When you’re 7 years old, time stretches like an endless rubber band, and the sun burns a brighter yellow than it ever will again, and the mind teeters between truth and magic. I was 7 years old when Frank Robinson first crossed my consciousness.
And, in the moments after hearing about his death, at age 83, I think about Mr. Robinson the way I saw him then.
In October 1974, the Cleveland Indians hired Frank Robinson to be the first black manager in Major League Baseball history. The world felt like a blur. All of these strange and overwhelming things seemed to be happening across America. The President of the United States had resigned two months earlier, and Ali beat Foreman one month later, Vietnam was lost and very much in the air.
That was the year that Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth; I recall seeing a cardboard cutout of Hank when my parents dragged me to a Sherwin Williams paint store.
That was the year that some promotional genius in the Cleveland organization came up with 10 cent beer night.
Ultra-famous people didn’t even seem like people. Elvis was more idea than man. I can remember, right around that time, telling people that when I grew up I wanted to be the President or Elvis.
And I remember the moment when my father told me that Cleveland had hired the first black manager ever and that Frank Robinson was one heck of a man. I remember how proud Dad looked that Cleveland, our Cleveland, was where this bit of wonderful American history had happened.
And I remember how he said the name: “Frank Robinson.” There were certain ballplayers whom my father would talk about with a touch of wonder in his voice, wonder that stays with me even now. Brooks Robinson was one of those players he talked about like that. Frank Howard was one of those players. Sandy Koufax was one of those players. Hank Aaron, of course. Willie Mays, of course.
I didn’t know any of their stats, that would come later, but there was a larger-than-life tone that stayed with me. “Frank Robinson,” he would say in that thick accent that people always misidentify as Greek, and I knew that this was a person who mattered.
And so I loved Frank Robinson before knowing a single thing about him.
The next year, 1975, happened to be the first year I collected baseball cards. Those beautiful, psychedelic, disco cards from ’75 remain my favorite of all the sets, and in my first or second pack, I got a Frank Robinson card. I loved that card so much, I kept it under my pillow when I slept. I can close my eyes and still see it, purple and yellow on top, pink on the bottom. The photo was a bland headshot of Robby, and he wore the Crooked C hat. He had this bemused look on his face, not a smile, not a frown, just something in between, something that said, “I’ve done a few things.”
And the back was a fireworks celebration of numbers, a dazzling symphony of stats that were only beginning to make sense to me — .323 and 49 and .342 and 136 and 124 and 38 and .311.
And there was the little trivia question on the top.
“Name the only player-manager?”
Despite the odd punctuation, I knew enough to flip the card upside down to read the answer.
He was ferocious. That much was clear. We heard the adults talk about him in that secretive, “This might be too intense for the kids” sort of way. They talked about how he smashed into shortstops on double-play ground balls, about how he hovered over the plate and dared pitchers to hit him, and how “If I was a pitcher, I sure wouldn’t hit Frank Robinson.”
We took it from there. At school, kids started telling Frank Robinson stories, and being 7 and 8 years old, the stories began to morph into something bigger, weirder, something a bit ridiculous, sort of a 1970s version of Chuck Norris stories. Who would win a fight between Superman and Frank Robinson?
Robby — and everyone seemed to call him Robby — put himself into the game on Opening Day and hit a home run. Well, sure he did. We thought he would hit a home run every single time he put himself in the game.
What do you know about history when you’re 7 or 8 years old? Nothing. You have no sense of time. I would find out this absurdity later in life, when we had our own girls and they seemed to know no difference at all between history from my lifetime (Watergate, Challenger crash, even 9/11) and stuff that happened long before I was born (World War II, Lincoln assassination, Charlemagne).
I know that in 1975, Jackie Robinson was ancient history, stuff you read about in books, even though he had retired less than two decades before, even though he had only died a couple of years earlier (with his last public wish to be there when finally a black manager was hired). Rachel Robinson was there for Frank on Opening Day, and I remember thinking it was amazing that she was still alive. She was the same age then that I am now.
And so it didn’t occur to me at all that Frank Robinson was not just a product of Jackie Robinson’s fight, he was very much a part of that fight. It’s too easy to see the world as pre-Jackie and post-Jackie. Frank Robinson began in professional baseball in 1953, before Brown vs. Board of Education, before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, before the Yankees signed their first black ballplayer. He began in Utah and was treated as something less than a man. He still hit .348 and bashed 17 homers in 72 games and got himself the hell out of there.
He went to South Carolina and was treated as something less than a man. He still hit .336 and slugged almost .600 and eventually got himself the hell out of there too (though the Reds for some reason put him back in Columbia in 1955).
When Robby was 20, he went to Cincinnati and won the Rookie of the Year award and became the first black baseball star in that half-Southern, half-Northern town built around baseball. Later, he was famously traded to Baltimore, and though it was 1966, long after Jackie, he was still the first African-American star to play with the Orioles (Bob Boyd had been the closest thing).
In fact, Robby worried how his teammates would accept a black man, worried until his fellow Robinson, Brooks, an Arkansan, pulled him aside and said, “I think you’re exactly what this team needs.”
Robby won the Triple Crown and the Orioles swept the Dodgers in the World Series.
I knew none of this and yet, as such things go, I picked up the feeling of it all simply by the way Frank Robinson carried himself, the way he talked, the toughness he exuded. “I wasn’t going to let them win,” he told me many years later, and I don’t even remember the context, don’t even remember who “they” were, but with Frank Robinson, it didn’t matter. Pitchers, critics, racists, Frank Robinson wasn’t going to let ANY of them win.
I saw him up close once in 1975. My father took us to a game, and for once we got great seats, probably 20 rows up behind the Cleveland dugout. I don’t know why we always got such lousy seats for Cleveland games, considering the Tribe was drawing mice in those days, but we usually sat in some far off seat blocked by a steel beam. That game, though, we were close enough to the field that I was able to go down to the railing before the game and ask for autographs.
And then I saw Frank Robinson. He stood no more than 15 feet away. He was, in my memory, wearing the ridiculous all-red uniform, the one that could make players look a bit like jalapeño peppers, but somehow he looked ferocious in it. I was much too scared to ask him for an autograph, which was a good thing because as I recall, he didn’t look in the mood to give any out. But I just looked at him. That was enough. He stood in place for a few seconds, and I just stared at this superhero, and I felt a bit like a bird watcher must feel when coming across a rare beauty. I just wanted him to stand there for a little longer so I could see him.
Then he walked away, but what stays with me for more than 40 years is that even walking away, Frank Robinson seemed bigger and brighter than the yellow sun.