For several days, the death of Frank Robinson had been expected. Editors called reporters to prepare appreciations. But Frank, no respecter of deadlines or demise, didn’t depart on schedule. Some of us who covered him for years enjoyed the thought of Death trying to cope with Frank.
Robinson was the proudest, orneriest, most competitive man in baseball from his arrival in 1956 — as a rookie who hit 38 homers at age 20 — until 2006, when, in his 16th year as a manager, his old fierce eyes still made his Nats players seem tame.
“You know you can’t beat me,” the Grim Reaper says. Frank, silent, just glares and digs in. Robinson didn’t just crowd the plate; he crowded life.
On Thursday, Robinson died at 83. Many will recall his Triple Crown season leading the Baltimore Orioles to a World Series title in 1966. Others will find the most lasting value in his dignified barrier-breaking work as the first African American manager in 1975 with Cleveland and then as manager of the year back with the Orioles in 1989.
But Robinson had other sides beyond the need to intimidate opponents or drive teammates to their competitive limits or respond to any challenge with flashing eyes; a smart, quick tongue; and, if necessary, his fists.
In 1988, after the Orioles started the season 0-6, Robinson replaced Cal Ripken Sr. as manager. When their record reached 0-20, the whole sports nation watched, aghast and empathetic. Long before the 21st game, Frank sat alone in his office. I handed him a lapel button that read, “It’s Been Lovely, but I Have to Scream Now.”
He burst out laughing. And put the button in his top drawer.
A few years earlier, Frank and I had broken the ice when he was a coach on Earl Weaver’s staff. One day, I wrote that the Nos. 1-3 hitters in the Orioles’ order should all be benched.
“Firemen go into burning buildings for $10,000 a year,” I said. “For $1 million, Fred Lynn won’t pinch-hit with the bases loaded in Yankee Stadium if he has a cold.”
The next day, Lynn stopped talking to the media but also immediately got red-hot and won the American League player of the week award. A few days later, Robinson said, “Could you rip Freddie again next week?”
These days, the notion that a manager can lead a team, and add to its win total, through the force of a scary-intense personality, through anger as well as inspiration, through stop-being-a-dog criticism, is treated as a silly, irrational anachronism. Do they do that in middle-management at Apple?
That’s wrong. I covered two Robinson teams that finished 20 to 30 games better than MLB experts thought they should. There were many reasons, but none bigger than Frank’s back-of-the-plane to top-step-of-the-dugout leadership.
The 1988 Orioles started 0-21 and ended 54-107. But they improved the next season by 32 ½ games and missed the postseason only on the last weekend of the season. They were a six-month national story. At that time, just two teams had ever improved by more games: the 1903 Giants and the 1946 Red Sox (who warrant an asterisk because they got Ted Williams and other stars back from World War II).
Baltimore kept Robinson in charge while subtracting unhappy talent, such as Eddie Murray, and adding kids or nobodies who were happy to be in the show. The Orioles added no top players. I predicted they might lose 121 games. They won 87.
Robinson’s leadership — nobody can define it or measure it, which is why few currently value it — was essential. He believed in players who, objectively, did not merit it. So they believed in themselves. Some, such as Steve Finley, panned out as stars. Others, such as Curt Schilling — who tried out purple hair, looked like Billy Idol and when called in from the bullpen once said, “So, who’s up?” — weren’t Frank’s guys.
They crashed into walls, stole bases and threw strikes. But most of all, they loved the endless details of the game, studied them, revered them as Robinson did and believed that demanding unfailing fundamentals from one another would win.
Another link between those 1989 Orioles and the 2005 Nats was that most were either young-and-eager or old-and-holdin’-on — so they listened. Which Frank loved.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with young people, reaching them and talking baseball. It’s a pleasure to watch someone get better and better until he’s a bona fide big leaguer,” he said. “All a teacher wants is for them to listen and try.”
Frank always loved teaching, especially hitting. He kept his hands off Cal Ripken Jr.’s mechanics for years — Gene Mauch once said, “Someday Cal will have the worst swing in the Hall of Fame” — out of deference to Cal’s lifelong batting teacher, his dad. In 1991, Ripken went to Robinson for help. He hadthe best offensive year of his lifeand won his second MVP award.
The flip side is that Robinson had teams that underperformed because, when it came to modern thinking, he was a defiant, “gut instinct” dinosaur. When his teams were out of the hunt, he lost some interest and held court in his office.
Perhaps the lesson should be: Analytics are great, but leadership is real, too. Ask the military academies whether they believe it’s all just numbers.
Sometimes, when he managed the Nats, we had rambling talks. He despised the PED cheaters who broke the records of him and his friends, especially Hank Aaron, who had faced death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s homer mark.
Because he could be so cantankerous and didn’t care what you thought, Robinson was exciting to cover. He grasped the concept of an “adversarial relationship” with the press. That didn’t mean he liked it. Once, after I criticized his managing, he made a sweeping gesture of stabbing himself in the back as he passed me. And he wasn’t smiling.
Put all those qualities together, and it may be easier to understand why teammates loved him, foes feared him, umpires and writers respected him but his colleagues in the sometimes-devious world of front-office politics did not.
Robinson and the Nats, for example, ended with a bitter split. The Nats weren’t generous; Frank — shock — didn’t leave quietly. “He’s not a guy who endears himself,” a Nats exec said, missing his own half-compliment.
Frank always evoked strong feelings. As a teen, I detested him. When I watched my Senators play the Orioles in D.C., he hit a three-run homer in the first inning to end the game before it began — every time, it seemed. He was the ferocious five-tool superstar my team never had.
Then, as I grew up, all that flipped. Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics became the first African American coach in any major U.S. pro sport. Eight years later, Robinson, who was Russell’s basketball teammate at McClymonds High in Oakland, broke the managerial color barrier in Major League Baseball. That two close friends could face challenges so similar with such dignity and honesty was impressive. But that they did it so uncompromisingly, never turning away from the firsthand hard truths they had learned about race in America, made them two of my heroes.
For me, Russell and Frank Robinson were the next step after Jackie Robinson. Because he had laid the groundwork, they didn’t have to turn the other cheek. They could be their entire selves — or close to it. Remembering what social progress looked like then is a reminder of why it’s worth battling to keep and extend now.
Frank Robinson always had the severe comportment, the hard eye for enemies, the basic sense of right and wrong of a pioneer. He walked into a room, and others stood up straighter, heads higher. Now, we bow our heads in respect.