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McGRATH: Frank Robinson a pioneer in his own right

Frank Robins(with Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf Civil Rights Game announcement last week) became first African-American manager major leagues with Indians

Frank Robinson (with Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf at the Civil Rights Game announcement last week) became the first African-American manager in the major leagues with the Indians in 1975. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 8, 2013 7:05AM

There was an appointment downtown that had to be kept last week. But with Frank Robinson around, it could wait.

The Hall of Fame outfielder followed Jackie Robinson as a baseball pioneer, becoming the first African-American manager when the Cleveland Indians hired him in 1975. I encountered him after he had moved on to the San Francisco Giants in 1981.

He had a reputation for being ornery and difficult, and he could have been murder on a nosy writer as young and dumb as this one. He was anything but. The pregame hours in his office were like a history lesson — about baseball, about the civil-rights era, about people. I learned a lot from Frank Robinson, and I’m grateful. I like him, and I respect him a lot.

Robinson was in Chicago last week to announce the White Sox as the host team for the seventh annual Civil Rights Game on Aug. 24 against the Texas Rangers. It’s the centerpiece of a weekend pageant designed to celebrate the role baseball has played in promoting social justice in the 66 years since Jackie Robinson’s arrival put an end to the disgraceful practice of racial exclusion.

The Sox were a sensible choice to host the game, Robinson said, citing chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s progressive history of hiring and developing minority employees and the team’s extensive commitment to making baseball available to inner-city youngsters.

As Major League Baseball’s senior vice president for development, Robinson is driving efforts to increase African-American participation at all levels of the game. It pains him to see fewer than 10 percent of major-league roster spots held by African Americans. The National League Rookie of the Year in 1956, Robinson joined Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente in the first wave of African-American and Latin players whose dynamic blend of speed, power and flair transformed baseball.

Transforming attitudes took more doing. Bigotry and hostility didn’t magically vanish when Jackie Robinson showed up.

Frank Robinson was 18 years old and fresh off the blithely integrated playgrounds of Oakland, Calif., when the Cincinnati Reds sent him to Columbia, S.C. In the heart of the Jim Crow South, Robinson encountered spirit-crushing animosity on a daily basis, but he batted .336 with 66 extra-base hits.

If the experience scarred him, it also hardened him into one of the fiercest competitors in the game. Eddie Mathews, another flinty-eyed roughneck, once told me of a scrap he had with Robinson after responding to a hard slide into third with a forceful, between-the-eyes tag. They tangled in front of the Milwaukee Braves’ dugout, and several Braves joined in gleefully before reinforcements arrived from the Reds’ side. Robinson emerged from the pile with a swollen, bloody face, and the Braves figured they would be spared dealing with him in Game 2 of the doubleheader.

‘‘He comes out all puffed up and beats us with a home run and two doubles,’’ Mathews recalled. ‘‘Toughest [bleep] I ever saw on a baseball field.’’

Toughness is a recurring theme in the Robinson saga. It’s misunderstood these days.

Toughness is keeping on. It’s not a lunatic basketball coach hurling abuse and invective at his players or a psycho defensive back trying to decapitate a receiver for having the temerity to venture into the middle of a football field.

Toughness is Frank Robinson. He’ll turn 78 in August, but he still will whip any man in the house, a proud warrior capable of imposing his will on any situation.

He likes the direction of the game, with Matt Kemp, the Upton brothers and Mike Trout restoring an athletic presence that lost value during the steroid era. He thinks the baseball writers got it right in keeping the Hall of Fame doors closed to acknowledged and suspected drug cheats. Robinson loves Cooperstown weekend, but he probably would have skipped it this year rather than share the stage with those who desecrated his game.

He has been in that game for 60 years, and it’s better for his presence.

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