From 1959 – 1962 there were two Major League All-Star Games played with most of the revenue from the second going for players’ pension fund. During the telecast of the second All-Star Game in 1959, played on August 3 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, I saw Frank Robinson for the first time. I had only heard about him when my father and older brothers talked about African-American baseball players. However; three days before my 8th birthday, I got my first real look at #20 that afternoon on our RCA black & white TV screen. The 83 years old former outfielder and manager died this past February 7th. I know this post will get lost in the thousands of verbal and written tributes to him and his accomplishments in baseball. But I have to write it. I took the death of Frank Robinson, my favorite all-time baseball player, # 20, personally. In remembering him, the following thoughts come to my mind.
First, I will remember Frank Robinson as the first African-American star Major League baseball player that did not get his start in Negro League baseball. Signed out of McClymonds High School in Oakland, California by the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1953, he faced the existing racial discrimination in professional baseball in the 1950s; in the minor leagues (SALLY League 1955) and in spring training (Tampa, Florida). Before national sportswriters voted Robinson National League Rookie of the Year in 1956 when he hit .293 with 38 home runs, the previous African-American winners were all former Negro League players: Jackie Robinson (1947), Don Newcombe (1949), Sam Jethroe (1950), Willie Mays (1951), Joe Black (1952), and Jim Gilliam (1953). In 1961 Frank Robinson won National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors (.323 BA, 37 HRs, 124 RBI, 22 SB) leading Cincinnati to win the National League pennant. The African- American MVP Award winners up until that time were all former Negro League players: Jackie Robinson (1949), Roy Campanella (1951, 1953, 1955), Willie Mays (1954), Henry Aaron (1957), and Ernie Banks (1958, 1959). Frank Robinson followed the path in the 1950s set by Jackie Robinson and other former Negro League players to have a Hall of Fame (1982 inductee) baseball career.
Secondly, I will always remember how Frank Robinson ran. During that second 1959 Major League All-Star Game, Robinson hit a 5th inning home run off Early Wynn. The way he circled the bases in his sleeveless Cincinnati Redlegs (they were not called the Reds back in 1959) uniform wearing a red short-sleeved jersey underneath, got my attention. To me, Robinson had a distinctive running style; straight-backed, stiff-legged, pumping his arms up and down at his hips. It seemed like a confident strut or pimp, a reflection of his highly competitive aggressive approach to playing baseball, and it stuck in my mind about him. I still have an image of other stars from that era; Mickey Mantle swinging his bat with all his body’s physical strength, Willie Mays running from under his cap, Henry Aaron playing with such ease and grace he hardly seem to break a sweat, and Ernie Banks’ smiling “let’s play two” joy about the game. But Frank Robinson, to me, had the run; the strut.
Then I will always remember Frank Robinson’s best season, 1966. Cincinnati’s trade of him to the Baltimore Orioles on December 9, 1965 turned the American League on its head. The team rosters of that 1959 All-Star Game when I first saw him reflected the slower pace of racial diversity in the junior circuit at that time. The American League All-Star team had three African-American or dark-skinned Latino ball players as compared to nine for the National League. It had been twelve years since Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947, but two American League clubs had just become integrated; the Detroit Tigers with Ozzie Virgil in 1958 and the Boston Red Sox with Pumpsie Green in 1959. In 1963, Elston Howard of the New York Yankees, a product of Negro League baseball, became the first African-American to receive MVP honors in the American League. In ten years with Cincinnati, Robinson hit 324 home runs while averaging 100 RBIs and a .301 batting average. However General Manager Bill Dewitt, believing him past his prime and calling him “an old 30 years of age with an old body”, in what would turn out to be one of the worst trades in baseball history sent Frank Robinson to the American League.
My tribute to the late Frank Robinson will continue in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
All images used for this post were taken from internet web sites