It is difficult for an increasing number of players to listen to the daily crunch of statistics, the drowsy hum of endless summer days and not feel the Gregorian melancholy of our times. "Hell," says one, "if some players can be paid for their opinion on a deodorant or hair spray, why can't I express an attitude about Vietnam or anything for no money? Why do I have to be ridiculed or warned for thinking?"
The Robinsons, though, stay above the ground; no disillusionment, no waves, each sublimely encapsulated in the largess of an ancient duchy, each adjusted to its dictums and hidebound, unspoken canons, and each certain that all they ever wanted to be and are can be found inside two white lines. "That's the way it is," says Frank. "It's me. Baseball. Just baseball. Right now I'm here standing and talking baseball. A few years from now those players over there will turn and say, 'Look at that jerk over there talkin' baseball.' I don't pop off. Take the money and shut up. Baseball has been telling its players that for years." He smiles.
With each question that smile fades to a squint and then surfaces again with each answer. It is a curious smile, amiable yet faraway, and it suggests that he is as insensitive as a redwood, or else a very clever man. The war, the riots in Baltimore, the quality of life of the black man elicit empty responses. He belongs, he says, to no strain of black thought, but "if I were not in baseball I wouldn't be a diplomatic black." He is. he says, uninterested in having any black role in baseball. The Jim Bouton book, he thinks, though he has not read it, was not a nice thing for Bouton to do. The reserve clause, yes, could use some modification, but that's Flood's business. He smiles.
The smile on the face of Brooks is serious, intense, unset, until he slides into a certain Rotarian ease. He seems to take a secret pride, like a big-city evangelist, in his way with people. Gracious and off the mark quickly, he never slips a question and always manages to be earnestly dull. That is his trademark, one that would not impede him in Maryland politics. He has no political thoughts himself, he says, but he does endorse Senator Tydings and he did support Spiro Agnew for governor. "He was a fine Ping-Pong player," he says. He cannot help think, he adds, of the sorrows of the world, but "the saddest day of my life is still the day they sent me to Vancouver." He does not smile.
He belongs, of course, in some boyhood novel now lost in the mustiness of a church rummage sale. John R. Tunis, the boys' author, would have loved him, but Tunis would have added some conflict. As it is, even in adolescence, there hardly seems to have been even the smallest crisis. It was all shade and warmly American anecdotes: Brooks delivering papers to the house of Bill Dickey, trying to impress the old catcher with his arm and then throwing the paper on the roof; Brooks blowing the biggest bubble in a contest for a bike; Brooks, the center of attention but always humble. His big decision seems to have been whether to play football and perhaps go to college or to go after a baseball contract. "Suppose I get hurt, what then?" he asked his mother. "Yes, that's true," his mother replied, worriedly. "We won't force you. That's not our way." Brightening, she then said, "Ready for your hot chocolate?"
Cut to Oakland and Frank Robinson, one of 10 children, solitary, silent, spending most of his time in the playground or in a movie house, where he would watch films over and over before he would go home. "He was awfully thin when I first saw him," says George Powles, his Oakland coach, "especially in the legs. He didn't talk much, and he was so shy about his legs that he wore an extra pair of socks and he pulled his pants down as low as he could." The slight body of Frank concerned Powles, and he prescribed a number of exercises. "Exercise!" says his mother. "That's all he'd do. He'd shake the house. Then he'd go out, come home for lunch and stay at the park till dark. Frank was old enough to work but he'd say he was goin' to play ball all his life. Lots of days he'd leave the house and say he was going to look for work, but we all know'd where he was. His brother would tell him, 'You ain't never gonna live long enough to see the big leagues.' "
No one back in Little Rock believed Brooks would see the majors, either, and, if so, not as an $80,000 player. "He couldn't run a lick," says his old junior high school coach. "He had good, quick hands but he didn't look like he'd ever be much of a hitter. If you were thinking about a baseball future, we had half a dozen other boys you'd pick ahead of him just on looks. But he'd always manage to do something to help you win." On the hoary scouting principle of speed plus great arm equals fine prospect, Brooks hardly deserved a cracked bat for signing. Only Paul Richards, hardly a hasty man, was convinced Brooks would be a star. "I'm telling you," he said in 1958, "this boy is going to be a star." Then, with a proper Ziegfeld pause, he whispered, "A star, I tell you."
The Reds thought similarly of Frank down in Columbia, S.C. but he had a seriously damaged arm and he had developed a hostility toward whites, which was understandable. It was ignited by merciless vitriol, mostly racial, from a brigade along the first-base line. Hurt and confused, Frank grabbed a bat and started toward the stands. His manager stopped him but the scar remained. Lonely, age 19 and with an arm that throbbed while he tried to sleep, Frank packed his bags but was talked out of going back to Oakland. The next year Cincinnati Manager Birdie Tebbetts said, "He'll be in the lineup if he can throw from left field to second base. He's a strange kid. He sits on the bench, shows no emotion at all. You wonder what's running through his mind."
Open and at ease, Brooks was almost instantly a part of the Orioles and the city, and he has not changed since. "I forget I'm living with a celebrity," says his wife Connie. "He's so patient. He's never moody, never sulks. I tell him, one of these days he's going to explode because he must be keeping it all inside." He is, though, somewhat of a militant advocate of player rights, especially involving schedules. Once, when asked if he was tired, he said certainly, his feet and legs were tired, and then, raising his voice, he added, "There are just too many night games. There should be an open date after a night game on a getaway day. The owners make money from it—do we? No, but when it comes time to battle for a buck all they want to know is what you did, they don't want to know the conditions under which you had to play."
The complaint by Brooks is familiar, an ancient grumble, not one to remain indelible in the memory bank of baseball. Had it been made by Frank Robinson first, though, there would have been resigned sighs and then a philosophical judgment like, well, "It's the old thing about spots and leopards." His days in Cincinnati remain relentless. He was a brilliant performer with the Reds and one of the most disliked men in the league. "He doesn't play hard," said Don Zimmer, "he plays to hurt you." Later, as a teammate, he would say, "I was wrong. He's just a hell of a competitor." Frank was beyond intimidation. Give him some "chin music" and he'd leave you with an L (loss) by your name; ask the obstinate Don Drysdale. Deck him with a punch, mess his face up and he'd wear your club out the rest of the season—ask the Braves and Eddie Mathews.