Back in 1966—or so it seemed to those who cannot resist sniffing about the dead ashes of racial conflict in baseball—an odd couple had been joined, one that was certain to become just as prominently inseparable as Vidal-Buckley, Quixote-Panza, Yin and Yang. The quake of the union would not miss the Richter scale or—if the Orioles were fortunate—the couple would mold the club into a Freudian delight. The thinking at the time seemed strained, but it was a situation worth a glance over the winter grayness.
Who could ignore, the whispers went, the portent of their backgrounds? Frank Robinson: black, raised in black Oakland, broodingly distant but forever at the center of tempest in Cincinnati; a towering talent, cataloged as a chronic dissident and not worth the trouble. Brooks Robinson: white, raised simply and quietly in Little Rock, charmingly bland, already a Musialian figure in Baltimore; a truly gifted performer and a species of player baseball presses to its bloodless heart.
The milieu of Baltimore, it was noted, would be the perfect backdrop. Racism in the town seldom stepped out in dramatic view, the sort that is anathema to blacks. It breathed heavily in dark parlors in the city where they sit and listen for the footsteps of change, charred slowly on the steak-scented lawns of Baltimore County. It was the kind that did not kill the spirit but just left the black (prayerfully) enough to inspire him to stay off welfare.
Of special interest, too, was this aspect of Oriole baseball: its audience, heavily white, had never had a black star of Frank Robinson's dimensions. The reasons why this was so range from the Orioles' bad luck with big-bonused blacks to, some said, plain indifference. It was certain that the fans, as is their tradition, would be suspicious of Robinson, or any star acquired in a trade (especially a black one with a big mouth). The hunt for flaws would be meticulous; only the ordinary go the distance in Baltimore.
To use that great American word without which no athlete could survive banquets, it was simply a challenge for Robinson. Inwardly he was embarrassed by the implication back in Cincinnati that he was through, his pride scarred by the talent the Orioles gave up for him in the trade. "I kept thinking of Mays, Mantle and Aaron," he says. "Where was Robinson? Over 30 and out, they tried to make me believe." At Baltimore his prestige would be in a precarious position. For the Orioles, he alone could mean a pennant. The only question was what, on or off the field, would tip the delicate balance that was Frank Robinson, and would his vast presence change B. Robinson?
The scene and the casting, though a bit too neat, where promising but the denouement had the emotional range of a cap gun. What the alliance between the two Robinsons has wrought, instead of destruction, is one of the most fearful machines in baseball: two pennants and one World Series within the last five years. The people (except for a brief incident when he was trying to find a house) have been sensitive and admirable in their behavior toward Frank; Brooks has long been deified. But outside of the city of Baltimore the Robinsons cannot escape the glance, the hunt and peck for discord or even just a particle of racial dandruff on the shoulder. Whispers are not easily muffled.
The fact remains that the Robinsons are like two Shriners lost in the blue light of a Manhattan morning. The wing-spread of Frank never showed on the face of Brooks when he suddenly became the other Robinson. The town still belongs to him but the club, at least visually, is the property of Frank. He brought the Orioles a pennant and, like a munitions fire, he swept over the club. The term, leader, an abused, loosely bestowed recognition in athletics, fits Frank like a stick in the hand of Buddy Rich.
Brooks could be tenacious, wreck the opposition with a glove and bat, but a certain force, a third-rail quality, if you will, never surfaced. He is not sure what leader means anyway, but he senses that Frank does vibrate the club. The guess is that Brooks—with a shotgun at his back at that—would only admit one annoyance concerning Frank, his noisome practice of kangaroo jurisprudence in the Oriole clubhouse after victories. The bit was meant as comic relief during a long season but it has been obliterated by the press—and Oriole success—into a juvenile bore. Only once has Frank indicated the pressure of the other Robinson's presence, and that was early in 1966 when a scoring decision provoked him. With knifing, brutal language he humiliated the scorer in front of the entire clubhouse, even though public criticism, when used by managers, is a tactic he abhors. The play in question, he told the scorer, was identical to one involving Brooks a few weeks before. "I guess," he said, "it depends on who the hitter is, huh?"
The unsubtle point was ignored and rightly so. It was too early to stake out Frank, and what evolved over the years justifies the discretion. The Robinsons emerged as more compatible than they could ever realize. For one thing, neither belongs, by action or thought, to what has become labeled as the underground of baseball, that creeping tide of players who balk at the consummate silliness of The Game's decrees. Those who have finally reached what they thought would be the golden ideal but wonder now whether it was only just a dream all the time; nobody told them to cut their hair in that dream; nobody, neither player nor executive, played petty, pernicious little games in that dream.
A game that demands more imagination than any other from its audience, baseball has always been notable for a certain stock of athlete—socially incubated, doltish, a gleaming reflection of the American Dream. They have always been children from the factories, prairies and farms of the country, and baseball embraced them, merchandised them as such; all that they were could be found on the back of a bubble-gum card. Slowly change has enveloped the player. The Game itself is no longer sanctified in the waters of the Ganges. The performer, too, from ghettos and colleges, has become conscious of where he is, what he is.