Frank Robinson made his major league debut five years after Willie Mays’ first season, two years after Henry Aaron broke in, one year after Roberto Clemente joined the Pittsburgh Pirates, and there wasn’t a lot of leftover stage among those peers, who went on to become all-time greats.
Yet Robinson wedged his way into baseball history. He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1956, appeared in 14 All-Star Games, and at the end of his playing career, the only players with more home runs were Aaron, Babe Ruth and Mays.
Robinson is the only player to win MVP awards in both the National League (1961) and the American League (1966), and those accomplishments alone would make his name a perfect replacement for that of Kenesaw Mountain Landis on the MVP trophy, now that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America is considering the removal of Landis’ name. Landis was commissioner of baseball for nearly a quarter of a century and acquired more practical power than anyone else who has held that office, and he effectively used it to keep baseball segregated. That is part of Landis’ legacy.
Robinson’s legacy goes way beyond his career statistics and awards. In 1975, less than three years after Jackie Robinson wished aloud for an African American manager, Frank became the first, initially as player/manager of the Cleveland Indians, and he would go on to manage 16 years in the big leagues. Putting Frank Robinson’s name on the MVP trophy, his former Orioles teammate Jim Palmer said over the phone the other day, “is a really good idea” because of not only the player he was but also the person.
Palmer recalled a game in Fenway Park when Robinson lifted a long, high fly ball to left field, and Robinson assumed he had hit a home run, moving deliberately toward first base — a rarity, Palmer said, given Frank’s well-known reputation as an aggressive baserunner devoted to breaking up double plays. But Robinson’s drive came up short, bouncing off the Green Monster, and Robinson had to settle for a single.
Palmer recalled that when Earl Weaver returned to the visiting manager’s office after the game, there were two $100 bills on his desk, unsolicited. Robinson had volunteered the fine money, he explained, because he had embarrassed himself, the Orioles and baseball. When a star of Robinson’s stature does something like that, Palmer said, the approach of the entire team is cemented.
San Francisco Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper played under Robinson in Cleveland, and on Saturday, he texted a memory about Frank’s legendary toughness.
“The big league club was going to play an exhibition game against the Triple-A affiliate in Toledo,” Kuiper wrote. “Toledo had a pitcher by the name of ‘Bullet’ Bob Reynolds, who was upset that he got sent down in spring training. He felt like Frank should have told him personally, but the team had been in Yuma and Reynolds was in Tucson when he found out.
“When we got to Toledo, before the game Reynolds told a lot of us that if he pitched and Frank came up to bat, he was going to hit him in the head. I don’t know if Frank knew this; I don’t think he did. He might have expected something was going to happen.
“As it turned out, Frank did bat against Reynolds, and Reynolds threw it over his head! Bad move.”
Yes. As Palmer attested, “Frank was not someone you could intimidate.”
Kuiper continued: “On the next pitch, Frank hit a fly ball that was caught, and as he ran back to the dugout he passed by ‘Bullet’ Bob Reynolds and Reynolds said something to Frank — and Frank knocked him out with three punches. All in front of a packed house in Toledo.”
(David Briggs wrote about this incident last year, in the Toledo Blade.)
Frank Robinson was the toughest man in baseball, I had heard time and again, and so he seemed like the perfect person to ask about a personal quandary in February 1995. “I have to call my girlfriend’s father to ask for permission to marry her, Frank,” I told him, in my first spring training covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun. “How should I handle that?”
He shriveled in horror, his body folding in a nearby seat as if he were ducking underneath a fastball, and Frank began to cackle, his laughter taking the form of a hiss. “Oh boy, you’re in trouble,” he told me, doing everything he could to exacerbate my anxiety. “You’re on your own with that one.”
If the humor of the toughest man in baseball was deeply underrated, well, so was a lot of what Frank Robinson did in a lifetime in the game. The BBWAA and Major League Baseball could take a step toward more properly honoring Robinson, who died in February 2019, by making his name a permanent part of the MVP trophy.
• By the way: When Frank Robinson first became eligible for Hall of Fame election in 1982, after a career of 586 home runs and 2,943 hits, and his first seasons as manager in the books, 45 writers among the 415 voters did not include his name on their ballot, so he was elected with just 89.2% of the vote.
Think about that.
• The uncertainty under which camps have opened is deep. A lot of players and staffers are heartened by the early application of the extensive health and safety protocol, with many giving voice to the seriousness of the moment. In his Zoom call with reporters Saturday, Max Scherzer mentioned that the water provided for the players is warm — because any refrigerated bottle would require someone touching the handle of a water cooler.
“I feel very safe being in the clubhouse, given the testing that we have,” said Scherzer, who cited the low infection rate in the first results released by MLB on Friday.
But the unease is about the unknowns, which is why Buster Posey, Mike Trout and some others left open the possibility that they might still walk away. As Trout said to reporters, a lot of players are looking for answers, and nobody really has any — about whether everybody in the 30 baseball communities will continue to honor protocols; about whether players living in their home residences will be infected through contact with family and friends; about how the coronavirus continues to manifest in the cities and states around them; about whether pulling off a season is feasible, in the face of more players opting out and perhaps other players getting sick.
The news that highly respected Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman is ailing has shaken some of his peers. Freddie’s wife, Chelsea, wrote on Instagram: “He is someone who literally never gets sick and this virus hit him like a ton of bricks. … We’ve been really strict for the last four months. Haven’t gone to a grocery store, haven’t gone out to dinner once, haven’t seen our friends … and still got it.”
The assessments of baseball’s restart range from measured to pessimistic so far. “Swiss cheese,” one staffer said. “There are so many holes in it. It’s false hustle.”
But baseball will continue to try. When Nationals manager Dave Martinez was asked the other day about how he felt about the chances of the season being completed, he was candid. “Honestly, that’s a good question,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know. But we’re going to do our best to keep everybody safe.”
At the moment, keeping everybody safe is the lowest possible bar baseball can aim for — but at the moment, it seems appropriate. There is a beachhead of hope, and whether that will grow, as players do what they can to rapidly prepare for games, is just another unknown.
On the Baseball Tonight podcast
Thursday: Matt Vasgersian talks about the return of baseball, Sean Doolittle‘s apprehension, and what the broadcasts might look and sound like; Todd Radom with a discussion about the Trop, and this week’s quiz.
Wednesday: Paul Hembekides on the cancellation of the minor league season; Karl Ravech on the test rates; Joon Lee on the lack of diversity in front offices and ownership.
Tuesday: Tim Kurkjian discusses his many White House invites, Ian Desmond’s decision to opt out and the need for transparency.
Monday: Sarah Langs talks about candidates to hit .400 in a short season; Alden Gonzalez on the state of baseball.