Baseball Trailblazer Frank Robinson Dies At 83

Feb 7, 2019
Originally published on February 7, 2019 11:51 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Baseball great Frank Robinson died today at the age of 83. Robinson as a player was amazing. He was the first to win MVP in both leagues.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Looks to check Powell (ph) at first - delivers. Fly ball well hit deep left field. It is going to be the 500th home run of the brilliant Major League career. Frank Robinson has done it.

KELLY: And he wasn't done there. Robinson retired with 586 home runs. In 1982, he was voted into the Hall of Fame. As a manager and baseball executive, Robinson was also a pioneer. In 1975, he was the first African-American manager in Major League history. He won American League Manager of the Year in 1989, and he managed in more than 2,000 games. Joining me to talk about the career and legacy of Frank Robinson is Richard Justice, columnist for mlb.com. Richard, welcome back.

RICHARD JUSTICE: Hey, Mary Louise. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Hey. Glad to have you with us. I just ticked through some of the highlights of Robinson's long resume. What was he like as a person?

JUSTICE: Well, first of all, there's no discussion of baseball's greatest players without Frank. There's no discussion of its most important figures without Frank. He could be one of the hardest-nosed people you'll ever meet. When he was a player in Baltimore, six years in Baltimore, four American League pennants. He shaped a lot of what people think of as the smartest, most efficient franchise. One of his teammates, Elrod Hendricks, told me, when you made a mistake on the field, you were afraid to come back to the dugout because you had to face Frank. And that was his legacy.

Historically, 1975 - first African-American manager. That happened three years after Jackie Robinson died. And in the same way that Jackie Robinson cleared the way for a generation of players, Frank cleared the way for other minority managers. I have seen him - as a player, he would leave bloody spike marks on a second baseman's back because the pitcher had thrown inside. I have seen him in cancer wards with kids break down and cry and have to leave. That's who Frank was.

He had - when he walked into a room, he had these big forearms, big hands. He had a presence about him. He's one of those people - you've met them - that when they walk into a room, they own the room. That was Frank.

KELLY: You wrote about him for decades as a baseball writer. What's your favorite Frank Robinson story?

JUSTICE: (Laughter) Well, my favorite story is the Orioles are 0-18. He had gotten the job - managerial job when they were 0-6. Well, on an off night in Minneapolis, he takes a group of us out to dinner. And it was getting World Series-like coverage that - at that stretch. We said to him, Frank, anything happened since we saw you at the ballpark? And he said, well, President Reagan called. We said, Frank, don't joke about that. He said - well, what did he say? He said, Frank, I understand what you're going through. And Frank said to him, Mr. President, with all due respect, you have no bleeping idea.

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KELLY: And it sounds like he was the kind of guy who could get away with talking like that to a president.

JUSTICE: Absolutely.

KELLY: It is extraordinary your mentioning him just in the moments we have left, both, you know, as a player who left such a mark on the field and then leaving an extraordinary legacy as a manager. Not many athletes get the chance to do both.

JUSTICE: No. And he understood the importance of it. He understood that day in 1975 when he stood - when he took the lineup card out to home plate in Cleveland that he had changed the world. He was cognizant of that just the way he admired Jackie Robinson for what he did. He understood his place in the game.

KELLY: Richard Justice, columnist for mlb.com, thank you.

JUSTICE: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: We've been talking about baseball great Frank Robinson, who died this morning at the age of 83. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.