Billy Reed: Remembering Frank Robinson

Billy Reed: Remembering Frank Robinson
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The other Robinson is the one American history most remembers, and that is as it should be, because Jackie was the pioneer who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But Frank, a rookie with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956, was the better player. He was Most Valuable Player in both leagues, something no other player has achieved. However, he also was much like Jackie as a leader who ran the bases hard and wasn’t intimidated when pitchers threw at his head. And in his own way, Frank Robinson also was a pioneer.

Frank Robinson, the the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball history, died Feb. 7, 2019 at age 83. (Source: Billy Reed)
Frank Robinson, the the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball history, died Feb. 7, 2019 at age 83. (Source: Billy Reed)

At the end of his playing career in 1975, the Cleveland Indians made him the first African-American manager in big-league history. He also stared down racism, especially during his years in Cincinnati (1956-65).

At the time Frank came along, Cincinnati was not known as one of the nation’s more enlightened cities in the matter of racial equality. It was the place where Jackie was booed so viciously in 1947 that Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ captain and shortstop from Louisville, felt the need to walk over and put his arm around Jackie’s shoulders, an unmistakeable sign of unity and support.

The city hadn’t advanced much by 1956. The franchise had remained lily-white until 1954, when Chuck Harmon and Nino Escalara played in several games without making much impact. The Reds were far behind the times. Most of their rivals had African-American stars such as Willie Mays of the New York Giants, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, and Junior Gilliam, Don Newcombe, and others who joined Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers.

If any Reds fans were unhappy about Robinson joining the team, they got little chance to express it because he was a star from the beginning. As a rookie in ’56, he hit a team-high 38 home runs, tying the National League rookie record held by Wally Berger of the Boston Braves. Thanks largely to the spark provided by Robinson, the Reds moved from fifth to third in the standings, finishing only three games behind the champion Dodgers. They also tied the NL record with 221 homers and virtually doubled home attendance to around 1.2 million.

Frank, who died yesterday at the age of 83, led the Reds to the National League title in 1961, their first pennant since 1940. Although they lost to the New York Yankees of Mantle and Maris, four games to one, they established a new optimism in Cincinnati. But by the time the Reds returned to the World Series in 1970, Frank was long gone. In fact, he was a star on the Baltimore Orioles team that defeated the Reds, four games to one.

That 1970 championship was sweet revenge for Robinson. In December, 1965, the Reds shocked the baseball world by trading him to the Orioles for pitcher Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson. Although Robinson was in the prime of his career at 30, Reds’ general manager Bill DeWitt, in a statement he would regret the rest of his life, said it was “an old 30.”

It turned out to be one of the worst deals in baseball history. All Robinson did in 1966 was win the so-called “Triple Crown” of hitting, leading the league in batting average, runs batted in, and home runs. He added the league’s MVP award to one he won with the Reds in 1961.

In truth, racism was behind DeWitt’s decision. A few years earlier, Frank had been arrested in a Cincinnati diner for carrying a concealed pistol. He also was the team’s unquestioned leader in the clubhouse and on the field, a man much admired by younger players such as Vada Pinson, the gifted centerfielder who had followed Frank (and basketball icon Bill Russell) at McClymonds High in Oakland, CA. Dewitt saw Frank as a “troublemaker” who might create racial problems for the Reds.

Lingering bitterness about the trade might by why Robinson chose to be depicted wearing an Orioles’ cap, not the Reds, on his plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Then again, maybe it was because his Orioles teams enjoyed more success. Both the Reds and the Orioles have retired his No. 20.

Like Jackie, Frank played with dignity and pride. He didn’t look for fights, but he didn’t back away from one, either. He crowded the plate, almost daring pitchers to throw at him, and led the NL in getting hit by the pitcher six times in 10 years. He had five-inch scars on both elbows that he got from rival infielders while sliding into a base.

In an infamous 1960 altercation with Ed Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves, Robinson slid into third base with spikes high and Mathews jumped on him, pounding him so hard that Frank had to leave the game with one eye swollen shut. However, he returned for the second game of the doubleheader, hitting a home run and robbing Mathews of a hit with a dazzling outfield catch. He called it “the best way to get even.”

With all due respect to the Hall-of-Fame stars of the “Big Red Machine” — Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez — and their disgraced teammate Pete Rose, Robinson may well be the best Red of all. For his career, he hit .294 with 586 homers and 1,812 RBI. In his decade with the Reds, Frank had a .303 average with 1,009 RBI and 324 homers.

As is the case with Jackie, however, the numbers tell only part of the story. How do you measure the fearless passion and leadership they brought to the game and, by extension, the nation? It’s more obvious with Jackie, whose 100th birthday was observed recently, but Frank also put a special stamp on baseball, especially as it has evolved in Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Cleveland.

Frank was a proud man, but he was no troublemaker. His teammates loved and admired him. So did his managers. By the way he played every day, he set an example that forced those around him to be better. His locker in the Crosley Field clubhouse always was a gathering place for reporters seeking quotes or young player seeking advice.

Let us hope the Reds do something special during the 2019 season to honor the memory of their No. 20, the man who did more than anybody to change the face and direction of baseball in Cincinnati.

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