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Black and Blue
Sandy Koufax, the Robinson Boys, and the World Series That Stunned America
By Tom Adelman
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Baltimore 1966. Suffering through a summer of heated racial animosity, baseball fans look hungrily to the Orioles to bring new respect to their once-great city. Their young team of no-name kids and promising prospects appears to have been strengthened by the recent addition of veteran slugger Frank Robinson – but the former National League MVP is bad news (it is rumored), washed up and unreliable.
To lay these rumors to rest, Robby must play harder than he’s ever played before. In his first year in the league, against unfamiliar pitchers in new ballparks, he resoundingly proves his worth — to his city, his team, and himself — by delivering a Triple Crown performance. Aided by a hilarious and memorable cast of characters — the gentlemanly southerner Brooks Robinson and the wickedly inventive prankster Moe Drabowsky, a pitching staff of unknown kids like Jim Palmer and Dave McNally, and a gargantuan yet nimble fielder called Boog” — Frank Robinson delivers his new team to its first World Series. But before they take it all, the Orioles must unseat the reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
With America’s cities in mounting turmoil, Los Angeles seems like another world altogether, a sunny land of surfers and movie stars. Comfortably dwelling in this higher plane is pitching ace Sandy Koufax, arguably the greatest lefthander in baseball history, behind whom the Dodgers have won two of the previous three World Series, replacing the Yankees as the sport’s dominant team. Though battling agonizing arthritis throughout the season, the godlike Koufax has nonetheless persevered to win twenty-seven games in 1966, a personal best. Few outside Baltimore give the Orioles more than a fighting chance against such series veterans as Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, Tommy Davis, and the rest. Experts are betting that the Dodgers can sweep it in four.
“What transpires instead astonishes the nation, as the greatest pitching performance in World Series history is capped by a redemption beyond imagining.” — Book Jacket
Table of Contents
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One cold afternoon in 1965, two weeks after Thanksgiving, the Cincinnati Reds telephoned Frank Robinson, their star outfielder, to inform him that he'd just been traded. He was going south, they explained. To Baltimore.
Frank was stung. 1 Naturally, there had been rumors; there always were. He'd heard that he would be sent to Houston; then it was supposed to be Cleveland, and then New York. He hadn't really believed any of it, hadn't bothered paying much attention. Why trade him? For a decade, he'd been Cincinnati's best player, regularly batting higher than .300, every season averaging more than thirty homers and one hundred runs batted in. In 1956 he'd been a unanimous pick for Rookie of the Year, in 1961 the overwhelming choice for Most Valuable Player. He was the greatest run producer in the history of the Reds. The previous year, he'd knocked in 113 runs, hit .296 with 33 home runs. Why deal your strongest hitter? It made no sense.
"Well," asked Robby, "who'd you get for me?"
"Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson."
They'd gotten three guys in exchange, not bad. Baldschun was a workhorse in the bull pen, Simpson a young, speedy outfielder—solid talents certainly, but essentially throw-ins, addenda. The main guy was Milt Pappas. He was a right-hander with a swift fastball, a nasty slider, and, by late 1965, the best record of any starter in Oriole history. He was also nobody's favorite, ostracized by his own teammates for behaving like a snot, viewed by the Baltimore organization as a hypochondriac, disdained by umpires and official scorers alike for his on-the-field tantrums.
Knowing little of this, Bill DeWitt, the owner of the Cincinnati ball club, welcomed the trade. His Reds, though powerful, were just shy of championship caliber. In 1965 they'd hit and fielded better than any other team in the league, remaining in contention until the season's last week. DeWitt's pitching staff, however, had given up too many walks and too many runs. Falling fast, Cincinnati had finished in fourth place. DeWitt was intent on fixing things, and his big idea was to unload Robby before it was too late. He saw Frank as overvalued, a fading talent increasingly hobbled by leg injuries. When reminded that the perennial all-star was only thirty years old, DeWitt shrugged. "Thirty," he agreed, "but an old thirty." 3
If there was one thing everyone in baseball knew about Frank Robinson, it was this: never make him mad. His temper focused his competitive spirit. Phillie manager Gene Mauch fined his pitchers if they brushed Frank back, and Dodger manager Walter Alston warned his staff against "waking the beast," growing frustrated whenever his head-hunting hurler Don Drysdale worked Robby inside. 4 Frank savored every challenge. He performed best when he had something to prove—during pennant drives, in televised matches, with a game on the line. Beanballs and boobirds only fueled Robby's concentration. Anger improved the quality of his play. And DeWitt's comment infuriated him.
It was in this context that Frank Robinson, a muscular, ambitious African American every bit as seething and rancorous as the country itself, was dispatched down to Baltimore.
Had he hopped on a plane to fly there, Robinson would have soared above a nation on the brink of ignition. Crime and poverty were on the rise, along with claims of discrimination and police brutality. The civil rights movement had lost its patience. Peaceful sit-ins and freedom marches were giving way to increasingly militant demonstrations for racial equality. The Southeast Asian conflict was shifting into the Vietnam War. Seventy-five million baby boomers were coming of age, many of whom were being randomly drafted to fight meaningless battles in a jungle half a world away.
The northern inner cities were growing progressively more restless, and the declining neighborhoods around Cincinnati's Crosley Field, Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, Detroit's Tiger Stadium, Chicago's Comiskey Park, Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, and Washington's D.C. Stadium were particular flash points. Baseball season was being supplanted by riot season, the long, hot summers of the mid-1960s less an invitation to ballpark repose than a call to urban warfare.
Raised mostly by his mother in a rough patch of West Oakland, Robby had grown up poor, across the Bay from San Francisco, the youngest of eleven children. His manner, from infancy, was swift and intense. He needed to be forceful just to survive, he later said, sharing a dinner table with that many siblings, with only their mom to keep the peace. 5 He was a tall, skinny kid, somewhat shy, with a tendency to slouch, but he adored the game of baseball, and he gravitated every afternoon to the diamond near his mom's house, playing into the evening and up to the very edge of darkness. 6 From his absentee dad, Frank got one thing: an obstinate determination to show him up. "Frank will never make a big-league baseball player," his father told Frank's brothers. "There's no way he can make it." 7 So began a lifelong mission to prove his detractors wrong.
In high school, Robinson came under the tutelage of an exceptionally decent man named George Powles, a white coach who shaped many impoverished black children into professional ballplayers. Powles expected his players to devote themselves fully to the game. He taught Frank to think positively and play aggressively. 8 Thanks to him, one week after graduating from McClymonds High School, at age seventeen, Robby signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds. His bonus was $3,500. The year was 1953.
He was in the minor leagues for two years, and it was there, out and about in America for the first time, that the talented teenager suddenly encountered racism. Movie theaters and restaurants turned him away for being the wrong color. 9 Fans encouraged him to go back to Africa. His name seemed no longer to be Frank Robinson but "Hey Nigger" or "Coon Boy." 10 He accompanied his club through Utah and Idaho, around Oklahoma, from South Carolina into Georgia, unable to leave the back of the team bus to get food or even to use the bathroom. When at last they'd arrive at their destination, Robby would have to stay somewhere else, across town in a room without air-conditioning, at a YMCA or in a private home. It was always crowded, and in the morning he'd have to locate a "Negro Cab" to get to the ballpark. Once he took the field, the fans howled with indignant taunts and jeers. His every movement was mocked, his sexual preferences maligned, his family's name impugned. What could possibly have prepared him for this? He had had an attentive and caring mother, loving siblings, enthusiastic encouragement from classmates and coaches of every color. Poor, yes, but a different America. Segregation floored him. "You get angry," he acknowledged later, "but one person isn't going to throw the thing down." His response, as always, was to turn their invective into incentive, to drive himself all the harder in order to climb.
Robinson entered Cincinnati's lineup on Opening Day 1956, twenty years old, vengeful and magnificent. What he'd endured in the minors had sharpened his cutthroat style to perfection. He positioned himself even with the plate, crowding the strike zone with his upper torso to guard the outside corner. National League pitchers saw him hanging over the plate like a question mark, asking to be hit. They were only too willing to oblige—most often Don Drysdale, who once, when told to give Robby a base on balls, followed the order by hurling four straight fastballs at his head. 11 Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, besides always being among the best in slugging percentage, Frank also led in beanings. This was fine. When they dropped him, he would take his base, then take it out on their infielders. No black major leaguer had ever dared slide so hard, so nakedly combative. "I feel it's good to bump a guy," downplayed Frank, "even if I know I'm out." 12 It was never just a bump. Unapologetically, he barreled through second basemen, knocked shortstops into left field, tore their stockings with his cleats, ripped tendons and ligaments, broke limbs. It mattered not whether they were white, black, or Latino. "My creed is to play all-out," Frank explained, "always to go all-out." The base paths belonged to him. Whoever got in his way had to accept the consequences. "The possibility of the infielder being wounded by spikes," he said, "is part of baseball." To break up a double play, he cut Don Zimmer of the Dodgers, flattened Johnny Logan of the Braves. 13 He sliced open the arm of Dodger catcher John Roseboro so badly that Rosey bore a long scar for the rest of his life. 14 "He's trying to maim people," LA's Don Newcombe accused. A loner who rarely smiled, Robinson was always admired but seldom liked. "Deliberately vicious," one opponent described him. 15 One famous, spikes-high slide into Milwaukee third baseman Eddie Mathews during the 1960 pennant race initiated baseball's first fistfight between black and white stars. 16
Frank Robinson is decked by a Dodger pitcher. A familiar scene when Robby played for Cincinnati. (AP / Wide World Photos)
The same year he fought Mathews, Robby purchased an Italian Beretta .25. He often carried a lot of cash on him and figured he needed the protection. He practiced shooting targets at the police firing range in Cincinnati, where the cops would snicker at the small size of his gun. 17 Frank never needed even to brandish it until late on February 9, 1961, in a coffee shop, when a short-order cook gestured threateningly from the kitchen. In those days, he had a quick fuse; he would let things bug him until he exploded. From his right jacket pocket, Frank withdrew the loaded Beretta. "You think you're a big man," he hollered at the cook. "Come on!"
The cook froze. Two policemen happened to be sitting across the restaurant. "Hey," the cook called out to them, "that guy's got a gun!" 18
Almost reluctantly, they took Robby in and booked him for carrying a concealed weapon. The holding cell was very hot. He lay down, with his jacket as a pillow, and asked himself what in the hell he was doing. "For the first time I began to realize that I wasn't a kid anymore and that I better stop acting like one." 19 He made bail, pleaded guilty, and paid a $250 fine.
Then the teasing began. "Hey, Colt .45!" the fans would jeer. "Who do you think you are—Wyatt Earp?" When he'd get called out on a play, people would taunt him, asking why he didn't pull his gun on the umpire. 20 "All those remarks, all that jockeying served a purpose," Frank recalled. "It was like waving a red flag in front of me constantly. It was a reminder, a goad." 21 Before the year was out, Robby had homered in a World Series, won the Most Valuable Player Award, and married Barbara Ann Cole. He finished the 1961 season with a .323 batting average, having hit 37 home runs and batted in 124 runs. His totals in 1962 were even higher—a batting average of .342, 39 home runs, and 136 RBIs.
He'd grown comfortable in the National League. He knew what to expect from the pitchers, and they knew enough to respect him. Cincinnati had made its peace with him, and he with it. As of December 9, 1965, however, that whole chapter of his life was over. He was going to the American League, to Baltimore. And he had no idea what to expect.
Robby's next stop, it turned out, was not so different from his last. Like Cincinnati, Baltimore was a hilly waterfront town with an industrial past, filled with low-slung brick buildings and the descendants of German immigrants. A century and a quarter earlier, it had been, after New York, the nation's second largest city. Now, in 1966, it was the sixth, and falling fast. "A little town," Oriole pitcher Wally Bunker remembered. "A little cow town." 22 The actor known as Divine, recalling his own childhood there, noted, "When you live in Baltimore, you don't think anything could ever happen." 23 Yet it possessed charms—its neighborhoods of old-fashioned row houses; its numerous churches, bridges, and monuments; its downtown tower one million bricks high; its reputation for amiability, for religious tolerance, for discerning social clubs. The largest neon sign on the East Coast was an advertisement for Domino sugar in Baltimore Harbor, its bright red light glistening on the aged docks where stevedores continued as always to carouse with merchant sailors and roustabouts. Men in the blue-collar sections still raised racing pigeons in lofts, and sidewalk vendors—"Street A-rabs"—sold strawberries out of horse-drawn carts, as they had since Baltimore's heyday. "People there never talked about it as a city," film director and Baltimore native Barry Levinson recalled. "They always called it 'The Town.'" 24 The odor of cinnamon and cloves wafted through, generated by the resident spice-makers. "I loved the feel of it," said John Fialka, a reporter back then for the Baltimore Sun. "Someone once compared liking Baltimore to 'falling in love with a woman who has a broken nose.' That covers me." 25
But more than her nose was broken. For more than a decade, the city had been losing both jobs and whites to the suburbs, and the tens of thousands of southern blacks arriving in Maryland's capital of late could find no work. The flour mills and coffee warehouses from which Baltimore had garnered much of its wealth were closed, and many of its factories and shipyards were in sad shape. An urban renewal project was displacing many of the poor, their apartment buildings being bulldozed and no immediate housing alternatives being provided. "In the 1960s, in the name of this concept of rebuilding," Levinson remembered, "they began to destroy some of the city's stronger, more colorful aspects." 26 The white middle class, though living still in the county of Baltimore, had largely abandoned the city, while its most privileged citizens had removed themselves still further, to exclusive neighborhoods as far north as the Pennsylvania line. They attended private schools and elite functions, registered their daughters as debutantes, had themselves listed in the blue book, and spent weekends perusing society columns to find out who wore what at the cotillion. Visiting in December 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. labeled Maryland the most segregated state in the North and Baltimore the largest segregated city in the country.
King's characterization was not entirely unfair, nor unexpected. This was not, of course, the Deep South, yet technically Baltimore was below the Mason-Dixon Line. The first blood of the Civil War had been spilled there when gangs of Confederate sympathizers had fired on Union troops traveling to Washington, D.C. Maryland, as a border state, had fallen on both sides of the conflict, divided against itself. John Wilkes Booth, fleeing the capital after shooting the president, had felt safe once he'd crossed into the state. Ninety-nine years later, the presidential candidacy of George Wallace, segregationist governor of Alabama, had tapped into a groundswell of support in Maryland. 27
By the time of Wallace's campaign, however, racial integration was well under way and could not be undone. In the face of the bravery exhibited by black GIs, in the wake of the aid and hard work provided the war effort by the country's African American communities, official justifications for segregation sounded hollow. Still, the clock ticked slowly in Baltimore. The city's institutions were mostly integrated by 1966, but encouraging the creation of diverse, multiracial neighborhoods had proved difficult. Real estate speculators—"blockbusters"—spread rumors that plummeting property values were caused by blacks, fueling white flight and profiting handsomely as a result. Middle-class African Americans who sought property were shown a limited number of offerings, tear-down homes for the most part, blatantly overpriced. If they moved in, white neighbors threw rocks and smeared their windows with mud. And so racial separation persisted.
Perhaps no single individual came to symbolize postwar integration more than Jack Robinson, a black ballplayer whose appearance in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform in 1947 was said to have pried open minds everywhere. But before the Dodgers could break the major-league color barrier, they first had to integrate the minors, and it was then, suited up as a member of the Montreal Royals, that Robinson had first passed through Baltimore.
Already, the port city had seen organized baseball dock, then set sail countless times. At one time or another, Baltimore had hosted a team in the National Association, the American Association, the Union Association, the Eastern League, the National League, the American League, the Federal League, and the Negro Eastern League. All of them had left. By 1946 only two teams remained. The Baltimore Orioles (distinct from the major-league team that would arrive in 1954) was the southernmost AAA team in the all-white International League, while the Baltimore Elite Giants played in the Negro National League.
During all those many decades, through all those leagues, every ballplayer who visited Baltimore came with his team only to oppose players of the same skin color. This ceased after the Royals—and Jack Robinson—arrived on April 27, 1946. While the white fans who sat behind his wife, Rachel, complained vociferously about "that nigger son of a bitch," Jack got a hit, stole a base, scored a run, and led his team to victory. 28 This continued all season long, and by year's end Jack possessed the league's highest batting average and fielding percentage. His team went on to win both the pennant and the Little World Series, and he was named the International League's Most Valuable Player. Setting an example Frank Robinson would later follow, Jack Robinson had competed less against the opposing team than against the white fans who turned out to greet him with bellicose threats and obscene taunts. He had fought the bigots of Baltimore through baseball and had emerged a hero.
In the wake of Frank's trade, as he busily readied himself to play in the new league, Barbara had traveled to Baltimore to locate a suitable home for them and their two young children. Her husband was one of the highest-paid baseball players of the era. (He would earn $68,000 in 1966.) Finding a decent four-bedroom in a metropolitan area inhabited by almost two million people should not have been difficult.
And indeed, over the phone to Mrs. Robinson, the real estate agents dwelled on the many available options. They talked up the elementary schools and the cozy, safe homes of Baltimore, streets silent but for the gentle breezes blowing through the porch rockers, the pedaling of cherubic paperboys bicycling along tree-lined avenues, or the occasional housewife scolding her poodle. Then the realtors met Barbara and immediately clammed up, backed away, suggested other firms that might be more suitable. All along they'd been thinking that her husband, "Mr. Robinson with the Baltimore Orioles," played third base, that she was Mrs. Brooks Robinson, that she was entitled to suburban comfort, that she was white.
The other two African Americans who played for the Orioles, Paul Blair and Sam Bowens, had accepted homes in black neighborhoods. (Blair, for example, lived in the Beacon Hill apartments.) 29 Eventually, Barbara did the same. She telephoned her husband in discouragement. She had found a place on Cedardale Road in Northwest Baltimore. It was grimy and infested with bugs, its floor covered with dog feces.
Welcome to Baltimore, Frank thought sourly. 30
In March 1966, Robby drove himself to Florida. He reported to the Orioles' spring training site on the seventh. His daughter had fallen ill, his car had broken down, his new baseball contract was taking time to resolve, and by the time he got to camp, the whole team was out on the field, shagging flies, playing catch, practicing hitting, perspiring in the Miami sun. Alone in the clubhouse, Frank pulled on his new uniform and the stirrup socks of black and orange, a combination of colors that dated back four hundred years to the family crest of Lord Baltimore. The team had a new logo that year, their formal, stitched bird insignia replaced by a smiling, googly-eyed Woody Woodpecker knockoff. Nobody liked the change. 31
As Frank emerged from the dugout carrying a bat, his new teammates got their first good look at him. His legs were long and slender, his waist narrow, his shoulders broad. He was tall, with a strong upper body and an astonishingly small face—squint-eyed, button-nosed, unsmiling, and intense.
As he strode up to the batting cage, Oriole infielder Luis Aparicio and pitcher Dave McNally turned rather lazily to watch. Leaning side by side against the cage, these two might at first have seemed to have little in common. McNally was from Montana, Aparicio from Venezuela. McNally was at the dawn of his career, Aparicio in the apparent twilight. Whereas "Mac" had yet to achieve much of anything, "Little Looie" was famous, during a lead-footed "slow ball" era in the league of the plodding slugger, for almost single-handedly reviving the moribund running game, stealing bases like no American Leaguer had since the days before Babe Ruth.
What these two distinctly different men shared, however, was a wry sense of humor. They were ballplayers, yes, but just as important, both were wiseasses.
As Robby neared the batting cage, Little Looie knitted his brows in consternation. "Is this all we got for Pappas?" he snorted, feigning disappointment. 32
Mac grimly shook his head. "Yeah," he said dubiously. He eyed the thin, stiltlike legs that had earned Frank the childhood nickname "Pencils" and asked, "Robinson, if you take your shoes off, do those things stick in the ground?" 33
Whereas many in Baltimore were still scratching their heads over this trade, not knowing what to think and fearing the worst, worrying that the club had exchanged Baltimore's finest pitcher for Bill DeWitt's damaged goods, McNally and Aparicio could not have been happier. McNally, winner of just eleven of twenty-nine starts in 1965 despite posting a personal best 2.85 ERA, anticipated plenty of run support with Robby in the lineup. Aparicio, still one of the best leadoff hitters in the history of the game, though coming off his most disappointing season, savored the prospect of being aboard when Frank came to bat, grabbing an extra base as the pitcher concentrated on the threat at the plate, advancing further if Frank flied to right, scampering home whenever Frank drove anything deep. Both foresaw a vast improvement in their own statistics as a result of the trade.
They were not alone. "Frank," said Brooks Robinson, beaming as he cut over to the batting cage to shake the new guy's hand, "you're exactly what we need." 34
There were many reasons for Brooks to feel otherwise. A former MVP himself, he had every right to feel crowded, to begrudge the new guy any attention—an American Leaguer skeptical about a National Leaguer's dedication to teamwork. Brooks had been the big bat in the lineup. He was about the same height, weight, and age as Robby, arguably even more talented, if not as well known nationally. He was clean-cut and outgoing, not moody, not a loner. He'd never in his life started a brawl or been picked up carrying a gun. He'd spent the entirety of his brilliant professional career in Baltimore's small, struggling market, where he'd become as synonymous with baseball as Johnny Unitas was with football. He was a proud and perennial Gold Glover, an infielder of uncommon grace, and thus possibly wary of Frank's reputation for occasional lapses in the outfield.
And of course he was a white man from the Deep South, namely the capital of Arkansas, that contentious battleground of desegregation, and had attended none other than Little Rock Central High School before blacks were allowed (under protection of the army's 101st Airborne Division) to attend. Brooks Robinson never played a single integrated sports game or shared a changing room with an African American until he got to the major leagues. In fact, Frank would be the first black star he had ever played alongside.
Most would have forgiven this pushed-aside, taken-for-granted white southerner if he had sought in spring training to create a little conflict, if he had wished, at least initially, for Frank to fall flat on his face. Remarkably, in real life, the magnificent Gold Glover from Little Rock, the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1964, the resident star of the Orioles seems never once to have felt that way.
As a boy, Brooks had dreamed only of getting signed to a baseball contract, of making the majors. 35 Now he dreamed of winning a pennant, of getting a chance to play in the ultimate contest, the World Series. Three times his team had come quite close. It was very much to his credit that they'd played so well. They'd settled in Baltimore as the Orioles only a decade earlier. Before then, they'd been the tragicomic St. Louis Browns, indisputably the single worst team in the history of major-league baseball. The club that Baltimore had inherited was a junker, but late in the 1960 season, inspired by its hardworking twenty-three-year-old third baseman, the youthful team, after only seven years of playing in Memorial Stadium, had surged dramatically toward the league championship. They'd ultimately fallen to—of course—the far mightier Yankees and finished second. Pursuing the Yankees in a much tighter race four years later, Brooks and company had ended up closer, just two games out of first place. And then in 1965, they'd had another promising start but a humiliating finish.
Having been an Oriole much longer than either Dave Mc-Nally or Luis Aparicio, Brooks firmly held that they had only to fine-tune the team, to add just one more ingredient to the mix, before Baltimore would achieve true excellence. With prescient clarity, Brooks understood that Robby was it, the final piece.
A twenty-year-old pitcher named Jim Palmer, his cartoonish eyebrows weighing heavily on his fresh, freckled face, observed from the sidelines as Robby stepped into the batting cage. The first pitch was a slider. Frank got out on his front foot, keeping his weight back, and smashed a clean double down the third-base line. It was the first time young Palmer had ever seen Frank swing the bat. Marveling, he turned to a teammate. "I think we just won the pennant." 36
With the addition of Robby, the Orioles now had sluggers spread about the diamond, or, in the words of their elated general manager, "cannons at the corners"—Curt Blefary in left field, Frank Robinson in right, Boog Powell at first base, Brooks at third. With the exception of Aparicio at short, however, unproven players manned the remaining positions—rookies Andy Etchebarren behind the plate, Davey Johnson at second, and Paul Blair in center. It was a fragile, even scary, combination. The pitching staff mirrored that mix: inexperienced starters backed by a bull pen of wizened relievers.
- On Sale
- May 30, 2010
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- Little, Brown and Company