Frank Robinson’s death Thursday at age 83 prompted countless tributes and inspired an outpouring of memories about the baseball legend, many of them about his no-nonsense, even ornery, demeanor. There were also tales of a different side of the Hall of Famer, including from the times he wore a mop on his head as the self-proclaimed judge of the Baltimore Orioles’ kangaroo court.
Late Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver recalled the origin of Robinson’s role as the Orioles’ clubhouse arbiter in a 1982 essay for the New York Times:
Right after the ‘69 All-Star break, with the team comfortably in first place, the players decided to mete out a series of dollar fines for any indiscretion as long as the man who brought the charge had a witness to to support it.
Naturally the judge was Frank Robinson, who got himself a mop for a judicial wig. He presided and ruled on cases, no more than three of which were heard on a single night. But all charges went on the calendar and were heard eventually when the court was in session. That was only after victories, of course. Anyone who couldn’t prove the charge he brought had to pay the fine.
Earl Weaver for the New York Times, Aug. 1, 1982
According to Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, finable offenses included everything from failing to score a runner on third base with less than two outs to fraternizing with members of the opposing team.
“We had a great time, and we had a really close team,” Robinson told Baltimore’s 105.7 The Fan on Thursday. "Frank was a hard guy to get to know, believe me, but he mellowed out, and I think everyone who met him enjoyed being with him. He was just a great friend.”
Frank Robinson, who led the 1969 Orioles to 109 wins and a trip to the World Series, where they lost to the Amazin’ Mets, would refer to himself as “Da Judge” when court was in session, a reference to a recurring sketch on the TV comedy series “Laugh In."
“We did it only after a win because people tend to be more open to that type of thing in those situations,” he told The Post’s Richard Justice after replacing Cal Ripken Sr. as Baltimore’s manager in April 1988. “We’d come in, get a sandwich and a drink and relax a little bit. And we’d bring up whatever mistakes were made. If a guy hadn’t hit a cutoff man the night before, he’d hear about it. If he hadn’t taken an extra base, he’d hear about it. People sometimes got the purpose confused. It wasn’t to bully people. It was to get them to thinking about the game.”
“If you made a mistake, you didn’t want to have to come in the clubhouse and hear about it," said the late Elrod Hendricks, a catcher on the Orioles’ 1969 squad and Baltimore’s longtime bullpen coach. "So, yes, it made you concentrate.”
“He was the judge and jury," Robinson’s Orioles teammate and fellow former Nationals manager Davey Johnson told MLB Network. “I kneeled down in front of him a couple times, because he was on me all the time. Begging for mercy. He was the king, but he initiated this stuff to keep us all trying to do our best. It was fun. . . . It was amazing when he put that wig on and was up there."
In addition to hearing cases, Robinson doled out postgame awards, including some the team named after Orioles players. The Chico Salmon No-Touch Trophy went to the teammate who made the worst fielding blunder. The John Mason Baserunning Award, an orange shoe, was given to the player who had the biggest mishap on the base paths.
No one was above the law in Robinson’s court, not even Weaver.
“I was among the first — and most consistently — fined because my coaches ganged up on me,” Weaver wrote in the New York Times. “In a doubleheader in Cleveland, I rested Mark Belanger in one game, then put him in for defense in late innings. Mark made two errors. In the clubhouse afterward, the kangaroo court was called to order, and Billy Hunter stood up and said: ‘Your honor, I’d like to charge Earl Weaver with misguided managing. He sent in Belanger for defense, and Mark made two errors.’ ”
The players in the clubhouse were shouting “Guilty!” even before Hunter called his witnesses.
“Earl Weaver, how do you plead?” Robinson asked.
“Guilty as charged, and I’ll pay the fine,” Weaver replied.
On Aug. 13, 1969, four days after he was activated from the disabled list, Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer threw a no-hitter against the Athletics at Memorial Stadium. In the clubhouse afterward, Orioles coach Charley Lau took the team’s kangaroo court to a new level of absurdity by taping the head of a mop to a catcher’s plastic skull cap and giving it to Robinson to wear.
As Palmer chatted with teammates about his no-hitter on the other side of the room, Robinson banged on his locker with a bat to announce court was in session.
“The misdemeanors were dispensed with first,” the Baltimore Sun’s Doug Brown reported. “Eddie Watt had been detected fooling with the grounds crew’s tractor before the game and was assessed $1. Andy Etchebarren was spotted in the A’s dugout. Dave May threw a clubhouse boy in the whirlpool. Don Buford was talking to a girl in the stands. A buck apiece.”
Paul Blair received the Weak Swing Award for a seventh-inning pop-up and the No-Touch Trophy for dropping a ball in the third inning, Brown reported. The John Mason Baserunning Award went to Palmer, who was thrown out while trying to score from second base on a single.
Lau, who served as the court’s treasurer, collected $11 that night. The Orioles originally planned to use all of the money collected for a late-season party, but Robinson announced a week later that the fines, which already totaled more than $600, would be donated toward the educational fund for Reds catcher Pat Corrales’s four children. Corrales’s wife, Sharon, had died in childbirth a month earlier.
Former Orioles batboy Jay Mazzone, who had metal hooks attached to his limbs after his hands were amputated when he was 2, recently told the Associated Press about the time “Da Judge” helped make him feel more welcomed by other players in the clubhouse.
“He was running his kangaroo court and calling a vote among the players, whether to fine somebody or not," Mazzone said. "It was either thumbs up or thumbs down. After the vote, he said, ‘Jay, you’re fined for not voting.’ Everybody laughed. After that, I was treated just like everybody else.”
The Orioles’ kangaroo court wasn’t universally loved. Reporters typically weren’t allowed into the clubhouse until court was adjourned.
“Most of the time, it didn’t last five minutes,” Orioles slugger Boog Powell told 105.7 The Fan on Thursday. "Sometimes the writers and some of the media got upset because we kept them out and they had deadlines to meet, but this came first.”
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