Thursday, February 14, 2019


Frank Robinson: A swing literally like no other...
Frank Robinson's passing last week reminded me of how I wound up wearing number 20 whenever I played "organized ball" (from Pony League to high school to fast/slow-pitch softball). It also prompted a stroll through the data at Forman et fils (just given a shoutout in the New York Times, BTW) to sharpen an entire range of recollection.

First, number 20. It came from Frank, stemming from my first trip to a major league ballpark in Los Angeles. (That is, if you can call the Coliseum a major league baseball park. It was big, to be sure: but that "Chinese fence"--offensive then, even more so now--in left was clearly a jive-ass kluge even to a callow eight-year old.)

The date was Sunday, July 9, 1961. I'd finally badgered my Dad to take time out of his workaholic schedule and schlep us to a game. (We'd moved to LA in 1959 just in time for the Dodgers to pull off their improbable World Series win; we were supposed to go to a game the next year, but two weeks before our scheduled excursion I rode my bike into an open intersection and was hit by a car. Riding barefoot like any fool kid at the time, I had my left foot torn up as part of the collision and spent the next six weeks in a cast: needless to say, the game was scratched.)

Even without the aid of the electronic box score (kudos to Retrosheet for bringing it all back home), the game was memorable. You're not likely to forget a first game when during it someone drives in seven runs.

Yes, that someone was Frank Robinson. The Dodgers had been chasing the Reds, coming into a weekend four-game series (the last before the All-Star break) in second place, three games behind. Their new ace, Sandy Koufax, had gotten hit hard in the first game of Friday's doubleheader: the Dodgers had dropped both games that night, 11-7 and 4-1. They'd regrouped on Saturday behind Johnny Podres (on his way to his best-ever season with the Dodgers: he'd finish the year 18-5), knocking out 14 hits en route to a 10-1 win--but Robinson had been hot (.375 over his last 50 games, with 16 HRs and 52 RBI) and he was primed for action on Sunday afternoon.

I can still remember the distinctive upright stance, and the hands swinging low, followed by a quick stride. There was contact, and--bam!--a high fly that settled over the ludicrous screen in left. It gave the Reds a 2-0 lead.

We were down fairly low, as tickets hadn't sold well at all for this game--and Robinson had seemed even bigger than his 6'1" frame. (The only guys who seemed bigger--Reds' pitcher Joey Jay, and a huge guy in the Dodgers dugout who didn't play but seemed to be grinding up the dugout railing bare-handed. You may recall his name: Frank Howard.)

I'd forgotten, but the game was remarkable for something that would never happen today: both Koufax and Don Drysdale pitched in relief.

In fact, they came into the game back-to-back. Koufax relieved Roger Craig with the bases loaded and one out in the third with the score tied 2-2: he struck out the first man he faced, but his on-again off-again nemesis Wally Post slapped a liner into center to drive in two runs--we call them "inherited runners" now--putting the Reds back in the lead, one they never relinquished. Drysdale relieved Koufax in the fifth, when Post was due up again. I remember being mystified that Drysdale then proceeded to intentionally walk Jerry Lynch, who'd been sent up to hit for Post. And I remember asking my Dad: "why couldn't the other pitcher have just walked the guy who was batted for?" My Dad's reply was the classic non-response: "That's a very good question."

He also didn't have an answer when Gene Freese's liner to center was caught by a charging Ron Fairly, who thought he had a play at the plate on Vada Pinson, but who then threw wildly to home, allowing the run to score and the two other runners (Robinson and Lynch) to take an extra base. Reds 5, Dodgers 2. The next batter, catcher Johnny Edwards (who hit .186 that year), was intentionally walked to get to pitcher Jay, who (as Forman et fils tells us) was at that very moment hitting 3-for-48 (.065) thus far in 1961 and currently had a lifetime .108 batting average.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the gnarliest headhunter
of 'em all? That big jackass DRYSDALE, that's who!"
My father had been enjoying a beer he'd just purchased from a vendor (who talked strangely while sweating profusely), but when Jay proceeded to line one into the right-center field gap, he began to swear--just as profusely. Two more runs scored, and it was hard to tell who had the more astonished expression on their face: Don Drysdale, Joey Jay, or my Dad.

Drysdale was able to work off his frustration during the next inning, however. After he'd allowed a double to Pinson, he then proceeded to hit Robinson with a pitch, at which point he was given the rest of the day off.

Frank didn't take the rest of the day off, however. In the eighth inning he hit his second homer--a wicked line drive off Dick (Turk) Farrell that kept rising as it rocketed into the left-center field seats about ten feet east of the silly screen. That made it 10-3, which became 11-3 when Freese homered later in the inning.

And in the ninth, Farrell--who'd been victimized by two consecutive infield errors--found himself facing Frank with the bases loaded. He got a slow curve over in the zone for a strike, but Frank was in a zone of his own and sent the next pitch rocketing toward left-center again.

This one wasn't hit as high, and stayed in the park, but it sailed over Fairly and made a thunderous sound when it hit the base of the wall. Three more runs scored, and Frank collected RBIs five, six and seven.

As we trudged back to our car afterwards (final score: Reds 14, Dodgers 3), I remember saying to my Dad: "Number 20 killed us." (And even though the numbers 7, 24, and 44 were far more iconic in the world of 60s baseball, when it came time for me to wear a baseball uniform, Frank's performance on that July afternoon cemented my choice of a lifetime.) As we all know, "number 20" (except for that one year when he actually played for the Dodgers, when Don Sutton wouldn't relinquish the number and Frank inexplicably wore number 36...36?) killed a lot of teams--and many opponents' dreams.

He was also a pioneer, a clubhouse comic, and a hitter who never quite was considered to be as great as two other superb right-handed sluggers whose careers were closely aligned with his: Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

Neither of those two incredible inner-circle Hall of Famers accomplished what Frank Robinson did, however: he won a Triple Crown (in 1966, after having been traded to the Orioles by a GM who had the temerity--and idiocy--to call him "an old 30"); he appeared in five World Series (equal to the combined totals of Hank and Willie); and--big "and"--he was the first African-American to manage in the big leagues.

Frank didn't quite match the HR output of Hank and Willie: that upright stance produced more line drives than they did. But his overall output was, at its peak, equal to theirs. The combined OPS+ chart for six-year peaks demonstrates that he was just as devastating in his own way. But due to the vagaries of All-Star game selection, he started only two All-Star games during his ten years with the Reds. The greatest troika of outfielders in the history of the National League started only one All-Star game together (1957).

Frank was a bit mercurial as a manager--as a former superstar, he could be excessively demanding. But he was very good at restoring equilibrium for struggling franchises. He could be irreverent and imperious at the same time, and pull it off. There was more depth to him than the other superstars who only seemed to shine more brightly. Rest in peace, Number 20...