Saturday, February 09, 2019

Weekend Post: RIP Frank Robinson

So sorry to hear of baseball great, Frank Robinson’s passing this week. He was 83. There are lots of tributes to Frank on the net, praising his many on-field accomplishments and the barriers that he broke. I want to talk more about Frank Robinson as a person.

Frank was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles when I joined the team as one of their announcers. I had heard that Frank could be, uh… prickly. I had only met him once before. When I got the job I flew back to Baltimore for a press conference and had dinner with him and a few other Orioles officials. He was very pleasant, somewhat low-key. Hardly a volatile figure.

One of my responsibilities was hosting the manager segment of the daily pre-game show. I would huddle with the manager and lob questions for five minutes. It was early in spring training, maybe the third or fourth day. We were in Dunedin to play the Blue Jays. I wandered into his office about two hours before game time with my trusty tape recorder. The door was open, he was finishing up a conversation about hockey with some people I didn’t know. I sat patiently on the couch and waited until they finished their conversation and left and said to Frank, “Hi, wanna do the manager’s show?”

At that point he exploded. “You’re so pushy!” he yelled at me. “Joe Angel (my predecessor) was never that pushy! What’s so goddamn important that I’m keeping you from that we have to do this NOW?” I said, “Lunch.” He instantly dropped the anger and then said, “Oh, then let’s do this.” Clearly, he was just testing the rookie. I guess three years in the minor leagues taught me not to be intimidated by players and managers.

From that point on we got along great. A few weeks later, on Opening Day in Baltimore I arrived at the park way early to get the manager’s show. I knew it would be a media circus. And I was right. We did the interview, I brought it up to the booth, and got the bad news about an hour later that something had gone wrong with the recording. It was unusable. I had to go back down and re-do the manager’s show. Now understand that Frank didn’t love doing the manager’s show in the first place. I thought, “He’s going to kill me.” But nope, he couldn’t have been nicer and even pushed off some other interviews to do mine.

And those manager’s shows were always good because Frank was very candid. I could ask him any question and he’d answer honestly. And this was during a period where the club was terrible and fans were lobbying for his head. He would take the blame for mistakes and not sugar-coat the club’s performance. Most managers would just deflect and speak in a series of clich├ęs. Not Frank Robinson.

One reason Frank and I got along was our shared sense of humor. A side of Frank that most people didn’t know was that he could be very funny. He had a terrific dry wit. So just shooting the shit with him was very entertaining. (By the way, one night he and I went to dinner on the road, he paid for the meal with his credit card, and I said to him “You realize your signature on the slip is worth more than the cost of the meal?”)

Another thing you didn’t know (unless of course you read my book, IT’S GONE… NO, WAIT A MINUTE! – available on Amazon for like one cent), Frank was antsy on flights. So to kill time he would become essentially a flight attendant. He would go up and down the aisle and ask if you wanted anything to eat or drink. Just imagine, the great Frank Robinson, Hall of Famer, MVP in both leagues, was bringing me a Coke and sandwich.

A couple of months into the season Frank was fired as manager but hired to work in the front office. I’m not sure what his responsibilities were, but let’s just say he had a lot of time on his hands. My family was still back in LA (they moved out later in the summer) so I had nothing to do all day when the team was home. One day I decided to get to the park real early and noticed that Frank was in his office. I popped my head in to say hello and he invited me in. We talked baseball for about an hour before I had to go. He said “Stop by anytime,” and to make a long story short – for the next month or so I stopped by practically every day. I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned during those sessions or how fascinating it was to hear his war stories. And a day didn’t go by when I didn’t think to myself, “Holy shit! I’m sitting here talking to Frank Robinson.”

He was a brilliant, fearless, complex, passionate, kind, and funny. He was a gifted athlete. He was the ultimate competitor. And if I ever needed honey roasted peanuts on a flight I could always count on him.

RIP Frank Robinson, although I prefer to forever think of him as MVP Frank Robinson.


Anonymous said...

Lovely remembrance, Ken. Thank you.

Pam, St. Louis.

Anonymous said...

I worked at Wrigley Field when FR was with the Dodgers. He was one bad-ass on the field.
Nobody effed with him.
But one night couple of years later I bought him a beer in Cleveland and he was the exact opposite - an affable friendly guy with a great sense of humor.
Th thing that is lost in all these tributes to him being the first black manager (and he was at best a so-so manager) and a groundbreaker is what a superb player he was. He is one of the all-time greats. Best player in the American League for at least three years (after the Reds made one of the all-time dumb trades). And in the National League he was probably a better all around player but playing outfield in the early 1960's in the National League you have to contend with Clemente, Aaron and Mays.
Although it is arguable he is the equal of any of them.

goodman.dl said...

Thanks for the story, Ken.

iain said...

Wonderful remembrance of maybe the most underappreciated superstar in baseball history. Thank you, Ken.

Mike Barer said...

What a beautiful tribute.

Jest Jake said...

Lucky enough to see Robinson hit a HR (in the 3rd) in the 1970 World Series against his old team the Reds (who thought he was washed up)...

It was my first and only live World Series. My grandfather (we were in Baltimore seeing my grandmother who was being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins) walked up and bought tickets on game day. We sat deep down the right-field line so close to the right-field wall that I could touch it if I dared.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Anonymous kind of touched on this, but did you ever discuss the race issue with him? Even though he came well after Jackie Robinson, it still must have been hard for him when he was coming up. Those stories must have been as riveting as they were painful.

Off topic: Happy Year of the PIG, everybody!!
I know. Not kosher.

Tom Asher said...

Class act. My condolences, Ken.

Mike Barer said...

I want to echo what iain said, Frank was an underappreciated star. He also paved the way for more African American managers. He also brought back for awhile, the lost art of player-manager when he got aboard at Cleveland. MLB needs to pay a meaningful tribute to this man.

di0nyb said...

Great story thank you.

Karan G said...

Such a lovely tribute to Mr. Robinson. Thanks for the stories.

Kirk said...

He was manager of the Cleveland Indians when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I don't remember ever hearing anything bad about him.

KB said...

Great share. You've had a lucky life, Ken Levine.

MikeKPa. said...

A colleague of mine at work is a big Orioles fan, as is his father. When Frank Robinson died, I asked if he had heard of your book and that he might be interested in getting it. He said he remembered his dad had read it years ago and laughed all the way through it.

J Lee said...

My main memory of Frank was a defensive play, the first time I saw him back in 1966 at the old Yankee Stadium with the low outfield walls. He took a game-winning home run away from Roy White with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in Robinson's first season with the O's, when they swept and shocked the Dodgers in the World Series (like everything else, the play been posted to YouTube -- )

Breadbaker said...

He took on the terrible job of managing the Expos and then the Nationals when they moved into decrepit RFK. I was in DC for a conference but had a free afternoon, so I went to the stadium about half an hour after the game started, bought an outfield ticket and had essentially all of centerfield for myself (I actually took a long conference call sitting in the stands and no one was closer to me than the sections closest to the foul lines).

Frank was in his early 70s but he looked much older; the strain of managing a team no one wanted (it was owned by MLB then) was obviously taking its toll. But as you watched him making a pitching change you could tell the pure dignity of the man. He had taken this task on at the request of Bud Selig, and he was going to do a professional job regardless of the consequences.

By the way, as of 4:46 pm February 9, Baseball Reference hasn't updated his page to show he's died.

Prairie Perspective said...

What a great life you have lived, Ken. Thanks for sharing so much of it with us. And Frank Robinson was a hard-ass, multi-skilled star. Helluva player!

Jeff Boice said...

I remember that first season in DC. Amazingly, the Nats were 50-31 at midseason and had a 5 game lead in the division. We're thinking "you don't suppose they could actually win the thing?" Well, no. MLB still owned the team and they were taking their own sweet time selling it- milking that season for all the profit they could make. September comes around, and the Nats still have a shot at the playoffs, but MLB made no effort to bolster the roster- I think their September callups were pitifully few. Still it was fun to see baseball in RFK- and to see those white seats where Frank Howard's homers landed actually mean something.

VP81955 said...

A terrific season, one of several for Frank in Montreal and Washington. That franchise had no business contending; that the Expos and Nationals finished at or even slightly above .500 was a tribute to his managerial skill. He did so much to bring passion back to D.C. baseball. (Does anyone in SoCal recall June of 2005 when the Nats visited Anaheim and Robinson and Mike Scioscia had a heated disagreement?)

DrBOP said...

I was blessed to be living in Cleveland (that's RIGHT, the BEST the nation:>) and then Montreal perfectly timed wirh Frank's managerial stints.
In both cities, I attended games with a pretty boisterous gang of baseball devotees. Batting practice was naturally required (of COURSE with gloves). Lotsa razzing and opposing managerial option suggestions; before, during and after the games.
But when Frank was around, we all turned into a group of dumbfounded lambs. He was Walkin' History, man.
The only man to be MVP in both the American and National Leagues just seemed to embody what baseball was ALL about. And EVERY time the local media tried to stir up some shit, Frank settled everything down with his take on the disturbance.
I consider myself a very lucky person to have seen the number of games that I attended that he managed, but you were luckier. Thanks for your tribute.

PS Friday question: did you ever have anything to do with Wilbon or Kornheiser while you were in Baltimore? Wilbon had some nice things to say about Frank the other day on PTI. Pretty sure it's on YouTube.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

amazing tribute!!!!!!

TimWarp said...

Honestly, I could not care less about sports - but I love sports stories. And this was a great one! Thanks for sharing it with us.

benson said...

Very nice remembrance.

Here's a statistic that I knew, but had forgotten til seeing it over the weekend.

At the time he retired, Robinson was 4th on the all time HR list. Aaron, Ruth, Mays, FRobby. That is pretty rare air.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a wonderful story. Made my day!

Jahn Ghalt said...

Thanks for the MVP Frank Robinson stories - what a treat to hang out and chat like that.

(your baseball memoir should arrive any day, now)

I imagine Robinson went nuts on "regular" plane rides - where the aisles are staffed with stews.

I guess three years in the minor leagues taught me not to be intimidated by players and managers.

I'd guess a decade in television resisting network "suits" and notes taught you a lot, too.

(did any of the those suits turn out to be "trainable"?)

John in NW Ohio said...

The late great Frank Robinson was a great, great, GREAT player.

When he was manager/player with the Indians, I remember him bringing his team to Toledo to play the Mud Hens in an exhibition game, circa 1976 or 1977. My Dad and I watched in disbelief as he decked the Hens’ pitcher that night, right on the field!

Too many years have passed for me to remember all the little details, but it seems that the general feeling afterward was that the pitcher (Bob Reynolds, maybe?) was none too happy that he was wearing a Hens uniform instead of an Indians uniform, and decided a little chin music to the guy who made that decision was in order.

What I do remember for certain is that Robinson hit this guy with a VERY FAST one-two combo, the pitcher went down like a sack of potatoes, and Robinson just turned and walked away.

Jerome in Austin said...

I don't know if you'll get a ping or whatever from my comment, but I just ordered your book. I love offbeat non-fiction baseball stuff. My Uncle gave me a copy of Jim Bouton's Ball Four, for instance, a couple of years ago and I ate it up.

Anyways, I'm working my way back thru your blog after a link directed me to an interview (sorry, can't remember which one, it all blurs together when you're sheltering-in-place) and this is where I'm at. Love your blog, great intersection of baseball, film, tv, and rock & roll. Might have to pick up another book when I'm done with It's Gone!

Jerome in Austin said...

I don't know if you'll get a ping or whatever from my comment, but I just ordered your book. I love offbeat non-fiction baseball stuff. My Uncle gave me a copy of Jim Bouton's Ball Four, for instance, a couple of years ago and I ate it up.

Anyways, I'm working my way back thru your blog after a link directed me to an interview (sorry, can't remember which one, it all blurs together when you're sheltering-in-place) and this is where I'm at. Love your blog, great intersection of baseball, film, tv, and rock & roll. Might have to pick up another book when I'm done with It's Gone!