Home is an odd concept for a baseball lifer, Frank Robinson lives in a pleasant neighborhood in Los Angeles, where his glamorous wife, Barbara, sells real estate to the city's sparkly crowd. The Hall of Famer has owned his house there since 1973. But how often is a career baseball man at home? "For a king time, just about never." Robinson said one day recently. "Last couple years, I've been home a lot."
Since he was fired from his job as assistant general manager of the Baltimore Orioles in December 1995, Robinson has been unattached to a professional baseball team, and he has been home day after day. Before his dismissal the 61-year-old Robinson had worked in baseball for 42 consecutive years. The first was 1953, when he signed with the Cincinnati Reds out of McClymonds High in Oakland. He was the National League's Most Valuable Player in '61, with the Reds, and the American League MVP five years later, with the Orioles. Baltimore won four American League pennants and two World Series in the six seasons Robinson played there. He spent 19 years with the team as a player, a coach, the manager and an assistant G.M. When the Orioles fired him, they fired a Baltimore icon.
For a long while after his dismissal Robinson was furious, hurt and confused. But over the past year or so a peculiar calm has come over him. Peculiar because he is remembered as an explosive player, an excitable manager, a man afraid of nothing, including fastballs thrown at his head (as a player) and death threats mailed to his desk (as a manager).
"In neighborhoods like this one, all the activity is in the back of the house." Robinson said of his corner of Los Angeles. "In white neighborhoods—middle-class, upper-class ones like this one—everybody has the pool in the back, the grill in the back," he said. "They want their privacy. You see your neighbors less. Where I grew up—Myrtle Avenue in West Oakland, 73rd Avenue in East Oakland—all the action was in front of the house, on the street."
Robinson and I had a plan to find Jackie Robinson's childhood home, at 121 Pepper St. in Pasadena, near the Rose Bowl. Frank Robinson has been talking about Jackie Robinson all year, at seminars and in interviews, and he liked the idea of visiting Jackie's roots. I asked him if he and Jackie shared an ancestral link. The question did not intrigue him. The coincidence of the first black major league player and the first black major league manager sharing a family name is not meaningful to him. His father never lived with Frank and his mother, and Frank was never interested in learning the history of his surname. "My father laughed when he heard I was trying to play professional baseball, said I was too slow." Robinson said. "He owned a funeral home and a general store in Silsbee. Texas. I still hate the smell of funeral homes."
Pepper Street was easy to find, but number 121 was not. The building no longer existed, having been torn down for new houses years ago. Embedded in the sidewalk in front of the lot where the house once stood was a square plaque with the words: JACKIE ROBINSON RESIDED ON THIS SITE WITH HIS FAMILY FROM 1922 TO 1946. Frank read the inscription and said, "The first thing they should do is get this plaque off the ground. You should see it when you're coming down the street."
Robinson looked up and down Pepper Street. He had never been there before, but it felt familiar. The 100 block of Pepper Street is lined with small, tidy houses, most of them owned by working-class black families. "This was pretty much the way Oakland was when I was coming up," Robinson said. "This is the kind of neighborhood where the action's out in front. I could see Jackie here, playing ball on the street, running everywhere, grandmothers and mothers up on the porch, hollering."
Frank Robinson was 11 years old when Jackie Robinson was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers 50 years ago. Frank read about Jackie's first days with the Dodgers in The Oakland Tribune, but he did not fully grasp their importance. Black professional baseball players, after all, were not foreign to Robinson. There were black players on the Oakland Oaks, a minor league team in the Pacific Coast League. In the five decades since then, Frank Robinson has become a student of Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
"I could never have done what he did," Frank said, leaning against a chain-link fence on Pepper Street. "The Dodgers chose Jackie not because he was the best black player around, but because he would take the verbal taunting and physical abuse and just play harder. They told him not to fight back, not to say anything. There's no way I could have done that.
"I had one long conversation with Jackie. After he retired, I went to see him in his office, in New York. He told me, 'Always be careful of the way you carry yourself. People will be watching you closely, because you're a black man.' In 1972 he made his famous speech at the opening game of the World Series, in Cincinnati, about looking forward to the day he'd look in the dugouts of major league baseball and see black men managing. Nine days later he was dead. Three years after that, I became the first black major league manager. What I faced was nothing compared to what Jackie went through." Frank Robinson managed the Cleveland Indians (1975-77), the San Francisco Giants ('81-84) and the Orioles ('88-91), winning 680 games and losing 751.