February 8, 2019


The Frank Robinson I knew: The proudest, orneriest, most competitive man in baseball (Thomas Boswell, February 7, 2019, Washington Post)

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 had the best offensive year of his life and 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.

Posted by at February 8, 2019 12:00 AM


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