Frank Robinson died today and another piece of my youth slipped away.
Second basemen and shortstops knew they were in for it whenever Robinson came barreling into second base to break up a double play. At bat, he would always crowd the plate, so pitchers would try to back him up by pitching inside. Some even tried to intimidate him by throwing at his head and knocking him down.
They didn’t know Frank Robinson.
This baseball legend would dust himself off, get back into the box without giving an inch, and oftentimes line the next pitch into the left-field corner for extra bases. There was no thought of running out to the mound, no pointing at the opposition, no beating of the chest. It was a different era.
My love for baseball came to me as a kid in the East Village. My friends and I looked up to the older guys in the neighborhood. We hung out together at the park, played hardball, softball, stick ball, stoop ball, punch ball and every variation of baseball we could think of. When we weren’t playing we were listening to stories about the exploits of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees, the greatest show on earth. So we grew up giving our heart and soul to the Yankees, although Maris was traded in 1967, Mantle retired after the 1968 season and the Yankees had not won anything since 1964.
We didn’t know Frank Robinson.
The first World Series I remember was in 1966: the Orioles of Frank and Brooks Robinson vs. the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. It was no contest. Baltimore swept the Series in four games. Frank Robinson had my attention.
The Orioles were back in the World Series in 1969, 1970 and 1971, an era when I realized that the best team in baseball didn’t play in New York but in Baltimore. Frank Robinson led the way, of course. The best player on the best team … the way Mantle was. Before my time.
I went to my first game at Yankee Stadium in 1967. Two things I remember about that day: How green the grass was (we had black & white TV and played our games on cement or asphalt) and watching Mickey Mantle up close for the first time. By the time the early 1970s came around, my friends and I would take the bus from Elizabeth, New Jersey, into the city and get on the subway for the ride to the Bronx. We always made sure we were early, especially when the Orioles were in town. Getting to see the Orioles up close while they warmed up was worth the $4.50 price of a field box ticket all by itself. Mantle was gone, but Frank Robinson was still there. He stood 6-foot-1 and weighed about 185 pounds, but to me he was a giant. Just like the stories I heard about Mantle but never really got to see for myself.
We finally knew Frank Robinson. And it was our pleasure.