February 9, 2019

HERE'S TO YOU, MR. ROBINSON:

Ferocity, Courage, and Grace -- Remembering the Great Frank Robinson (GEORGE WEIGEL, February 9, 2019, National Review)

When 20-year-old Jim Palmer heard the ball explode off Frank Robinson's bat on the first day of spring training in 1966, he turned to the others standing around the batting cage and said, "We just won the American League." Which the Orioles did, with the man everyone called, simply, "Frank" leading the charge from Opening Day on -- and punctuating the season by hitting the first and only home run ever driven completely out of old Memorial Stadium. (The point of its exit was subsequently marked by an orange-and-black flag with one word emblazoned on it: here.) Motivated in part, one suspects, by resentment over Bill DeWitt's geriatric putdown, but even more by his own innate and fierce competitiveness, Frank Robinson had his second MVP season in 1966, winning batting's triple crown (the league leadership in batting average [.316], home runs [49], and runs batted in [122]) and leading the Orioles to a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. [...]

The Baltimore of my youth was a segregated city, psychologically and emotionally as well as legally. The human barriers began to break down in the late 1950s when the great Baltimore Colts teams led by John Unitas and Gino Marchetti featured high-quality African-American players such as Lenny Moore, Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, and Jim Parker. I remain convinced, though, that the real breakthrough from the old shibboleths and prejudices began in 1966, when Frank Robinson arrived on a Baltimore team whose undisputed star was that other Robinson, Brooks, a white southerner who had grown up in Little Rock, Ark., in the days when the U.S. Army came to town to enforce the Supreme Court's desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

It could have been tense. It wasn't. Brooks, the classic gentleman who had been American League MVP in 1964, and Frank, the fiery rebel against convention who would later break a color line and become MLB's first African-American manager, quickly became friends and allies, even kidding each other and the press about then-standard racial stereotypes and taboos. (If memory serves, Frank once deflected an impertinent reporter's question about clubhouse etiquette by saying that Brooks could borrow his used shower towels whenever he wanted; Brooks howled in laughter.) Moreover, Brooks's acknowledgment of Frank's kangaroo-court leadership sent a signal to any malcontent or bigot tempted to resent the fact that the new team leader was a proudly black man: Insubordination was out of the question. These two men -- one a titanic Beethoven, the other a graceful Haydn -- set an example of unity in diversity in the pursuit of common goals from which Baltimore (and the rest of America, for that matter) is still trying to learn.

Posted by at February 9, 2019 12:06 PM

  

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