Frank Robinson taught us about race that Virginia politicians can’t seem to grasp

Frank Robinson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  (Wikipedia)

BALTIMORE – As one measure of American enlightenment on race, here we are, 44 years after Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in major league baseball, and we’ve got these three Virginia politicians copping to the idiocy of wearing blackface and imagining it was ever acceptable.

Robinson goes to his grave at 83, after a long struggle with bone cancer. He dies one week after the 100th birthday of Jackie Robinson, the game’s first modern black player.

Who can imagine the sadness, and the rage, that their ghosts would feel at such a moment, when Virginia’s governor, and its attorney general, and a state senator, are all admitting how amusing they thought it was, years ago, to mock black people and then show off their insensitivity in a yearbook.

The Robinsons’ lives weren’t just about baseball. They were a morality tale. Jackie showed America that black men could compete, and win, against the best white baseball stars. Frank added proof to Jackie’s record, and went even further. He showed America that black men could think, and win, against the best white managers.

It’s astonishing that America had to be taught such lessons – and even more astonishing that these dullards in Virginia are still showing us how far we have to go.

When Jackie broke the color line in 1947, he faced race-baiting on the field and off. When Frank was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 1966, he struggled to find suitable housing because of his skin color.

But, when he took the field, he made this city fall in love with him. He joined a very good baseball team and made it a great one. In his six years here, the Orioles went to the World Series four times. This was the heart of a 20-year period in which the Orioles had the best overall won-loss record in all of major league baseball.

Frank Robinson’s debut April 17, 1956, for the Cincinnati Redlegs. (Wikipedia)

Frank wasn’t just a fabulous hitter, he was a fiery competitor without peer. Middle infielders learned to flinch whenever he slid into second. Pitchers learned, if they threw at him as he crowded the plate, he might hit the next pitch out of the park. Nothing intimidated him. Frank was the Great Intimidator.

“He’d see one of our guys talking to a guy from the other team before the game,” Boog Powell said in a TV interview with Tom Davis, “and Frank would say, ‘Hey, don’t be doing that. In 20 minutes, we’re gonna be trying to kick their butts.’”

When he retired, his 586 home runs were fourth on baseball’s all-time list.

In his first year here, when he won the Triple Crown, Robinson led the Orioles into the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers were heavy favorites since they had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and the Orioles had never been in post-season play.

So what happens? In the top of the first inning of Game one, Robinson hits a two-run homer and the Orioles win. And, in the final game of a four-game sweep, Robinson hits a homer as the Orioles win, 1-0.

When he managed the Orioles, he took a team of nobodies and nearly won a pennant. They opened the 1988 season with a staggering 21 consecutive losses. (When Ronald Reagan called Robinson to offer a little presidential consolation, and said, “I’m sure it’s been rough,” Robinson told him, “Mr. President, you have no (bleepin’) idea.”

Frank Robinson was more than an MVP, he helped us understand race. (Wikipedia)

But, the next year, Robinson miraculously had them in first place much of the season and only lost the pennant in the final series of the season.

He’s not just the only man to win the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues – he’s got statues honoring him in three cities where he either played or managed.

But here’s the most lingering memory of Robinson. It’s the sixth game of the 1971 World Series, tied in the bottom of the tenth, and the Orioles are desperate for a win to send the series to a seventh game.

Frank’s legs are so badly injured, he can hardly walk. But he singles, and then somehow makes it to third on another single. Then Brooks Robinson hits a fly ball to short left. It’s too short to tag up, even for a fast runner. But this is a moment that separates the good players from the indomitable ones.

Robinson tags up, and he slides home with the winning run.

He was ahead of the throw – and, judging by those idiots in Virginia, also ahead of his time. America’s still working out the hard lessons on race.