CINCINNATI — Gary Sherman spent his childhood imitating Frank Robinson, he said Thursday night. So did his friends. They would try to mimic his batting stance in their Little League games; they would go to his games as a group; they would watch the Cincinnati Reds on television just for a glimpse of his face.
“Back then, you watch TV, all you seen was white people,” Sherman said from the barber’s chair at Sweet P’s Styling Shop.
Robinson was different, and in being different, he was magical.
His major league debut with the Reds arrived fewer than 10 years after Jackie Robinson — no relation — shattered the color line in Major League Baseball, two years after Brown v. Board of education desegregated American schools and nine years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would grant black Americans full enfranchisement under the law.
“It was tremendous just to see him on TV or go down and see him in the game,” Sherman said. “That was good. That was great.”
Robinson’s death at 83 Thursday morning gave fans like Sherman special reason to remember him and his legacy within baseball as well as within Ohio. Years after leaving the Reds, he joined the Cleveland Indians as the major leagues’ first-ever black manager.
Stylist James Lewis, who trimmed Sherman’s hair and mustache while he talked, said he remembered Robinson once buying beers for a crowd of Reds fans after a big win.
“He put up a number of cases of beer, and people just started reaching up getting them and cheering,” he said. “He had fun with the people that he knew.”
Lewis believes Robinson’s top-notch record as a player was likely a consequence of knowing how significant he was to thousands of black fans. He couldn’t afford to slip off the top.
“He never had that slump season because there was so much pressure on him,” Lewis said. “They looked up to him as a hero, and so in that respect he was very strong. He meant a lot to the black community — to the city period.”
Robinson later managed San Francisco, Baltimore and Montreal. He became the first manager of the Washington Nationals after the franchise moved from Montreal for the 2005 season — the Nationals put him in their Ring of Honor.
More than half the major league teams have had black managers since his debut with Cleveland.
Robinson later spent several years working as an executive for MLB and for a time oversaw the annual Civil Rights Game. He advocated for more minorities throughout baseball and worked with former Commissioner Bud Selig to develop the Selig Rule, directing teams to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a new manager.
For all he did on and off the field, Robinson was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005.
“Frank Robinson’s wife, Barbara Ann Cole, once said, “He believes in rules and he respects the game. He reveres the game,‘” Bush said in a statement. “When I presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, I noted that ‘Baseball fans across America will tell you the feeling is returned. In the game we love, few names will ever command as much respect and esteem as the name of Frank Robinson.’”
Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, tweeted about Robinson on the day of his death:
We lost two great Americans today – Frank Robinson and John Dingell – citizens who inspired me and so many others by leading on the civil rights issues of our time, opening doors to others, and leaving it all on the field.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) February 8, 2019