Every time I think about what Frank Robinson could have done to me during the worst moment of my life as a sports journalist, I get emotional.
He could have crushed me.
He could have humiliated me in ways I couldn’t have possibly imagined, and it would have destroyed my confidence, maybe my career.
Instead, this frequently rough but secretly gentle soul made everything so right 37 years ago, and I'm just shy of tears right now over that memory, along with the death today of the man who was greater than you think among the all-time important baseball people.
The man also was wonderfully complex.
Trust me. I know. I covered the San Francisco Giants for the San Francisco Examiner in 1981, when Frank became the first black manager in the National League after he broke the color barrier overall in that category six years earlier with the Cleveland Indians. This was the same Frank who got into a fistfight during a game with future Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves during the early 1960s when Frank was the notoriously hotheaded star of the Cincinnati Reds. Throughout much of his 83 years on earth, he could threaten to bite your head off, spit the leftovers at your feet and dare you to say something about it. He also could become as eloquent as anybody on everything from the art of hitting behind a runner to how diversity can happen throughout America in general and baseball in particular.
I said "people" in my second paragraph, because only historians will give Robinson his due as a player, a manager, an administrator and a trailblazer in Major League Baseball.
As a player: Long before The Steroid Era complicated baseball's record book, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays spent decades as The Big Three in career home runs. It should’ve been The Big Four, because Robinson always was there with his total of 586. Not only that, but after 149 years of professional baseball, he’s among just 17 winners of the Triple Crown as a league leader for a season in home runs, batting average and RBIs. He’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, of course, and he did enough to reach Cooperstown as a member of both the Reds and the Baltimore Orioles. He grabbed Most Valuable Player honors in both the National and American leagues, the NL Rookie of the Year award, two World Series rings and a Gold Glove.
As a manager: Following the Indians and the Giants, Frank ran the Orioles and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, and all of those franchises had something in common when he took them over: They were brutal. Even so, he won the AL Manager of the Year Award with the Orioles in 1989, and he could have taken NL honors in 1982 with the Giants.
As an administrator: When Robinson ended his managerial career with the Nationals following the 2006 season, he became baseball’s Dean of Discipline and later a key advisor to former Commissioner Bud Selig and to current Commissioner Rob Manfred.
As a trailblazer: See above.
Now here’s my primary story, but it starts with this one.
The 1981 Giants were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers, their archrivals, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco during Robinson’s first week managing the team, and he held a closed-door meeting. It was LOUD. When the clubhouse doors opened, players sat at their cubicles, studying the floor, and I joined nearly a dozen other reporters in a death march to the manager’s office. There was Frank, sitting behind his desk, shooting daggers our way with puffy cheeks and daring somebody to ask a question.
A few of my colleagues bolted, then a few more. Then I thought about what I learned a few years earlier while covering Bob Knight and Indiana University basketball for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Your opening question doesn’t matter in these situations when dealing with an explosive coach or manager.
That coach or manager will explode no matter what.
Which is what Frank did after I asked as strongly as possible, “So what was your meeting about behind closed doors?”
Frank rose in a hurry from his desk, and he approached me as if he were arguing with an umpire after an awful call before he shouted through a crazed look, “If I wanted to invite you to the (bleep) meeting, I would have invited you. What kind of (bleep) question is that?”
More reporters departed.
After Frank slowly returned to his desk, he glared in my direction again, but I asked the same question. He answered calmly, as I tried not to let him see me sweating from the top of my head through the souls of my shoes.
Frank was rather combustible, alright, and it went beyond reporters. Following a bad game later that season in San Diego, I walked into the visiting manager’s office at Jack Murphy Stadium to find things either broken or reorganized around the room following another Frank Rage. I can't remember the exact issue at the time, but he often got into shouting matches with players, and he wasn’t exactly the best friend of umpires.
None of those things triggered my sweat glands after that first week, because I knew the formula for handling Frank: Hang in there! By the end of his first year with the Giants, I had more than a few deep conversations with one of the legend of legends in clubhouses, in dugouts and in hotel lobbies. It always was professional, and that’s the side of Frank that rarely was mentioned through the years: In so many ways, he was the consummate professional.
We’re back to that 37-year-old memory . . .
First, you need to know I grew up during the late 1960s as a diehard Reds fan after we moved from South Bend, Ind., to Cincinnati. By then, Frank had departed the Reds for the Orioles, and the Reds proceeded to form the greatest baseball team ever called the Big Red Machine. Within a week after I graduated from Miami (Ohio) University in 1978 up the road from Cincinnati, I was hired by the Cincinnati Enquirer as a backup writer covering those Reds. Two years later, I was the Giants beat writer in San Francisco.
Which brings us to that memory, which happened during Frank’s second year managing the Giants in 1982, when they spent that June playing a doubleheader in Cincinnati. After I arrived at Riverfront Stadium for the opener, I was treated by everybody as their favorite son. The ushers. The security guards. The groundskeepers. The reporters I left behind. The little old lady who made sandwiches in the press box.
During the first of those two games, my mind began to drift. I thought about how I sat in those same stands cheering the Reds. I thought about how it wasn’t that long ago I was writing for the college newspaper.
Then that first game ended. I was the only San Francisco writer who headed for the Giants clubhouse between games. The long-time elevator operator told me that I made him proud, because he said, “I remember when you first came down here from Miami (Ohio) for your first day as an intern in 1977.” I thanked him, then I hustled down the hallway for interviews.
Just before I opened the door to the Giants clubhouse, several things hit me like a line drive to the jaw, and I hadn't such thoughts in my previous four years working for a major newspaper.
This is huge! I’m covering the team of the two Willies (Mays and McCovey), Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry.
What am I doing here?
Oh, no. I’m the only reporter going into the clubhouse (which is something I normally relished since I loved exclusives, but this was different).
Frank is going to bite my head off!
When I walked into the visiting manager’s office, Frank was sitting behind the desk, looking as ominous as he did in 1981 after that closed-door meeting during his first week with the Giants.
I sat in front of Frank, and I froze.
I was overwhelmed.
Everything hit me at once, from the accolades I was receiving around Riverfront Stadium to the memories of my obsession with the Reds as a youth to working for one of the most famous newspapers in the world to covering THE GIANTS to preparing my 20-something mouth for a back-and-forth with a Baseball Hall of Famer to knowing I wasn’t prepared on this day to spar with Frank.
So I just sat there, trying not to cry, knowing this wasn’t going to end well, particularly since Frank began rolling his finger in a circle as if to say, “Are you going to ask me something or not?”
I couldn’t speak.
Then, out of nowhere, Frank leaned forward with the ultimate look of compassion and said, “Open your notebook,” and he began talking in soft tones about what he thought about the game. He answered every question I wanted to ask but couldn’t. He spoke non-stop with depth and feeling as I scribbled, while nodding and turning the pages of my notebook, and then he said with almost a whisper at the end, “Do you need anything else?”
After I shook my head, Frank smiled and led me to the door.
I spoke with Frank plenty of times over the decades since then, and I always wanted to thank him for sensing what I was going through. Each time I got ready to say, “Frank, do you remember . . . ,” it was if he knew where I was going, and he would change the subject.
Still, even in death, it’s not too late for me to say what I’ve always wanted to say to Frank regarding everything.