He was 69 when he came here, his baseball legacy so secure he could have rocked away the days on the porch and never had anyone question his accomplishments. Back then, in 2005, the only names ahead of him on the all-time home run list were Aaron, Ruth, Bonds and Mays. Think about the history Frank Robinson saw and the history Frank Robinson made even before he jogged across the RFK Stadium sod in the gleaming home white uniform of the Washington Nationals to hand in the District’s first lineup card in a generation.
“I feel,” he said that spring, “like I have something to give to the game.”
What he gave in those last two seasons in uniform, though, wasn’t as much to the game as it was to the District. Baseball’s absence defined Washington as a sporting town for 33 years. Its comeback was defined by Robinson, who died Thursday at 83.
The first time I met Robinson was in December 2004 at baseball’s winter meetings, held that year in Anaheim, Calif. We stood in a hallway, and I was nervous, the new beat writer with no baseball experience somehow tasked with covering Washington’s new major league team — a team that had a Hall of Famer at the helm. I fumbled and said something stupid, something like, “We’ll have a fun back-and-forth.” I meant to show I understood beat writers and managers often coexisted through disagreement.
Frank just glared.
“We will, will we?” Frank said.
This relationship, it was clear from the first 30 seconds, would be on Frank’s terms. I’ll never forget the handshake that followed. He was 69, and had he chosen to crush every bone in every finger I had, he could have without really trying. His right hand all but obscured mine, and you could see the power he still had in his forearms, feel the strength in his grip. I remember thinking when he let go, “Damn, those could still hold a bat.” Nearly 30 years after his playing career, there was no mystery as to how he hit 586 homers.
The 2005 and 2006 seasons for the Nationals were such a small sliver of Robinson’s career. Twenty-one years as a player. Parts of 16 as a manager, including two when he still played. Rookie of the year with Cincinnati. MVP awards in both leagues. The Triple Crown with the 1966 Orioles, who swept to a World Series title. The game’s first African American manager. After all that, Washington seems like a coda.
But in those two years, as the nation’s capital reacquainted itself with the national pastime, it did so largely through the Nationals’ septuagenarian manager. By that point in his full life, Robinson was so many things: gruff but caring, competitive but quiet, accomplished but unfulfilled. And he was proud. Man, was he proud.
My job, as The Washington Post’s beat writer, was to get to know him. Good luck.
“No one knows me,” he told me later in that first season, just when I thought I was starting to get a handle. “Hell, my wife doesn’t really know me. I’ve got a circle around me, and I decide how close to let you. I laugh when I hear someone say, ‘Well, I know Frank.’ Hell no, you don’t.”
It sounded angry. But I later learned, Frank wasn’t angry. He was, of all things, shy.
That admission came in May of that 2005 season. Not to over-romanticize, but that is essentially my favorite baseball season played by any baseball team ever. I sat with Frank in the visiting manager’s office at the previous iteration of Busch Stadium in St. Louis, talking not about that year’s team — which was fascinating — but about Frank’s life for a book I ended up writing on baseball’s return to the District. There was a point when I expected all conversations with Frank to be perfunctory and confrontational. This was sprawling and deep.
“I’m not sunny,” Frank said. “I’m a quiet, kind of withdrawn person. I don’t mix easily with people. I don’t meet new people easily.”
There were roots to that. Robinson grew up in Oakland the son of a single mother charged with raising 10 kids. Like so many kids, he found sanctuary in sports. A teammate on the basketball team at McClymonds High was none other than Bill Russell. He played baseball with Vada Pinson and Curt Flood, future big leaguers. But in a lot of ways, the circle he drew around himself wasn’t erected until after he began playing minor league ball as a 17-year-old in the Reds’ system.
In 1954, he was assigned to Columbia, S.C., Class A. He traveled to all those towns across the South — Macon and Montgomery and everywhere in between. And he learned what it meant to be a black man in the American South in the 1950s. When his teammates checked into their hotel, he tried to find a YMCA that might let him spend the night. One night, he ended a home game by grounding out, and he heard an array of epithets from the crowd as he ran down the right field line. His instinct was to go into the crowd and pop the people. His teammates caught him first.
“I would’ve been jailed in Columbia, S.C., a black man in 1955,” he told me. “What do you think my chances would’ve been?”
So forgive him if he drew that circle around himself and kept it in place for decades. Those experiences had to inform who he was when he arrived in Washington a half-century later. Maybe — maybe — he was slowing down. Truth be told, he wasn’t a very good manager in the way you think of the job now. But those Nationals, they were Frank’s from the moment spring training opened. And it was Frank who served as the emcee for a summerlong celebration of baseball returning.
Remember that June night in Anaheim, when the Nats were in first place and Jose Guillen, the bitter former Angel, warned Robinson that reliever Brendan Donnelly put pine tar on his glove? Donnelly was tossed before he ever threw a pitch. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia stomped over to Robinson and said he would have the umpires undress every one of his relievers upon entry into the game.
And then Frank, 69, walked after Scioscia, 46. He got in his face. He pointed with his finger. He would not back down. My god, that was fun.
“Let me tell you this,” Frank said the next day. “If people let me intimidate them, then I’ll intimidate them. But I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me. I am the intimidator.”
That day, my editor called saying there was interest from the A1 editors in a Frank profile. In that situation, you dismiss the obstacles and start chopping wood. I called Barbara Robinson, Frank’s wife. Frank had just been through eye surgery the week before. He had a surgically replaced hip. His 70th birthday was later that summer. Wasn’t it surprising he was essentially asking for a fistfight over a June baseball game?
“You know, it’s true; it should be,” Barbara said that day. “But he’s not your typical person.”
Over the course of that season, that was revealed in so many ways. In spring training, someone asked a question involving, as the reporter put it, “Hall of Famer Gary Carter.” Eh, Frank said, putting up his index finger as if to “shush.”
“He’s not a Hall of Famer,” he said. “He’s in the Hall of Fame.”
Think about that distinction for a minute. There wasn’t a lot of gray here. Frank knew he belonged in Cooperstown. But he also believed there were people in Cooperstown who should have been kept out. It fits, too, with Frank’s assessment of his place on the home run list. Barry Bonds had passed him during the 2002 season. But in Frank’s mind, he still trailed only Aaron, Ruth and Mays, because only those three had arrived at their totals cleanly. Frank might have been shy at his core, but that shyness evaporated if he was protecting his place in the game.
Frank liked to watch — and talk about — golf. He and his coaching staff brought their clubs on nearly every road trip. He almost invariably had the PGA Tour event on in his office after Sunday games, particularly if Tiger Woods was on the leader board. Golf talk became a nice, neutral common ground, a lens through which I hoped to get to know Frank. Late that summer, he invited me to join him and Tom McCraw, his buddy and the Nats’ hitting coach then, for a morning round at Langston Golf Course, the public track in Northeast Washington within sight of RFK Stadium, before all of us had to head to the ballpark to work that night’s game.
If I was nervous to meet Frank nine months earlier, I was about trembling on the first tee that morning. Frank didn’t take up golf until he was nearly 60, but he had taken lessons and essentially willed himself into being a decent player. I’ve played all my life and hope some day to be something other than terrible. In my mind — and maybe it was just in my mind — there was something at stake in what was, on the face of it, a casual round: my standing with Frank. I wanted to use the round to gain insight into Frank as a person, as a competitor. But if I played poorly, might he use it as a punchline and think less of me?
As I recall, Robinson and McCraw each hit his first tee shot down the fairway — straight. The pressure was on, and as I stood over the ball, I half-expected Frank to take out the needle. Instead, it was quiet. I swung, and luckily — and that’s all it was — I drove it straight, too.
“Good ball, Barry,” Frank said.
With that, the intimidator put me at ease. And you know what? I’ll forever believe it was intentional.
Man, what a summer. You couldn’t replicate the season of those first Nats if you tried: 50-31 to complete the first half in first place and on pace to win 100 games, 31-50 in the second half to fall to .500 and settle into last. What a ride. The baseball was compelling. But the people were more so.
There was a controversy that summer among the Nationals players about the distance markers on RFK’s fences. As balls the Nats thought they clobbered kept falling short of the wall, the players complained openly that they were mismarked. Clearly, the matter had hold of the conscience of the hitters.
So Thomas Boswell, the esteemed Post columnist and lifelong student of baseball, and I came up with a plan. I bought a 300-foot measuring tape at Frager’s Hardware on Capitol Hill, and early one afternoon, before the players showed up, Boz and I measured it ourselves (until team president Tony Tavares chased us off the field, but that’s another story).
Turns out, the players were right: The fences were farther from the plate than they purported to be. Boz and I were thrilled because we got a front-page story out of it. And as I talked to the players, they felt vindicated.
Frank? Frank was pissed. He called me into his office after the game the night before the story ran because the players had been buzzing about it in the dugout.
“You stirred up a &$%#@! hornet’s nest!” he thundered.
“But, Frank,” I protested, “that’s all anyone was talking about.”
“Yeah, well, it’s my job to get them to stop talking about it — and you made it harder,” he said. “Get out of here!”
So I did. But with Frank, if you worked, you were always welcomed back in. By the end of that season, Frank asked the three main beat writers who covered the team — Bill Ladson of MLB.com, Mark Zuckerman, then of the Washington Times, and me — to meet him in his office before the first game of the final homestand. None of us knew what he wanted. If I recall correctly, we half-wondered if he would tell us he was retiring.
Instead, what he wanted was to talk — about the season, about the relationship he had with each of us. He wanted to come back in 2006. He wanted us back, too.
You know what we had? We had a fun back-and-forth. Frank Robinson was one of the best baseball players who ever lived, and the history of the game can’t be told without him. But in his death, I’m reminded not of his athletic achievements. I’m reminded of that summer of 2005. I may or may not have truly known him. But I’ll remember Frank for all the things he let me see, a richness I couldn’t have imagined when his hand first engulfed mine.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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