By Arnie Leshin
Frank Robinson should be remembered as an elite Hall of Fame baseball player and a dedicated manager.
He should be remembered as the only player to be named Most Valuable Player in both the National and American Leagues, as one of the few to join the difficult triple crown field, win a World Series, and as the first African-American to manage a Major League team.
Now if I was writing a book, there would be even more praise, more recognition, for the man who passed away Thursday at the age of 83. He battled cancer just as he battled to be as super as he was.
Oh, and he did rightfully deserve the apologizes he received from New York Mets fans after that dismal day at Shea Stadium.
It was game three of the “Miracle Mets” surprisingmarch to the 1969 World Series, and it didn’t matter that the Baltimore Orioles had the superior team, there were Met fanatics around the globe who believed there was no stopping the once woe some basement tenants This was their unforgettable year.
And in the Orioles’ clubhouse, it was a veteran group that split the first two games in Baltimore. Their fearless manager, Earl Weaver, said they hoped to win it all over the next three days in the borough of Queens.
But there was the usual full house at Shea, and as the planes from nearby LaGuardia Airport flew over the stadium, Mets’ outfielder Cleon Jones thought he was hit in the foot by a pitch, but the home plate umpire didn’t agree and Jones was retired on a pop-up to second base for the first out in the bottom of the third inning.
But New York manager Gil Hodges begged to differ as he strolled out of the dugout with one of Jones’ shoes and pointed to the scuffmark on it. The crowd roared as the call was overturned and Jones made his way to first base. Then Weaver stormed out of his dugout and made enough of a fuss to become the first manger to be ejected from a World Series game.
In the top of the fourth, Robinson stepped to the plate and was certain a pitch had nicked him on the foot, and he went face-to-face with the home plate ump before striking out.
When he made his way to right field, he was obviously still upset, and Met fans got on his nerves as they booed and called him all sorts ofnames, some nasty. So he turned to the right field stands and flashed a finger, and that really got the crowd in an uproar.
In the clubhouse after the Mets won, he refused to speak about all this. Just went into the trainer’s room and disappeared.
I remember writing about the game and about the Robinson incident. I covered the National League and didn’t really see him play since he was with the Cincinnati Reds, his first team.
In fact, it was the pre 1981 World Series party at the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan when I next ran into him. He did an impressive job in his first season as manager of the San Francisco Giants, and was sitting alongside Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda.
I never mentioned that day a dozen years ago, just shook his hand and told him he did a masterful job with the Giants. He smiled, thanked me, even Lasorda thanked me, and I then joined the party.
Not long after, the New York Yankees headed to Hollywood after winning the first two games, so I wrote a nice column on Robinson, even offered my own apology. My headline rang out, “Here’s to you Mr. Robinson.”
On that day at Shea, frustration and the continued chattering of those Met fans, got to him, so he flashed a finger. Years later, I applauded him because he didn’t deserve the fans turning on him.
I covered professional baseball since 1967, my first year as the Mets’ beat writer, and Mr. Robinson had to be among the best who ever played the game. He hit, he ran, he fielded, he did everything to win, and wherever he played, he had the home crowd cheering.
Swinging from the right side, he batted at least .300 in nine different seasons. He had 2,943 career hits, drove home 1,812 runs, and played on five pennant-winning teams. In 1982, in his first time on the ballot, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Robinson made his debut as the majors’ first black manager with the Cleveland Indians in 1975, 28 years after Jackie Robinson (no relation) took the field with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, threw out the ceremonial first ball. When Frank was first introduced at Municipal Stadium before a crowd of 56,204, he received a rousing ovation.
Still an active player and now a player-manager, he punctured the historic occasion by hitting a home run in his first at bat as a designation hitter, and the Tribe defeated the Yanks, 5-3.
At bat, he was an intense and often intimidating presence, leaning over the
plate and daring pitchers to hit him, and they did 189 times (but not in that 69 World Series game). And he broke up double plays with fearsome slides. As a player, he insisted that teammates match his will to win. As a manager, he had little patience with lack of hustle.
He managed for all parts of 16 seasons with Cleveland, with San Francisco, Baltimore, the Montreal Expos, and the then-Washington Nationals. The baseball writers chose him as the American League manager of the year in 1989 when his Orioles finished two games out of first place. Via a trade in 2006, the Reds dealt Robinson to the O’s.
He won baseball’s triple crown in 1966, hitting 49 home runs, driving in 122 runs, and batting .316 in what his first season with the Orioles. He was the key ingredient in winning the World Series that season, and he was named the AL MVP.
He played high school baseball at McClymonds in Oakland, Calif, and was a basketball teammate of Bill Russell’s.
He was not only one of the game’s first generation of great black players, he was far and away one of the game’s all-time greats of any color.
Here’s to you Mr. Robinson, RIP.