Robinson impacted Cincinnati amid segregation

Reds' first black star thrived in city not known for racial harmony

By Mark Sheldon / | 02/03/12 11:00 AM EST

CINCINNATI -- By the mid-1950s, Reds fans had grown accustomed to seeing African-American players the likes of Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron -- as visiting ballplayers.
It wasn't until Frank Robinson walked into Crosley Field in 1956 that Cincinnati finally had a black baseball superstar of its own.
"Frank broke on the scene with an awful lot of ammunition and a lot of publicity," said Reds historian Greg Rhodes. "He opened a lot of eyes that he was here, he was ready and he was going to make an impact."

The Reds commemorated Frank Robinson's tenure by dedicating a statue of him outside Great American Ball Park. (Getty)

In his National League Rookie of the Year season, a 20-year-old Robinson batted .290 with a club-rookie-record 38 home runs that still stands. He also had 83 RBIs and a league-leading 122 runs scored to go with a .379 on-base percentage.

"There had been other really good first-year players that had a lot of the same skills, but never an African-American player," Rhodes said. "In that regard, Frank really represented something really new on the scene."
Before leaving Cincinnati in a still lambasted trade with the Orioles in 1966, Robinson was a seven-time National League All-Star, the 1961 NL Most Valuable Player and a 1958 NL Gold Glove Award winner as a left fielder.
Overall, in 1,502 games for the Reds, Robinson batted .303 with 324 homers and 1,009 RBIs.
"He was never an average player," Rhodes said. "Look at his numbers here -- it was 30 home runs a year, 100 runs scored, 100 RBIs, a .500 slugging percentage and he hit .300 -- year after year after year for 10 years. No one has had a 10-year run like that in Cincinnati -- before or after. He was a phenomenal player, and the greatest player to ever play at Crosley Field."
Despite his great years on the field for the Reds, Robinson's time in Cincinnati was complicated to say the least. The city was not known for its racial harmony by any stretch, and many black players encountered overt racism when out of uniform.
For Robinson, who was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1936, and did not endure much known discrimination as a child, his rise through the Minors and the Majors brought unexpected challenges.
"Cincinnati was a very segregated city in the mid-50s," Rhodes said. "When they went to Tampa for Spring Training, it was a very segregated world. African-American players could not stay in the same hotel. They stayed in a boarding house. For a young man of 19 and 20 coming up in the system, he had to make sense of all that. I'm sure it could not have been easy.
"On the one hand, you're being cheered and congratulated for making great plays. Then you turn right around and they won't let you eat at the same table or swim in the same pool or drink from the same drinking fountain."
Robinson was reportedly bitter about his treatment in Cincinnati, but during a rare appearance in Cincinnati to help promote the 2009 Civil Rights Game, it had appeared that years and distance softened that viewpoint.
"Our society was a little rough back in the '50s and '40s all over," Robinson said. "I found it very pleasant to be here in Cincinnati to play. There were boundaries and regulations. You knew of neighborhoods where you couldn't go or live in. But that was life at the time. But I found people here in Cincinnati treated you fairly and honestly, and I was glad to be associated with it and it made it very pleasant for me.
"It's gotten better over the years. The city has really come a long way. The fans and people have, too."
It's an enduring sign of just how much Robinson meant to Reds history that his trade from the team is still met with great disdain by their fans nearly 50 years later.
On Dec. 9, 1965, following a season in which Robinson batted .296 with 33 homers and 113 RBIs, Reds general manager Bill DeWitt traded him to Baltimore for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.
DeWitt defended the deal by saying that Robinson was an "old 30," and headed for the downside of his career.
Not quite. In 1966 for the Orioles, Robinson won the American League Triple Crown and AL MVP Award. He remains the only player to ever win MVP trophies from both leagues. In 1970, Robinson's new team beat his former one in the World Series.
"He wasn't by any means washed up when the Reds traded him," Rhodes said. "DeWitt was very wrong about that. There was no indication he would start declining. He played at a very high level all throughout his career here. And when he left, his 1965 season, he was still an All-Star."
Robinson retired as a player in 1976, but spent the final two seasons of his career with the Indians as a player-manager. It made him baseball's first African-American manager. He would manage for four different organizations in his post-playing career, and he also spent a few years as an executive for Major League Baseball.
But a great career in baseball began in Cincinnati. And within a few years, a wave of other minority stars came through -- like Lee May, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr.
"Things have really come around full circle, and I think everything is for the better," Robinson said. "This is a great city right now. It's a nice city to be in."