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Frank Robinson, Baseball Integration, and the 1966 World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles

BHW 27: August 5, 2023

Photograph of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, taken from a tree-lined street.
Figure 1. “Baltimore Memorial Stadium, 1000 East Thirty-third Street, Baltimore,” unknown date, Library of Congress, public domain [1].

 

On October 9, 1966, Frank Robinson’s home run carried the Baltimore Orioles to the first World Series Championship in franchise history. The next day, the front page of the New York Times proclaimed: “Frank Robinson, completing a season in which he attained almost every possible professional honor, hit a home run off Don Drysdale in the fourth inning... And for Robinson there was unadulterated triumph.” [2] Robinson was the first African American star to play for the Orioles, in a year where they rostered just three Black players, the lowest number of any team in the major leagues. [3] It was also his first season with the team, and his first season in the American League. He finished the regular season with a .316 batting average, forty-nine home runs, and 122 runs batted in, leading the league in all three categories to accomplish what is known as the “Triple Crown.” [4] Robinson won both Most Valuable Player in the American League and World Series Most Valuable Player. Clearly his move to Baltimore prior to that season went well for him professionally. However, he and his wife Barbara were greeted coldly by the city’s rigid residential segregation. The first African American star on the Orioles and his family had a very difficult time finding a place to live in Baltimore. [5] On some occasions racist landlords got in the way, other times it was racist neighbors. He later recalled, “While I was in spring training with the Orioles, Barbara flew to Baltimore to find us a house to rent there. She phoned me, very upset… ‘Frank, I heard about this professor from Johns Hopkins University who had a nice house for rent… But when I showed up and he saw I was black, he decided he didn’t want to rent the house after all.” [6] Frank Robinson’s role in the integration and success of the Orioles in his first season with the team is even more remarkable considering the harsh treatment of African Americans in 1960s Baltimore City.


Between Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the major leagues in April 1947 and Baltimore trading for Frank Robinson in December 1965, a series of African American players had brief stints with the Orioles. The original Baltimore Orioles baseball franchise left Baltimore in 1903, moving to New York City and later becoming the Yankees. [7] In December 1953, the Orioles returned to Baltimore as a separate franchise through the relocation of the St. Louis Browns. [8] For their inaugural season in 1954, these Orioles had two African American players. That year, as the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling reverberated around the country, the Orioles remained largely segregated. The first African American to join the 1954 squad was Jehosie Heard, who went on to play in a total of two games for the team. [9] It is notable that the 34-year-old was considered the team’s oldest rookie since all his previous experience came in the Negro leagues. [10] Next was outfielder Joe Durham, who played ten games before departing on a two-year military service leave. [11] From then until Robinson joined the team for the 1966 season, other Black players had similarly short stints for the Orioles.


As Baltimoreans eagerly awaited Frank Robinson’s Orioles debut, local journalists asked if he might clash with star third-baseman Brooks Robinson, who hailed from Little Rock, Arkansas in the heart of the U.S. South. In addition to sharing the same last name, both players were indisputable superstars. Frank had won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1961, and Brooks won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1964. Frank later recalled, “we got along well from the very beginning. In fact, we had lockers next to one another for six years and never had a cross word.” He added, “I suspect Brooks was a key reason why, for the first time in my 14 years in professional baseball, black players and white players had drinks together and meals together when we were on the road.” But Frank made sure to mention, “I guess my only real disappointment during that time was that the black players and the white players never got together socially when we were playing at home. Not once did we have a meal together in a Baltimore restaurant or get together at a player’s home.” [12] He attributes this primarily to how players chose to spend their time at home versus on the road, but it could also relate to the racial climate in Baltimore itself. We saw earlier the example of the Johns Hopkins professor who turned Barbara Robinson away because he would not rent to a Black person. She also noted of this incident, “I called him and said, ‘I’m Barbara Robinson. My husband plays for the Orioles… He must have thought I was Mrs. Brooks Robinson.”


Barbara and Frank Robinson’s experiences finding housing in Baltimore provide a window into Black experiences of housing discrimination in 1960s Baltimore City. They eventually found a temporary solution in the spring of 1966. But as Barbara told Frank on the phone, “I didn’t have any real selection, and everything I saw was in a black neighborhood.” Describing their new home she said, “The place I took is filthy, with dog mess all over it. But I’ll have it cleaned and fumigated, and it’ll be all right.” [13] About one year later, in May 1967, a Baltimore activist group called Activists for Fair Housing sent a letter to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They told him about continued horrible housing discrimination in the city, particularly emphasizing the role of prominent local developer Joseph Meyerhoff. The group did not receive a response. [14] Less than a year after this letter, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. As Baltimore erupted into civil unrest following the assassination, the Orioles started their 1968 season on the road. It was not this Orioles squad’s first experience of urban uprising. Frank reflected on a road trip to Chicago in July 1966, during the unrest that swept the Chicago West Side that summer. He remembered, “most of the white players said they were going to stick with the Negro players while they were in Chicago. I said no they weren’t—they weren’t going to stick with me. I was going to stay away from them. They weren’t going to get me shot up.” [15]


The duo of Frank and Brooks Robinson kicked off the first game of the 1966 World Series with back-to-back home runs, setting the stage for an authoritative Orioles championship sweep over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Frank Robinson came up third in the first inning against future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. As Frank later recalled of his swing, “I knew I had a good shot because I had hit it in the right direction, almost down the line, and that’s only 340 feet, and I knew I had a chance if it was far enough back where the outfielder couldn’t reach into the stands for it. I don’t think I reached first base when I saw it fall in. Then everything went blank.” After celebrating in the dugout, he remembered, “Then I sat down and watched Brooks follow me with a home run and I felt great. I was back down to earth by then and it was just wonderful because now we had a 3-0 lead right there in the first inning and I felt that might almost be enough to win, although you never feel you have enough runs.” [16] The Orioles swept the rest of the series with authority, winning the 1966 World Series at home and filling the streets of Baltimore with jubilation.


Frank Robinson was the first African American star to play for the Baltimore Orioles. He was also the most important player on the Orioles team that won its first-ever World Series in 1966. Given the state of race relations in the city at the time, it is striking that a Black player carried the team to glory. Black residents were not permitted to choose where they would like to live. Rigid housing discrimination regulated the living patterns of Robinson and other African Americans in Baltimore. Robinson was vocal about his experiences as the Orioles’ first Black star, becoming increasingly vocal in his retirement about the racism he faced. [17] After the 1966 Championship, he also made a point of celebrating and connecting directly with the Baltimore community. The front-page of the Afro-American’s first post-Series publication declared, “It had all started at 3:47 p.m., when the beloved Birds had established their diamond supremacy by beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in four straight games. At 6:15, however, the superstar of the stellar attraction and his charming wife were easing along Cedardale Rd., in a sleek baby blue luxury car. Frank Robinson had remembered. ‘These are my neighbors and friends,’ he said.” [18] In spite of systemic racism and housing discrimination, Robinson demonstrated continued commitment to Baltimore and its communities.

 

[1] “Baltimore Memorial Stadium, 1000 East Thirty-third Street, Baltimore,” photograph (Baltimore, c. 1933-?), Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, public domain, https://www.loc.gov/item/md1542/.

[2] Leonard Koppett, “ORIOLES TRIUMPH OVER DODGERS, 1-0, TO SWEEP SERIES,” New York Times, October 10, 1966, 1, https://nyti.ms/3rzl4DV.

[3] Bob Luke, Integrating the Orioles: Baseball and Race in Baltimore (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016), 98, Kindle edition.

[4] Frank Robinson and Al Silverman, My Life Is Baseball (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1975), 199, https://archive.org/details/mylifeisbaseball00robi.

[5] Luke, Integrating the Orioles, 90.

[6] Frank Robinson and Berry Stainback, Extra Innings (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988), 59-60, https://archive.org/details/extrainnings0000robi.

[7] Luke, Integrating the Orioles, 7.

[8] Jesse A. Lintricum, “AMERICAN OWNERS VOTE 8-0 TO O.K. TRANSFER; CLUB’S FARMS INCLUDED,” Baltimore Sun, September 30, 1953, 1, https://www.newspapers.com/image/374865219.

[9] Kenneth Lasson, “Op-ed: A look back at the first Black Oriole,” the AFRO, February 26, 2023, https://afro.com/op-ed-a-look-back-at-the-first-black-oriole/; Sports Reference LLC, “Jay Heard,” Baseball-Reference.com – Major League Statistics and Information, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/heardja01.shtml.

[10] Luke, Integrating the Orioles, 22.

[11] Sports Reference LLC, “Joe Durham,” Baseball-Reference.com – Major League Statistics and Information, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/durhajo02.shtml; Luke, Integrating the Orioles, 24.

[12] Robinson and Stainback, Extra Innings, 62-63.

[13] Robinson and Stainback, Extra Innings, 60.

[14] Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 192-194, https://archive.org/details/notinmyneighborh0000piet.

[15] Robinson and Silverman, My Life Is Baseball, 29.

[16] Robinson and Silverman, My Life Is Baseball, 208-209.

[17] See the publication of his assertively more racially conscious second autobiography: Robinson and Stainback, Extra Innings, ix.

[18] George W. Collins, “Robinson takes time out to say ‘thanks’ to neighbors,” Baltimore Afro-American, October 11, 1966, 1, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=N8IlAAAAIBAJ&sjid=HPUFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2154%2C4866594.

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