Robinson came up in a different time. (This is where the gravitas of the man shows up; the schoolkids should know that.) He went to his first major league spring training camp exactly 50 years ago, a skinny teenager from Oakland trying to make the Reds. Cincinnati trained in Tampa then, and black players could not stay at the team hotel, so Robinson had to rent a room in a boardinghouse on the other side of town. That same year, 1955, Rosa Parks startled the nation when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala.
DeWitt became G.M. of the Reds in '60. (He would buy the team in '62.) One February night in '61 Robinson was arrested around 2 a.m. after an incident at an all-night diner in which a cook brandished a knife at Robinson and Robinson drew a gun. The police put him in a holding cell and called DeWitt. The Reds' G.M., according to Robinson, said, "Let him stay in there until morning." All these years later Robinson is still steamed that DeWitt did not arrange for his immediate release.
After the '64 season Robinson went into DeWitt's office to negotiate his contract for '65. Robinson said DeWitt kept him waiting for an hour and a half. "I finally get in, and the first thing he says is, 'They tell me you're not hustling out there. I'm going to cut your contract by $5,000,'" Robinson says. He eventually got a raise out DeWitt, but what he remembers best is the slap. Robinson was the most hard-nosed of players, one who stood almost on top of the plate. He dogged nothing but the dugout-to-outfield run. Then, after the '65 season, came the biggest slap. At the time, the trade, which sent Robinson to Baltimore for outfielder Dick Simpson and pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun, was regarded, in the language of old school G.M.'s, as value for value. It took Robinson's fierce '66 season, when he hit a career-high 49 home runs and the Orioles won the World Series, to make it look as it does today, like one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.
In his 1988 book, Extra Innings, Robinson wrote that he and Pinson were thought of as "a Negro clique" that hurt team morale. Jackie Pinson, Vada's ex-wife, said in a recent interview that the Reds believed the duo was "double trouble," even though Pinson was well-known for being a mild-mannered, early-to-bed baseball gent. Barbara Robinson said the Reds wanted a "white superstar, not a black one." These are impressions; there are people who would dispute them. In any event, DeWitt is one of the few G.M.'s to have won a pennant in both the American and National leagues, but Robinson is the only player to have been the MVP in both leagues. In '66, Robinson won the Triple Crown and was turned away at a Baltimore movie house. "Your money's no good here," he was told.
And now Robinson will report to work in the nation's capital, to manage the local baseball team. He's not trying to prove anything to Bill DeWitt anymore. DeWitt died 23 years ago.
Robinson knows DeWitt's son, Bill DeWitt Jr., owner of the Cardinals and friend to the President. DeWitt and Robinson have been bumping into each other for years, in Cooperstown, in baseball's New York City offices, in ballparks across the country. Robinson knows he'll see him in Washington, sooner or later. They're always cordial to each other but never talk about their most important common link. That's not how guys talk about baseball. "I never bring it up with him, and he never brings it up with me," Robinson said as he was driving out of Space Coast Stadium the other day in his gleaming white Cadillac. There were young players on the field, playing catch and jabbering away in Spanish.
When it comes to the first Bill DeWitt, Robinson and Bill Jr. seem to be talking about two different men. In his Yale summers and after he graduated from Harvard Business School in 1965, the younger DeWitt worked for his father. "There was once a meeting in his office, and the subject was whether we should get Bob Veale, and one of the guys said, 'We can't have a black pitcher,'" Bill Jr. said recently. You get the feeling the actual language was far coarser. "After the meeting my father said to me, 'You see what I have to put up with?'" What his father cared about, Bill Jr. says, "was putting the best possible team he could on the field."
In the dawn of a new season, the Cardinals' owner was thinking that maybe he should start the conversation he and the Hall of Famer have never had. It would be uncomfortable, but hell, at the end of the day we most regret what we don't do, don't say, right? DeWitt is a baseball guy, and Robinson has been living in the game for 50 years and living in his skin for a score beyond that. His knowledge is vast. You get a chance to tap into that, you take it. The D.C. schoolkids will figure that out soon enough.