I am not a fancy guy. I am not a glamour boy," says Frank Robinson. "I don't believe I intrigue the fans, and obviously I don't interest the sports-writers. All that I am is an uncomplicated, single-minded guy. And my single-mindedness is baseball."
Such one-track devotion to the game that he plays, backed up by a most remarkable assortment of physical gifts, has made Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds one of the superstars of the National League—a distinction currently shared, in the minds of ballplayers themselves, only with Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that ballplayers are willing to concede him such mastery for, unlike Mays, a legend in his own time, and Aaron, so quietly competent that his greatness is accepted almost as a matter of course, Frank Robinson is not universally admired. This Robinson brushes off with a shrug.
"Baseball isn't a popularity contest," he says. "Some players are afraid of losing friends. Not me. I'm not out there to win friends. Just ball games, and I'll do that any way that I can."
The friends that Robinson does not win are generally ready to say an unkind word in his behalf. When asked why the Dodgers hate Robinson, Don Zimmer once said, "Some players play to win. Others"—significant pause—"play to hurt somebody." Shortly after being sold to the Reds, Don Newcombe said of Robinson: "I try to get along with all the guys but, even though he's my teammate, I can't take Robinson. That guy is out there trying to maim people."
In 1957 Robinson put Johnny Logan out for six weeks when he spiked the Milwaukee shortstop sliding into second base. In the first game of a 1960 double-header with the Braves, Robinson crash-dived into Eddie Mathews at third base in an unsuccessful attempt to break up a double play. Mathews dived right back at Robinson. It was not, Robinson admitted later, a fight he should have taken. Mathews bloodied his nose, purpled his eye and jammed his thumb. Nevertheless, Robinson managed to pull himself together for the second game and later astonished teammates in the locker room by announcing blandly, "I won the fight." "What do you mean, you won the fight?" they asked. " Mathews doesn't have a scratch on him, and look at you." "Yeah," admitted Robinson, "but figure it up. I had a homer and a double, drove in one run, scored another and made a catch that robbed Mathews of an extra-base hit. We won the second game 4-0. I won the fight."
Robinson's most abiding feud has been with Don Drysdale of the Dodgers. Every season Robinson leads the league in being hit by pitched balls, and Drysdale leads the league in hitting Robinson. Always when they face each other Robinson feels like the man in the carnival stall who has to put his head in the hole for the customers to throw at. Drysdale, for his part, denies any criminal intent. "A touch of wildness," he calls it. Robinson says if that's so, then why does Drysdale throw behind him, right in the direction he'd be falling if he were trying to get away from a normal wild pitch? " Drysdale," he says, "is supposed to be a control pitcher. I know he tries to bean me."
In some ways Drysdale can hardly be blamed. During the heat of the 1961 pennant race, Drysdale lapsed into a fit of wildness (his word, not Robinson's) and bounced a pitch off Robinson's body. Robinson proceeded to hit two home runs, a double, a single and drive in seven runs. Robinson now delights in pointing out that he makes substantially more money than the glamorous Drysdale.
Incidents like these have contributed to the description of Robinson as "a black Ty Cobb," ruthlessly devoted to beating the other guy any way that he can. It is this image that hides the second part of the Robinson personality, a man whose only motivation is baseball, a man whose only expression, only accomplishment, is baseball, a man so painfully alienated that he remembers his early days with the Reds, back in 1956 when he was only 20 years old, as "the time I didn't belong."
"All the players were older than me then," he says. "We had nothing in common. I used to tag along with Brooks Lawrence and Bob Thurman after a ball game, not because it was fun but because I didn't know anyone else and I had nothing else to do. They liked to go to clubs. You know, play celebrity. They'd talk to the singers, to everybody, and have some drinks. Me, I don't drink and I had nothing to say. All I'd do is just sit there, in a corner or in a booth, looking at my watch and hoping they would get tired and we could go back to the hotel.
"It was worse when we were playing at home. I hated to stay in my room by myself. I just hated to. Before I'd go to bed at night I'd check the papers to see what time the movies started next day. If there was one in the morning I'd make it. And the afternoon show, too, if we were playing a night game. Afterward I'd have just enough time to get down to the bowling alley."