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OC Register: Whicker: Frank Robinson played the game for keeps


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    FILE – In this April 2, 2005, file photo, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson watches batting practice before a spring training game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, the first black manager in Major League Baseball and the only player to win the MVP award in both leagues, has died. He was 83.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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    Frank Robinson

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    San Francisco Giants manager Frank Robinson at a press conference. (By Lonnie Wilson / Oakland Tribune)

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    San Francisco Giant’s Frank Robinson on the field during practice. (Leo Cohen / Oakland Tribune Staff Archives) Published August 21, 1983

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    Frank Robinson, manager of the Cleveland Indians. checks the game’s action while his wife, Barbara keeps an eye on the playing field. (Kenneth Green / Oakland Tribune Staff Archives)

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    Frank Robinson on the field of Candlestick Park after a winning game for the Giants. (By Lonnie Wilson / Oakland Tribune)

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    Giants manager Frank Robinson. (Ron Riesterer / Oakland Tribune) Published January 13, 1982; April 5, 1981.

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    Giants manager Frank Robinson. (Russ Reed / Oakland Tribune)

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    Frank Robinson, with son Kevin, acknowledges his tribute day at Candlestick Park. (Ron Riesterer / Oakland Tribune)

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    Frank Robinson, front, with local children at a baseball clinic put on by the San Francisco Giants. In the left background is Chili Davis. (Roy H. Williams / Oakland Tribune) Published July 15, 1983.

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    Giants general manager Frank Robinson. (Ron Riesterer / Oakland Tribune Staff Archives) Published May 1, 1984.

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    Frank Robinson (L), baseball’s fourth all time home run hitter, congratulates Hank Aaron (R) after the Hank Aaron award was unveiled before the start of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies game at Turner Field in Atlanta, GA 08 April 1999. The award will be determined by the player’s combined numbers of hits, home runs and RBI and is scheduled to be presented to the best hitter in each league Championship Series. (STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP/Getty Images)

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    Sandy Koufax (L), the Hall of Fame Dodgers’ pitcher who makes infrequent public appearances, talks with fellow Hall of Fame member Frank Robinson (R) after they took the stage before induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, NY 26 July. Koufax and Robinson were among the 35 returning Hall of Fame members who attended the ceremonies. (HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

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    Former Cleveland Indians manager and player Frank Robinson speaks during the unveiling of a new statue commemorating his career prior to the game between the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field on May 27, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in Major League history on April 8, 1975, as a player-manager for the Indians.(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

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    U.S. President George W. Bush (R) congratulates baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson after presenting him with the medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House November 9, 2005 in Washington DC. President Bush presented medals to the 2005 Medal of Freedom recipients during a ceremony in the East Room. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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    U.S. President George W. Bush shares a laugh with Nationals manager Frank Robinson before throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals home opener before their game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at RFK Stadium April 14, 2005 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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    Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles (R) talks to Frank Robinson, former Orioles player and manager and honorary National League team captain during practice for the Major League All-Star game at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, OH, 07 July. The All-Star Game will be held 08 July. (JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

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    Washington Nationals Frank Robinson

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    Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson speaks to the media before the Atlanta Braves play the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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    Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson throws out the first pitch before the Atlanta Braves play the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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    San Francisco, CA June 10, 1984 – Frank Robinson walks from the pitcher’s mound to the dugout after replacing the pitcher during an Astros verus Giants baseball game. (By Angela Pancrazio / Oakland Tribune)

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    The Cincinnati Reds’ Frank Robinson takes batting practice in this 1956 photo. Robinson, a Hall of Fame player for the Reds and Baltimore Orioles and the only MLB player to ever win the MVP in both leagues, later became the first African-American manager in MLB history as a player-manager for the Cleveland Indians. Robinson passed away Thursday at 83. (AP Photo/File)

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    Baltimore Orioles outfielder Frank Robinson, the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1966, was presented with a plaque symbolic of the award in Baltimore, April 28, 1967. League President Joe Cronin presented the Kenesaw Mountain Landis award, named for the late baseball commissioner. Robinson is the first player ever to win the MVP balloting in both the National and American Leagues.(AP Photo)



The worst thing you can say about today’s major league baseball is that you can’t see Frank Robinson anywhere.

The only exception is the Dodgers’ dugout. Dave Roberts will be the lone African-American manager in 2019.

There have been 16. Robinson was the first, in 1975, and he was still a player, winding down a career of 586 home runs and Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues, the only man to do that.

He got the job in Cleveland, amid some veterans who didn’t like his skin or what was underneath.

Gaylord Perry said he didn’t want to be Robinson’s “slave” and aspired to make “one more dollar” than Robinson did. Perry was traded, but Robinson couldn’t get through 1977, with designated hitter Rico Carty leading the opposition.

Robinson, who passed away Thursday at 83, was frequently asked about being the First Black Manager and he would shake his head. “I’ll be the First Black Manager fired,” he said.

He got three other jobs, all with struggling clubs, and lost them, too.

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What mattered was a toughness that could arm-wrestle the doubts and slide hard into the prejudice. Robinson’s personality filled clubhouses, sometimes stadiums.

“We came up in May, Duane Kuiper and I,” said Rick Manning, who still works the Indians’ radio broadcasts. “Dennis Eckersley, too. Frank was a tough guy, a little intimidating, but if you just did your job you were fine. Besides, we all grew up watching him play. He’d stand right there on the plate and dare you to hit him. What a great player he was.”

Kuiper was in the on-deck circle when Robinson called out, “I”m going to pinch-hit for you.”

“With who?” Kuiper replied, annoyed.

“Me,” Robinson said.

Hard to argue with that.

Another time, Robinson called in Kuiper, a speedy infielder, and said, “You’re hitting the ball in the air too much.” Over the next 10 at-bats, he offered Kuiper $100 for each grounder he produced but demanded $100 back for each ball in the air.

“And people wonder why I only hit one home run in my career,” said Kuiper, now the Giants’ TV play-by-play man.

“He would try to intimidate you, but if you didn’t come back at him, he’d just dismiss you. He was always testing you. Once he told our pitchers to check out how many hitters were 35 years old, figure out who they were, and always pound them inside. If they didn’t, he’d fine them. But he also said there was one exception to that, and that was him. Sure enough, Fergie Jenkins came to town and tried to go inside and Frank buried one to left.”

On Opening Day 1975, Robinson homered off New York’s Doc Medich to win. Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, was on hand. “People here still talk about that game,” Manning said.

Robinson was not a ceremonial hire. He saw the opportunity long before anyone else and prepared by managing the Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico for a couple of winters.

His leadership was proven. When a loud rookie named Pete Rose beat out Don Blasingame for the second base job in 1963 and got ostracized by Blasingame’s buddies, Robinson and Vada Pinson basically adopted him.

When Robinson thought the Orioles were overlooking the details, he put a mop on his head, called himself The Judge, and held a nightly postgame kangaroo court. Due process was not observed. Robinson cited every mistake, intentional or not, and imposed fines. Players needled each other and laughed. They also got better, and closer. In today’s 25-man, 25-phone clubhouses, you’re more likely to see a rhinoceros than a magistrate.

Robinson was not the only one in the 60s who played with spikes up. He was just the best player who did.

“He wanted you to go into second base hard,” said Kuiper, a former second baseman. “But he also expected you to stand there and take it.”

Robinson is still 10th all-time in home runs. In 1956 he homered 38 times with a league-leading 122 runs and was NL Rookie of the Year. In 1961 he slugged .611 and won his first MVP. Four times his OPS exceeded 1.000.

Reds president Bill DeWitt considered Robinson “an old 30” and traded him to Baltimore in 1966 for pitcher Milt Pappas. Robinson thereupon won the Triple Crown and was MVP again, and the Orioles swept the Dodgers in the World Series.

Robinson came to the Dodgers in 1972. Al Campanis handed him a booklet on The Dodger Way To Play Baseball. Robinson handed it back.

“If I don’t know how to play by now I never will,” he said.

He learned, and taught, the game by heart.

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