One of my childhood heroes, Frank Robinson, died last week.
Frank’s name might not be all that familiar to young people today. But to me back in the early 1960s, Frank Robinson was the greatest baseball player in the world. I still think he is the greatest Cincinnati Red of them all. He also was the main figure in one of the worst trades in baseball history and one of the worst days of my young life.
It was Dec. 9, 1965, and I was 9 years old. My mother was in the kitchen. She looked a little apprehensive when I showed up. As carefully as she could, she said, “You know, I heard the Reds traded Frank Robinson.”
I didn’t believe her. No one would ever trade Frank Robinson! But she assured me that, yes, it was true. To the Baltimore Orioles.
I was stunned. Even though it was December, I found my baseball glove and a tennis ball and went outside. We had a little wall around the terrace in front of our house where I would throw the ball and then catch it when it bounced off. I went out there and threw that ball so hard it would have made Don Drysdale flinch. I pretended it was the World Series and the Orioles were playing the Reds and every time Frank Robinson came up to bat I threw the ball extra hard. He hit a home run every time. I was an instant Orioles fan.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood that people like Frank Robinson had a bigger impact on the world than just what they did on the baseball field. My heroes at the time were Robby and the Big O, Oscar Robertson, who played for the Cincinnati Royals. Later I added University of Dayton basketball player Donnie May to my list. A generation before, it would have been unthinkable for a little white kid from Troy, Ohio, to have black guys like Robinson and Robertson as heroes. But it seemed natural to me.
I later found out that the path wasn’t easy for them. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League baseball in 1947 and Earl Lloyd became the first black man to play in the NBA in 1950. So my heroes weren’t the first, but they still had to face a lot of prejudice on their way up. And they were so good at what they did they made it clear they not only belonged, but they were the best.
Frank Robinson went on to become the first African-American major league manager and then worked for Major League Baseball in various capacities. He not only was good, he was smart.
Not everyone thought the same about Robby as I did. He was sometimes criticized during his playing days for being difficult to get along with or overly aggressive on the field. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a second baseman trying to turn a double play when Frank Robinson was running toward second base.
But for a 9-year-old boy, Robby was The Man. He and the Big O often were the objects of criticism in Cincinnati, which at the time was not exactly an example of racial harmony. It’s kind of amazing that Cincinnati had two of the greatest players of their respective sports in town at the same time. I don’t think the city appreciated what was there until they were traded away.
The Reds traded Robby for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson. None of them ever amounted to much with the Reds, although it is only fair to say that Pappas did win 16 games for the Reds in 1967 and later pitched pretty well for the Cubs.
I guess it says something about how privileged my childhood was that the Cincinnati Reds trading a baseball player could be such a dark day for me. Other children might have wondered where they were going to get their next meal or how they could avoid getting abandoned or beaten and I was devastated by a baseball trade. But that’s the way it was. I can still feel the pain today.
So thanks, Robby, for being a great baseball player and for teaching me something about life. I’m going to go find my baseball glove and a tennis ball and go outside and throw the ball up against the wall in front of the house a few times. Frank Robinson will be the batter. I can’t throw the ball as hard as I used to, but it doesn’t matter.
It will still be a home run every time.
David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.