Frank Robinson Still In The Game


Frank Robinson was a Hall of Fame player with the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles. He was the major leagues’ first African-American manager. He has worked for the league office. But just when you thought Robinson had done it all and had nothing left to do in his five-decades-plus affiliation with the game, he has found a new cause as he is about to turn 77.

Although the announcement was overshadowed by the pennant races, Robinson was appointed executive vice president of baseball development by Major League Baseball in mid-summer. It is his task, and passion, to rekindle interest and participation in the sport by inner city youth around the nation.

At one time this would be a laughable assignment. There was no such need because all kids wanted to do, all day long, wherever they lived, was play ball. The greatest social cause in American sport during the 20th century was integrating Major League baseball. Baseball was the National Pastime and with the doors closed to even the best black ballplayers, from Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, to Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell, baseball to the nation’s black community was a symbol of institutionalized racism.

One of the greatest examples of social progress in 20th century America was Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The walls came tumbling down and and Robinson was followed by Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella as teammates, Larry Doby and Paige with the Indians, Monte Irvin and Willie Mays with the Giants, and other greats like Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente soon after. If you were a first-rate African-American athlete, not only were the doors open to you as the 1950s progressed, but baseball was the game you chose to play.

Somewhere along the way, however, baseball was eclipsed as the game of choice in African-American minds, surpassed first by basketball, and then football. And now baseball has woken up in the 2000s only to see entire rosters with only a couple of black players among the 25 big-leaguers representing a city. So baseball, with Robinson taking the lead, is going back to the grassroots by establishing an Urban Youth Academy program. The idea is to get youngsters involved at Little League age and keep them in the sport so they mature into future generations of big leaguers.

Robinson said he is not completely sure about all of the programs that will fit under his umbrella, but “right now the academies are very important to me. They’re going up as fast as we can get them up and they are bringing baseball to the youth in the inner cities of this country and giving them an opportunity to come and improve their skills, learn the game of baseball, the fundamentals of it.”

Robinson, who retired with a lifetime average of .294, 586 home runs, and 1,812 RBIs, and was a 14-time All-Star, won the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues before he was tabbed as the majors first black manager with the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He was speaking at a visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and although Robinson never played in the Negro Leagues, the existence of the place represents a strong linkage for him to those that played before him that didn’t have the same opportunities that he did and those young people he is trying to tutor now and provide opportunities for.

“It used to be that you were able to get a bat or ball or stick or whatever and get right out on the street and play,” Robinson said. “You can’t do that anymore. That’s the pity of it. But this is the next best thing, giving these kids a chance, a place to go. It doesn’t cost them anything but their time and attention. That’s all we ask. Be a regular. If they come and join the program, be there. We’re going to have to get more publicity ab0ut these academies and where they are so people will know that they’re there.”

Robinson grew up in Oakland, California and he played his baseball in the streets, on asphalt, since there weren’t an abundance of playgrounds. They didn’t need nine guys to have a game, either. Robinson and his friends wanted to play ball so much that as long as there were a few kids around they’d play three-on-three.

Frank Robinson was 11 years old when Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Dodgers, but even if he was still a youngster he grasped the signficance of the event.

“I knew then that if I had the skills and ability to play in the major leagues, I would have the opportunity,” Frank Robinson said. “Before that, no chance.”

Now he wants to give the next generation of players the same chance.