Number 20

When you are ten years old and delivering the afternoon newspapers to the households on your route, you are not thinking that you are in the golden age of anything.  As the skin on your hands darkens from the news hot off the press you are reading the headlines. Don’t know what the Suez Canal is about and honestly don’t care much. What is exciting, though, is the news on the inner pages about the three team race for the National League pennant. Upstart teams in Milwaukee and Cincinnati are making the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team that ran away with the pennant last year and finally beat the Yankees in the World Series, fight for every game in order to repeat. It’s not the golden age of anything. It’s always been this way, right? This is what your dad and your older brothers and everyone is talking about, right?

The Braves had finished 13 and a half games out in second place in 1955 and the Reds, sometimes calling themselves the Redlegs during the McCarthy weirdness of the 50s, were buried in fifth, 23 and a half games back. Things got very different the next season for Cincinnati as they added a 31 year old  right handed pitcher named Brooks Lawrence, who became a 19 game winner, and a 20 year old outfielder named Frank Robinson. Robinson, who was born in Beaumont, Texas but grew up in  Oakland, California, made quite a difference for the Reds, who finished two games behind the Dodgers in ’56. The Braves, who would win it all the following season, finished one game out. Robinson became rookie of the year in the National League . He batted .290 and his 38 home runs were the most ever tallied by a first year player. He stole 8 bases and played a stellar left field  in addition to becoming a right handed slugger to join Wally Post  countering the lefty power threats Ted Kluszewski, Gus Bell, and Ed Bailey on the Reds.  That team tied the New York Giants record  team total of 221 set in 1947.

There was a lot more than statistics about Frank Robinson, though. He was a fierce, proud competitor to say the least. His tall, thin but muscular frame crowded the plate. He also led the league in another category that rookie season. He was hit by a pitch 20 times. In his career, which lasted through 1976, when he was playing manager of the Cleveland Indians, Robinson got plunked 198 times. He feared no one, and buzzing him probably hurt pitchers more than it helped them. His first year was Jackie Robinson‘s last, and he took up the cause proudly and gracefully.

He led the National League in intentional walks four consecutive years, from 1961 to ’64. Cincinnati went to the World Series in 1961 and contended for the next couple of seasons under manager Fred Hutchinson, notably finishing just a game behind the Cardinals in ’64 as Hutchinson fell ill with cancer. They had added another Oakland product, Vada Pinson, and had become more of a running team with solid pitching. By the way, if those days had been the golden age of anything, it had been the golden age of the dominance of excellent athletes from the Bay Area like Willie Stargell, Joe Morgan, Curt Flood, and Robinson. Robinson was a high school basketball player at McClymonds High with  a guy named Bill Russell. It’s difficult to imagine any team anywhere  with a pair of  prouder winners or more fierce competitors than Frank Robinson and Bill Russell.

We all know the story of how the Reds decided that Frank was old at 30 and traded him to the Baltimore Orioles, where he became the MVP of the American League in 1966, his triple crown season. Not incidentally, the Orioles became winners for a long time while Cincinnati disappeared until 1972.

It was a genuine thrill to see Frank Robinson hit a home run in his first game as the first black skinned manager in the major leagues even if it was embarrassing to know that it took that long. He was the same kind of manager  as he was a player—good, and tough. No one messed with number 20 without regretting it. He may have been more popular had he been less honest. He has gone and left a lot of popular losers in the dust.

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