911 in the Florida Panhandle, grew up surrounded by racism and discrimination, which he would experience throughout his life. Because segregated Florida only had four high schools just for black students at the time, O’Neil wasn’t able to attend school. But he was soon able to attend a college in Jacksonville after working in a celery field with his father, where he lived with relatives and finished high school and two years of college credits.  

After his time in college, O’Neil started playing baseball semi-professionally in 1934 and barnstormed playing in interracial exhibition games.” He was soon discovered and in 1937 signed with the Memphis Red Sox, a newly established team in the newly established Negro American League. In 1938, his contract was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League.

O’Neil had a respectable career as a first baseman in the Negro Leagues when he had the opportunity to play, with a lifetime average of .283. He couldn’t play from 1943-45 because he was serving in the Navy in World War II. He was also part of the Monarchs World Series championship team in 1942. He played regularly until 1951, but also served as manager of the Monarchs from 1948 to 1955. Under his leadership, the team won two league titles, but unfortunately the League was on its last legs due to the exodus of black players into the Major Leagues. [For more background on the Negro Leagues, be sure to check out my earlier post on Josh Gibson.]

After the 1955 season, the owner of the Monarchs sold the team. O’Neil resigned as manager of the team and was hired as a scout for the Chicago Cubs in the major leagues, where he signed another black player and future Hall of Famer, outfielder Lou Brock. O’Neil was tasked with finding talent in black high schools and colleges throughout the country (see Kansas City Star article).

In 1962, O’Neil made history by being named the first black coach in the major leagues by the Cubs. He had been an unofficial coach, but the Cubs officially named him a coach because many umpires didn’t approve of his being in the dugout.While this was a major accomplishment, it was dampened somewhat by the fact that he was not a base coach during games and not part of the Cubs’ “College of Coaches” system, which rotated a few men through the role of manager. [The first black manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, would not be hired until 1975.] At first O’Neil did not recognize the significance of his being the first black coach, but later understood when he saw his name in the papers throughout the country. Despite this, he acknowledged that “progress in organized baseball was painfully slow” and “still is” (see Kansas City Star article). O’Neil stayed with the Cubs until the 1980s, when he took a scouting job for the Kansas City Royals in 1988, and awarded the title of “Midwest Scout of the Year” in 1998.

It was perhaps his post-playing/coaching/scouting career where O’Neil made the biggest impact on baseball history. After sitting for interviews describing the Negro Leagues for Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, O’Neil was one of the leaders in opening the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City. He was the honorary board chairman of the museum until his death in 2006. O’Neil was also part of the 18-member Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000, helping six Negro League players to be elected to the Hall. Sadly O’Neil himself was never inducted, despite being nominated to a special ballot that honored Negro League players, managers, and executives in 2006, but he spoke at the induction ceremony for those Negro League players who were elected in July of that year.

O’Neil died at the age of 94 in August of 2006 of heart failure and bone marrow cancer. He has received many posthumous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in December 2006. The Baseball Hall of Fame awarded him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, an award that would be named after him. The Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award will be given once every three years “to honor an individual who enhances baseball’s positive image on society, who broadens the game’s appeal, and whose integrity and dignity are comparable to the namesake of the award” (see Baseball Hall of Fame website). So far it has only been presented to three other people besides O’Neil himself: longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond, catcher and announcer Joe Garagiola, and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson.

At the end of his life, Buck O’Neil easily could have been bitter about the many missed opportunities in his life: the segregation of his childhood preventing him from going to a local high school; never getting to play in the Major Leagues; being named a Major League coach but not having that mean much; and not being inducted into the Hall of Fame even though he was on the committee that chose the inductees. But until the end of his long life, O’Neil was everything but bitter; he was charming and entertaining and always seemed happy, as he did at the 2006 Hall of Fame ceremony.

One touching story about O’Neil’s life was the friendship he developed late in life with Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro, who was a star in Japan and came to the Major Leagues in 2001, love learning about baseball history. He visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City when his team, the Seattle Mariners, were in town playing the Royals. After O’Neil died, Ichiro sent a donation to the museum in memory of him (see ESPN article). This friendship shows O’Neil’s undying openness and kindness towards younger players through all stages of his life.

As a baseball fan I had heard Buck O’Neil’s name in passing, but never knew much about him until I started researching for this post. While it is clear that O’Neil wasn’t outwardly resentful about the way his life went, it seems to me that baseball as a whole didn’t give him the treatment and recognition he deserved. He may not have deserved to be in the Hall of Fame purely on the strength of his numbers, but surely his many other contributions to the game would warrant him an honorary spot somewhere. As a walking encyclopedia of baseball and particularly the Negro Leagues, it is a real shame and a missed opportunity that his knowledge wasn’t appreciated and honored more. He did a good job on his own by helping open the museum and helping elect former Negro Leaguers into the Hall (even though he wasn’t chosen himself), and by appearing on Ken Burns’ documentary, but this seems like a bare minimum.

Although baseball is more diverse than it was during most of O’Neil’s lifetime, as time goes on both players and fans will know less and less about pioneers like O’Neil who helped make the game what it is today. I just hope there are others out there who thought to record some of his stories so they are not lost to time.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Buck O’Neil and the history of African Americans in baseball interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_O’Neil

Stats on Baseball Reference: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=oneil-000buc

Robert Bluestein, “The 20 Most Obscure ‘Firsts’ in Baseball”: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1411064-the-20-most-obscure-firsts-in-baseball#slide15

Rustin Dodd, “Buck O’Neil and the Cubs: Kansas City icon left a legacy in Chicago”: https://www.kansascity.com/sports/mlb/kansas-city-royals/article110949822.html

Buck O’Neil Award, Baseball Hall of Fame: https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/awards/890

http://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/why-buck-oneil-still-doesnt-have-a-baseball-hall-of-fame-plaque/qi0c30oiqfa71ooi69ooazme2

https://www.theroot.com/quote-of-the-day-buck-o-neil-on-love-1790874584

More on Ichiro: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/22624561/ichiro-suzuki-return-seattle-mariners-resolve-internal-battle

Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America: https://amzn.to/2R85rw1

Buck O’Neil’s autobiography, I Was Right On Time: https://amzn.to/2r1VuVG

O’Neil’s speech at Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2006: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtE2I6jsung