Brooks Robinson is from Little Rock, Arkansas — a battleground in the civil rights struggle.
It was the place where nine African-American students enrolled in the segregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 and were met by National Guard troops who refused them entry, only finally walking into the school under the protection of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, under orders by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Two years earlier, Brooks was a student at Central High.
Frank Robinson, who passed away last week at the age of 83, was born in Beaumont, Texas, but was raised in Oakland, California, a place whose racial politics led to the birth of the Black Panthers, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.
A white player and a black player coming from very different environments, thrown together in a historic 1966 Cincinnati Reds trade of Frank to the Baltimore Orioles with a backdrop of a nation on the verge of exploding over racial tensions. Baltimore would be where the civil rights organization CORE — the Congress for Racial Equality — would fight housing discrimination. It held its national convention in the city in 1966, and the Rev. Martin Luther King came to Baltimore twice that year to demand fair housing laws.
Yet during one of the most volatile times in America during the 20th century, a time when social and cultural change was causing turmoil on the streets, the Orioles clubhouse was a fortress of sorts against the tide that engulfed the country.
Amid a time of often bitter confrontation between black and white America, Frank Robinson, a black baseball player, and Brooks Robinson, a white baseball player, forged a friendship that would last a lifetime.
They set a tone of humanity, not hatred, inside the Baltimore clubhouse — a spirit of brotherhood that likely helped the team win four American League pennants and two World Series in the six years Frank was there.
“Once they became teammates they became friends, too,” Paul Blair, the Orioles Gold Glove outfielder who died in 2013, told me in an interview. Blair, a black player who had been drafted by the Orioles in 1962, said the team’s two stars set the example for others.
“They were the leaders … they understood their roles, and they embraced their roles. Everybody on the team was like family, and Frank just came in and became part of the family.
“Race was never an issue with that team,” Blair said. “There was absolutely no color. We were all brothers. We were all members of one family and that was the Baltimore Orioles, and that’s all that mattered. We never had a problem like that, and Frank and Brooks get a lot of credit for that, especially Brooks. Here you had a guy from Arkansas that didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. When your leaders are like that, the others have to follow.
“Frank and Brooks were close,” Blair said. “The whole team was close. No color. Family. One goal, to win ballgames and win championships. But we liked each other and treated each other as if we were all brothers.”
Brooks had already been with the Orioles for 10 years and was the AL Most Valuable Player in 1964. It was his team. Then Frank arrived in 1966 with a reputation as a hard-nosed player with a strong personality and presence.
“I don’t think anybody on our team really knew Frank,” Brooks told me in an interview. “But he came here and he fit right in. We all looked at him, wondering what to expect. But he was a hell of a player.”
“We had a great relationship,” Brooks said. “A lot of guys took that as a cue, if Brooks and Frank are this close, we need to get along. If it had gone the other way, it would have been bad. We didn’t know how Frank was going to fit in here. We didn’t know him, but from spring training, he was just one of the guys.”
He was more than just one of the guys, though. Orioles players knew from the first time they saw
Frank in spring training at the plate that he was someone special on the field. Jim Palmer said he turned to teammate Dick Hall and said, “We just won the pennant with that guy.”
Frank would go on to win the AL Triple Crown and MVP that 1966 season, with 49 home runs, 122 RBI and a .316 average, while they swept the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers in four games in the World Series.
“The writers tried to drive a wedge between Brooks and I and make it like we were in competition for the leadership of the ball club,” Frank once told me. “But we had a strong bond between us from day one. We never had a cross word between us, never an angry word.” Their lockers were next to each other for the six years Frank was in Baltimore.
In Frank’s 1988 book, “Extra Innings,” Frank wrote about how race relations on those Orioles teams were different than any other team he played for in his 21 seasons on the field.
“I suspect Brooks was the key reason why, for the first time in my 14 years of professional baseball, black players and white players had drinks together and meals together when we were on the road,” he wrote. “Not every single night, but two or three times on most road trips. None of the players ever really invited me, Paul Blair or Sam Bowens to join them. But Brooks might ask me where I was going after a game, and not knowing the restaurants in most American cities, I might say I wasn’t sure. Then Brooks would say something like, ‘Well, Boog, Jerry (Adair), Curt (Blefary) and I are doing over to this restaurant.’
“‘Maybe I’ll see you over there,’ I’d say
“We always knew where the group was going, and we’d end up there when we wanted to sit around over a meal or a few drinks and talk baseball,” Frank wrote.
“We all wanted to be together on the Orioles because we enjoyed one another’s company and had a lot of respect for each individual as a person and as a player. Even when the food wasn’t that good, the talk and the camaraderie made for a lot of fun. The shame of it was that this kind of mingling of the races had never happened before and it never happened to me again after my six years in Baltimore.”
Frank was traded to the Dodgers after the 1971 season, but he and Brooks remained close right up until Frank’s death.
“Today is a very sad day because I lost not only my teammate, but also a very dear friend,” Brooks said in a statement released upon the news that Frank had passed away. “I loved Frank and got to know him so much better after we both retired. I spoke to him a few days ago and he sounded good. He wanted to be home. I let him know that Connie and I were pulling for him, and that he, Barbara, and Nichelle were in our prayers. As a player, I put Frank in a class with Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Mickey Mantle. He was the best player I ever played with. When he came here in 1966, he put us over the top. He was a great man and he will be deeply missed.”
In a conversation I had with Frank when he was managing the Washington Nationals, he got emotional when talking about his friendship with Brooks.
“If I needed Brooks here, all I would have to do is pick up the phone and he would be here,” he told me.
They had come a long way from Little Rock and Oakland.