The death of baseball legend Frank Robinson at the age of 83 has produced obituaries with common facts and themes, fitting for someone with such a sterling professional résumé. Robinson was a first ballot Hall of Famer. He remains the only player to have won Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues, for the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles. He hit 586 career home runs and he was an All-Star 14 times.
The remembrances have also marked Robinson’s time as a trailblazer, when he became the first Black manager in Major League Baseball history after taking over the Cleveland Indians in 1975. Through all of the recollections, it’s been made clear that this man was as tough as a three-dollar steak and could be ornery as anyone when there was a call for him to be “the intimidator.”
There is more to Robinson, though, than someone who carried himself with a fierce dignity on the field and then knocked down the doors into the Major League dugout. That can be seen in his last wishes, conveyed by Robinson’s family, that contributions in his memory be made to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis or the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
It can also be seen in the love and respect given by two of his legendary contemporaries, Henry Aaron and Robinson’s high school basketball teammate Bill Russell. Aaron remembered, “Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies. We were friends. Frank was a hard nosed baseball player who did things on the field that people said could never be done. I’m so glad I had the chance to know him all of those years. Baseball will miss a tremendous human being.”
As for Bill Russell, he tweeted, “Heartbreaking news in the passing of my Dear Friend & @McClymondsHS classmate Frank Robinson. It was my pleasure & great honor to have known him. We all know we lost one of the Greats, what we really lost was a Friend.”
There is another Robinson that I would want to recall—the Robinson from the April 27, 1987, issue of People magazine. He gave an interview after Los Angeles Dodgers team vice president Al Campanis appeared on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s (no relation to Frank) breaking the color barrier and integrating Major League Baseball. Instead of praising Jackie Robinson, Campanis had something else in mind. He chose to justify the fact that in 1987 there were zero black managers in the sport. He spoke about black players not having “the necessities” to be “field managers or general managers.” The reaction would be best described as shock, generated by hearing Campanis say out loud what many suspected was whispered behind closed doors. These sentiments were all too familiar to black players who had seen their coaching ambitions stymied after retirement. At this moment of shock and frustration, it was Frank Robinson who took to the pages of People magazine and was willing to speak a scalding truth to power. Robinson said:
Baseball has been hiding this ugly prejudice for years—that black aren’t smart enough to be managers or third-base coaches or part of the front office. There’s a belief that they’re fine when it comes to the physical part of the game, but if it involves brains they just can’t handle it. Al Campanis made people finally understand what goes on behind closed doors—that there is racism in baseball.
He then put the onus on players to speak out and fight for change, saying, “Young people say sports figures are their idols, and we have to conduct ourselves in such a manner that young people really can look up to us and model themselves after us. If we continue to allow this sort of racism to exist, we don’t deserve to be idolized.”
Frank Robinson also called out the hypocrisy of a league that celebrates Jackie Robinson while engaging in progress best described as “glacial.” He said:
If Jackie Robinson were alive and willing today, would the Lords of Baseball be likely to admit him to their ranks? No. He was too controversial—too honest. He’d create too many problems by speaking up and speaking out. White management doesn’t like black people to speak their minds. They like you to be seen and not heard. And Jackie Robinson wouldn’t put himself in that position.
Frank Robinson wouldn’t put himself in that position either. He went on to work inside Major League Baseball to fight for more hiring of Black and Latino candidates and to also manage again with the Orioles, Montreal Expos, and then the Washington Nationals. Frank Robinson was so much more than an athlete. He was a fighter, and we could use more like him in the sports world today.