Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Robinson Boys: How Brooks and Frank Formed an Unlikely Alliance and Led the Orioles to the Promised Land

It's not uncommon these days to see debates raging on sports talk shows in which two big-time players on the same team are clashing over whose "team" it is. It's often difficult for two hugely talented players to mesh for the good of the team. I am reminded of a time when just such a pairing of very unlikely comrades resulted in a perfect team atmosphere.

In December of 1965, the baseball world was rocked by news of a blockbuster trade; one that would go down in history as one of the greatest (for Oriole fans) or worst (for Reds fans) trades of all time. While commonly billed as Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, it was actually a three-team, six-player deal. As part of the agreement, the Orioles obtained relief pitcher Jack Baldschun (whom the Reds desired) from the Philles for under-performing outfielder Jackie Brandt and young pitcher Darold Knowles, then immediately packaged him with Pappas and itinerant outfielder Dick Simpson, and sent them to the Reds for Frank Robinson who had been one of the dominant sluggers in the National league since 1956.

The Orioles had been on the border of greatness for several years. They had superior pitching and defense which, of course, was their trademark for two decades, but their offense was just a bit lacking. They had some weapons, particularly third baseman Brooks Robinson, who had been among the top hitters in the American League since 1960 and who had won the MVP award in 1964 on the strength of a .317 average and a league-leading 118 RBIs. They also had a great table-setter in shortstop Luis Aparicio and a potential big run producer in Boog Powell, who had shown a propensity for both excellence and injuries. But they lacked . . .  something. Then, came the trade.

But would it work? Sure, Frank brought a potent bat, but what about the all-important aspect of team chemistry? The question put forth throughout the winter was "can the team's two most important players get along?" On the surface, the pairing of Brooks and Frank Robinson looked like trouble. Brooks had been the acknowledged team leader, fan favorite and highest paid players for five years. Now an interloper was moving in. And Brooks and Frank were about  as different as any two men could be.

Brooks was white. Frank was not.

Brooks had been raised in a happy, middle class, two-parent family, with one brother (essentially growing up in a smarmy 1950s  black-and-white television show). Brooks was from Little Rock, Arkansas--a 100% segregated society. Not only that but, reporters at the time loved to point out, he was a graduate of Little Rock Central High School, possibly the most infamous symbol of attempted 1950s integration--think National Guardsmen assisting students walking to school past crowds of screaming rednecks (Brooks had graduated in 1955, two years before the nastiness).

Frank was raised by a hard-working mother (his father left when he was three), the youngest of ten children. Frank grew up in highly-integrated Oakland and rarely saw prejudice in his early years--he was shocked at his first minor league stop in Utah when, attempting to see a movie, he was turned away at the door by a ticket-lady who told him, "We don't patronize Negroes." The indignities due to his skin color would only grow over the next ten years.

Brooks had a unique personality among professional athletes. He treated everyone he met like a small-town bank president greeting friends at the local country club. He was revered by fans, friends, opponents and the press. He was so well-liked among his peers that after retiring he was elected president of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and still holds the office more than thirty years later. Brooks Robinson was a genuine nice guy.

Frank, on the other hand, was not. In fact, Frank Robinson was one of the most reviled men by opponents in major league baseball. He was known as a cut-throat competitor who would stop at few things in order to win a ball game. Some called him a "Black Ty Cobb," and it was not meant as a compliment. Additionally, the Reds front office had leaked word over several years that Frank was a troublemaker, a clubhouse lawyer.

Brooks was loved by every single manager and coach from high school through the end of his professional career--he never had a documented problem with any of them and they all went out of their way to gush about how much they loved the guy.

While Frank viewed his high school coach as a second-father, as he did his first major league manager, Birdie Tibbetts, he had well-publicized run-ins with Reds managers Mayo Smith and Fred Hutchinson and later butted heads with others, particularly Walt Alston and Bobby Winkles. Even though managers loved his hustle and all-out style of play, they sometimes criticized his work habits and confrontational style. Frank was not diplomatic and didn't seem to mind hurting feelings if he had something he felt needed to be said.

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Frank was physically imposing, even among professional athletes. Brooks, with his receding hairline and sloping shoulders was often mistaken for a club executive out of uniform. Brooks was called "Jugbutt" by friends in high school as an ode to his physique.

Their high school basketball pictures illustrate the difference between the two. Both were great basketball players. Brooks (below) was selected All-State as a junior and was offered a basketball scholarship to the University of Arkansas. Frank (at right, back row, far right) won several state championships in high school, although he had a little help from the team's center--a guy named Bill Russell (not pictured).

Check out the guns on teenage Frank. And remember this was the days before weight-lifting. Even as a teenager, Franks' biceps were ripped. Now look at Brooks' stick arms and legs. Suffice it to say that no one ever accused Brooks Robinson of taking steroids.

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And so with all these differences, it was perhaps natural (and convenient) for sportswriters, needing copy during those long cold months of January and February, to speculate that Frank and Brooks would never be able to coexist. Add to the above the fact that Frank, coming in at $65,000 a year, would immediately replace Brooks, at $50,000, as the highest paid player on the team and all the ingredients were there for a good old-fashioned freeze-out, a battle for the upper hand as leader of the team and the idol of local fans and sportswriters. 

And then spring training started.

Frank later wrote that as soon as he took the field in Florida, one of the first players to see him was Brooks, who immediately walked over, extended his hand and, with a huge smile, said, "Welcome to the team, Frank, you're just what we needed."

The thing that outside writers overlooked was the fact that, for all their surface differences, they shared one very important attribute--each viewed winning as their ultimate goal and would do whatever the team needed. Neither was a selfish player. They both recognized this trait in the other and instinctively knew that the other would help the team reach its goal.

Residing next to each other in the clubhouse, they immediately formed a mutual admiration society. And they set the tone for the whole team. I interviewed a number of former Orioles for "Brooks" and they all voiced the same sentiment--Brooks was an unparalleled fielder and a great clutch hitter, but Frank brought that extra something the team needed and was the key to the championships. The opposite personalities of the two were symbiotic in helping lift the team to greatness. Several former players discussed how unselfish both Brooks and Frank were and noted that when your best players act like that, the other guys naturally follow and it makes for a winning team atmosphere.

It's worth noting that the race part of the equation was not insignificant. Remember, this was the mid-60's, cities were on fire with conflict. Although Brooks had been raised in a segregated society, he never had a documented episode in which anyone accused him of prejudice. Somewhere along the way, he was taught to respect everyone.

Frank later wrote that, under Brooks' leadership, the Orioles' team racial atmosphere was the best of any team he ever played on, before or after. Whereas on most teams at the time, blacks and whites fought together as teammates on the field, then went their separate ways afterwards, Frank wrote that Brooks often made a point to invite him, Paul Blair and Sam Bowens (the three African Americans on the team) to dinner on the road after games.

The familiarity helped break down barriers, and build true friendships. They enjoyed ragging one another and soon nothing was off-limits as far as jokes. Once, during a tense summer of riots, as the Oriole bus drove through a simmering section of Detroit, some of the white players told Frank, "Get up in the window so they can see you," reasoning that, seeing a black face, the crowd would go easy on them. Frank crouched under a seat, laughing, and said, "I'm not getting hit when they shoot at you--you're on your own."

Another time, Paul Blair saw a picture in the paper of Boston's George Scott and told Frank that he resembled him. When Frank protested, Brooks looked at the picture and said, "I agree, you do look alike."
"That doesn't count," Blair countered. "You thinks we ALL look alike."

This was not a small thing in the mid-sixties.

Together, Brooks and Frank formed the heart of the Baltimore Orioles. They led the team to four World Series (two titles) in the six years they played together from 1966-1971. The only two years they didn't make the Series during that run, 1967 and 1968, Frank was hurt and missed considerable time.

And the two have remained friends since.

               Oriole Hall of Famers meet for a special ceremony and unveiling of Brooks Robinson's statue at Camden Yards, September, 2013. Left to right: Cal Ripken, Jr., Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver, Brooks, Frank, Jim Palmer.

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