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Remembering Baseball Hall Of Famer Frank Robinson

Feb 8, 2019
Originally published on February 13, 2019 9:26 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Baseball pioneer Frank Robinson, who notched major achievements in Major League Baseball as both a player and manager, died yesterday at age 83. On the field, he was the first pro baseball athlete to win the most valuable player award in both the American and National Leagues. When he retired from playing, he had 586 home runs to his credit, putting him fourth in line behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. In 1975, he became the first African-American to manage a major league baseball team - the Cleveland Indians.

Terry Gross interviewed Frank Robinson in 1988, weeks after he became manager of the Baltimore Orioles. She asked him about a baseball controversy from the previous year, when Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President Al Campanis, during a 1987 appearance on ABC's "Nightline," made some remarks suggesting that African-Americans in baseball were incapable of becoming effective major league managers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANK ROBINSON: Finally, with the problem out in the open - Al Campanis making that statement that - a lot of us had been saying for years the problem existed. And the people in baseball said it did not exist. And finally, the closet door was opened by someone on the inside. And this dreadful secret had been exposed. Since Jackie Robinson broke the barrier as a player, how many - no one until 1975 was offered a job to manage a major league ball club. But, I mean, the minority are black. And you can't tell me up until that time there were no other qualified blacks to manage in the major leagues.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: I think the first person in a situation like that is going to be looked at as an example, and it's quite a responsibility to have. And it could be very inhibiting.

ROBINSON: Well, I - it's no doubt about it, Terry. I went through that when I was a manager of the Cleveland Indians. Just take, for example, opening day. And I put myself in the lineup, and I don't know why. But I was on deck. I was the second hitter in the lineup, and there had to be 50 cameramen standing there snapping my picture. And I had to climb over them to try to get to the batter's box. Everything that I did that year was recorded and reported. And every move that I made, everyone was second-guessing. And if it didn't turn out right, they were saying I should've done something else. If it turned out right, you know, it was still, well, he might have been lucky doing that. Sure, I knew that.

And I knew that I would be judged, and other minorities would be judged by what I did and how I performed. But I couldn't worry about that. I just had to go out and do the best job I possibly could do. And if the players performed the way they were capable of performing, I knew that we would have a good year. And if they didn't, I knew we'd have a bad year. It's simple as that.

GROSS: Well, you had a lot of difficult adjustments to make going from playing to managing. And you write in your book that one of the most difficult adjustments was actually learning to work with pitchers because you'd hated pitchers so much as a batter yourself.

ROBINSON: Well, that's true. I think that's the most delicate part, I think, of managing other than dealing with the press is handling pitchers. And a lot of people think that, other than an ex-pitcher, managers don't handle pitchers very well because they don't know how they think. They don't know how they really act. They don't know how they feel. But I think that's an art. It's a feel for your personnel. You get to know them. You know what happens to them when they get out of sync. You know what happens to them when they're on their game and when they start to lose it in the late innings, when he's starting to lose a little bit off his fastball or starting to lose his control. Each pitcher has his own little thing that tips you off by what he's starting to do in a ballgame if he's starting to lose his stuff.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your career as a player - quite an illustrious career. Now, you say in your book that you really didn't know anything about racism until you entered baseball in 1953. Was that your first exposure to segregation?

ROBINSON: Well, it certainly was. As I was growing up in Oakland, Calif., I certainly knew the difference in the color of my skin and some of my friends and neighbors and people who lived in the neighborhood. But those things never interfered with friendship and the relationship that I had with those people. And around my household, my mother, my brothers - color of other people's skins, racism, prejudice was never discussed. We treated everyone the same.

And when I entered baseball and couldn't go to a movie in Ogden, Utah, because of the color of my skin, I was really hurt very badly. And that was the first time I really have been away from home for any length of time. And also, you know, the area I had to live in - I had to live in the black area of the city. So that really bothered me. And the next year, it wasn't any better. I started in Tulsa, Okla., for eight ballgames, and I wound up in Columbia, S.C. And we had bus trips and things like that.

And it wasn't much better at all where you had to sit on the bus while the other players went into a restaurant to eat. And you had to - once you got to a - arrived at a city, you had to sit on the bus and wait for a cab to come from the black section of town to pick you up and take you back over there to go to the YMCA or private home to stay. So it was very, very hard on a young man from California that didn't grow up with those type of feelings - didn't really know anything about that to start out in baseball and find out about those things.

GROSS: Did you get any kind of support from management?

ROBINSON: Well, not really. You know, I guess they just felt like, hey, you signed on to do a job, and this is the job; and this is the conditions you have to play in, so go out and do your job.

GROSS: In the majors, you developed a reputation for being a very aggressive player. One of the things you became known for was sliding into second with your spikes up and frequently knocking into the second baseman. What were your guidelines there? You say your ethic was win any way you can win within the rules. What were your kind of guidelines in your own head about how to slide into second and to be intimidating but not to take that too far?

ROBINSON: Well, Terry, I'll tell you. I never slid into a base to intentionally hurt anyone, but I had a job to do. And my job was to try to break up the double play any way I possibly could do that. That's the way I was taught how to play the game when I was a kid. And that's the way I played the game throughout my playing career.

Now, I never really, in my heart, went in with my spikes what I call high. But as people might know from the old days, as we say it, all shoes - baseball shoes in those days had metal spikes on the bottom of them. And when I slid into the base, naturally, those spikes were facing the infielder, the shortstop or the second baseman or whoever. And if it happened to come in contact with their body, the possibility of being - them being cut was there. And on occasions, it did happen. And just players thought that I was a little - maybe a little vicious. But I was never vicious as far as my plan was concerned as far as sliding into bases.

You know, I was injured also with spikes. A slide into second, I missed the second - a shortstop. He went up in the air. He came down on my arm and gave me 30 stitches in my bicep. And the doctor said if it had been half an inch lower, my career would've been over. But I didn't worry about it. I just had it stitched up and came back in 10 days and played.

GROSS: Well, if you ended up spiking a player as you were sliding into second, would there be a payback later in the game?

ROBINSON: Well, the possibility was there. The next time I was up at home plate, the possibility of being hit in the ribs, hit in the head was there. But I never let that bother me. I went up to home plate and didn't worry about it. Also, the possibility that next time I was going down to second base - if the second baseman or shortstop got the ball in time before I had a chance to slide, the possibility they're going to try to stick one between my eyes. But I didn't worry about that either. That was all part of the game, and I knew that. And I knew the price that you may have to - might have to pay going into a base if that did happen.

GROSS: Let's stay at home plate for a minute. You also used to crowd the plate a lot as a hitter. Explain the strategy of that - of standing really close to the plate when you're batting.

ROBINSON: Well, I changed my stance when I came to the major leagues. I moved right up on top of the plate. And I bent over at the waist and just stuck my elbows out over the inner part of the plate. And the strategy in that was to take the outside part of the plate away from the pitchers. And I didn't want to give them the outside part of the plate because that's the biggest part of the plate, and I thought they couldn't - more consistently make their pitches out there, so that's why I did that.

GROSS: So it gives you certain advantages over the pitcher. On the other hand, it's a kind of dangerous position to take because you're more likely to get hit by a ball if you're that close to the plate.

ROBINSON: No, it's no doubt about it. I was hit 198 times.

GROSS: Is that a record?

ROBINSON: It was for a while until Ron Hunt came along, and he upped the record to 250 times.

GROSS: Wow (laughter).

ROBINSON: And now Don Baylor has it going - it's close to 300 times right now and counting. But, you know, that was all part of the game. I would be thrown at, knocked down, whatever. And you would get up and just do damage to the pitcher with the bat. And that's the only way I looked at it. And I didn't really worry about it - long as I didn't feel like a pitcher was throwing at my head intentionally.

GROSS: What were your tricks for getting out of the way of the ball?

ROBINSON: Recognizing the pitch right away, knowing that it's a fastball rather than a curveball. And certainly if a fastball is up and in, you better get down real quick. And we were taught to roll our front part of our body back towards the screen. In other words, you roll your front shoulder back, and hopefully - and pull your - tuck your head down and into your body to protect your head and face so the ball would hit you in the meaty part of your back so you wouldn't be hurt very seriously.

GROSS: You have said that when a pitcher threw intentionally at a player on your team, that you would tell your pitcher to try to reciprocate in some way.

ROBINSON: Well, at times. If I thought they were doing it intentionally because a hitter had been hot and been hitting the ball pretty good against that pitcher or that ballclub, I have at times early in my career as a manager said to our pitchers, I want you to hit this guy on the knee. I have never said in the head or anything like that. I always made the target lower, than - that I thought maybe the pitcher might aim at.

So I always said, hit this guy on the knee. But I can honestly say I can't remember any pitcher really going out there and doing that. I had some that try to do it. They threw the ball back to the backstop. They hit the screen. They threw the ball in the dirt and missed the player by three or four feet, but I can't really remember a pitcher really after I told him to do that going out there and doing it.

GROSS: Is there a moment in your career that you think of as your greatest moment in baseball?

ROBINSON: I think one of the things that really turned my career around was being traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

GROSS: It's the team that - it's the team in your book that you describe as the only team when you were a player where the black players and the white players hung out together.

ROBINSON: Well, that's true. At Cincinnati, I was treated very well at the ballpark and on the field and around the players when we were together on the road and everything like that. But once we were away from the ballpark, you know, we didn't - the togetherness, it wasn't there. But at Baltimore, it was just a real great atmosphere and a real good feeling among the players from the time that I stepped on the field in Miami, Fla. It was the first spring training game that we had and the first intrasquad game. The first time I stepped on the field, that feeling was just there. It was like a family affair, and there was a togetherness and closeness among all the players. No one was treated any differently than anyone else.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your career as a player and a manager. It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

ROBINSON: Well, thank you for having me on, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Major League Baseball player and manager Frank Robinson speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. He died yesterday at age 83. Coming up, critic at large John Powers reviews "Everybody Knows," a new film starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. This is FRESH AIR.

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