Robinson opened doors for others
In the first few weeks he wore an Orioles uniform, Frank Robinson threatened to leave the team because his family couldn't find a place to live in the segregated Baltimore of 1966. Everyone knows Robinson went on to win the Triple Crown and lead the Orioles to their first world championship that year.
But this more trying chapter of his most famous season has seldom been told in the 50 years since.
Dealt to the Orioles in the offseason, Robinson had sought housing in January 1966, to no avail. Several times, the slugging outfielder was rejected because of race. In February, the Orioles began spring training in Florida and Robinson turned the search over to his wife, Barbara. One day she phoned him in disgust.
"She said nothing was 'available' and that she wanted to take our two kids back to California, where we had family," Robinson said. "I told her, 'You stay there and I'll be right up.' I told [team owner] Jerry Hoffberger I was leaving camp because my family couldn't find housing in Baltimore. He said, 'Give me a couple of days and I'll get this thing settled.'"
With the owner's help, Robinson and his family settled in Ashburton, then a racially mixed upper-middle-class enclave in northwest Baltimore.
In spite of his baseball accomplishments, Robinson in 1966 had to cope with the complicated day-to-day realities of a city that remained racially divided in many ways. Time and again, he and his family were denied housing in a number of all-white neighhborhoods. He couldn't patronize most taverns in town. And his wife was rebuffed at a beauty shop whose female proprietor said, "If you were Mrs Brooks Robinson, we could serve you."
Contentious time: Robinson arrived at a contentious time:
• George Mahoney, Maryland's Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1966, campaigned with the racially charged slogan, "Your home is your castle."
• In April, the Congress of Racial Equality named Baltimore its target city to assail discrimination. Floyd McKissick, CORE's national director, said that if Baltimore didn't have the nation's worst civil rights record, "it is very close to it. They're probably the only city where the [City] Council has voted down a housing law three times."
• In May, the home of an African-American family in Govans was firebombed. That same month, three blacks who set foot in an East Baltimore tavern were arrested for trespassing.
• In July, 1,000 attended a white-supremacy rally in Patterson Park chanting, "We'll win this battle with bullets and bombs."
•When Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, Archbishop of Baltimore, spoke in favor of fair housing at an open meeting of the City Council, a crowd of nearly 1,000 segregationists booed him. Twice.
•Even a number of nursing homes in the city discriminated against minorities who sought care there.
• Some neighborhoods such as Roland Park, which earlier that century had required homeowners to sign covenants barring African-Americans before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed such restrictions in 1948, remained mostly white.
Denied equality: Though home to 400,000 blacks, nearly half of Baltimore's population, the city denied equality to them, including Robinson and other African-American sports heroes.
"The impact [of racism] was still there. You knew where you could and couldn't go," said Lenny Moore, the Colts' Pro Football Hall of Fame running back. "If [a white teammate] said, 'C'mon, man, let's have dinner,' I'd have to think, 'Wait a minute, can I go there or not?' In certain places you could sense the unwelcome feeling."
In February 1966, two Baltimore restaurants were cited for refusing service to black patrons. Such was the bias facing the 30-year-old Robinson on his arrival. Not that he was surprised. In 1958 and 1959, with the Cincinnati Reds, he'd come here to play several exhibition games against the Orioles.
"I couldn't go to a movie or the downtown hotel where the team stayed," Robinson remembered.
"That's the way it was," said C. Fraser Smith, author of "Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland." "People would go into bars to watch guys like Frank Robinson hit home runs on TV, but they didn't want him [sitting] next to them having a beer. We weren't very enlightened."
Assistance from the team: After the trade, Hoffberger and executive vice president Frank Cashen took Robinson to dinner to allay his concerns.
"They told him, 'Look, we handle everyone the same here. Rest assured, you won't be treated differently.' That was the first definitive outreach to a black player by Orioles management," said Bob Luke, author of "Integrating the Orioles: Baseball and Race in Baltimore," to be published this spring.
The Orioles offered to help Robinson, one of three black players on the team, find a place to live. Edgar Feingold, 87, recalled driving Robinson around town in early 1966 to search for housing.
"We didn't go into neighborhoods where we knew Frank wouldn't be welcome," said Feingold, then assistant public relations director for the National Brewing Company, which Hoffberger owned. "There were places we didn't bother with because no one would rent to a black man. There were other times when I'd go to the door — Frank stayed in my Ford station wagon — and inquire, and the owner would say, 'Who is it for?' When I told him, he'd say, 'Oh, well, we don't think so.'
"I'd go back to the car and tell Frank, 'This is no place for you. It's hostile.' Was I embarrassed? Absolutely. But Frank understood the situation."
After a fruitless day, Feingold took Robinson to his own home in Mount Washington.
"We didn't get a foot out of the car before 15 white kids recognized Frank and swarmed around," Feingold said. "He gave all of them autographs."
Through it all, Robinson held his temper.
"I didn't ever want to set African-Americans backwards and have people say, 'See, I told you so.' That was my thinking,'" he said. "I didn't have a torch and I stayed out of politics. I wasn't out there to change laws. I really admired the people fighting for changes, but my job was to play baseball."
A street in his name: Finally, with Hoffberger's help, the Robinsons landed in Ashburton, off Liberty Heights Avenue. It was a perfect fit. A decade earlier, Ashburton had integrated when a black high school principal moved in. Unlike other neighborhoods of the day, such as Edmondson Village, Ashburton — thanks to a strong-minded community association — had not succumbed to block-busting or white flight. By 1966, more than 200 affluent black families resided there alongside whites.
The Robinsons lived at 3613 Cedardale Road in a conventional two-story home built in 1938 on a narrow tree-lined street. The house was owned by Tony Lorick, a black Colts running back who'd bought it after being selected in the second round of the 1964 NFL draft. It was Robinson's luck that Lorick had moved recently and put the house up for rent.
By all accounts, Robinson's neighbors — including a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist and minister — accepted him.
"Frank was the celebrity who lived up the street," said Ed Van de Castle, 67. Van de Castle's family built the first home in the community in the 1920s. "My mom, Blanche, a baseball fan, thought Robinson was, like, the son of God. He was the Ray Lewis of the Orioles, the guy who brought an edge to them and put them over the top."
Van de Castle's brother, Gus, delivered the slugger's daily newspaper and recalled the Robinsons attending block parties in the neighborhood, then about 50 percent black, he said.
"After the newness [of his arrival] rubbed off, people would see him drive up in his red convertible and say, 'Hey, Frank, how ya doin'?'" said Gus Van de Castle, 66. "He was an example for many people."
In September, when the Orioles won the American League pennant, his neighbors paid homage to the Triple Crown winner by having the street renamed in his honor, if only for the World Series. About 300 people attended the ceremony, during which Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin unfurled an orange-and-black banner that read, YOU ARE ENTERING ROBINSON ROAD, RENAMED FOR OUR NEIGHBOR. McKeldin introduced Robinson as a "true gentleman" who had a "propensity for winning."
The ballplayer who six months earlier couldn't find decent housing now had a street named for him.
"Everybody in the neighborhood turned out that day," Robinson recalled. "It was a moving moment — and very nice."
Residents took note of Robinson's gratitude, Gus Van de Castle said, recalling that "every time he drove up the street past that sign, he had a big smile on his face."
'A distasteful piece of irony': Sensing Robinson's magnetism, McKeldin, a Republican and civil rights advocate, seized the moment. He called on local bar owners to ignore city law and serve black patrons during the Series.
"I find it a distasteful piece of irony that I must make this plea in light of the fact that without Frank Robinson, a person who could be excluded by such business, we would probably have no World Series," McKeldin said. It's not known whether any bars heeded his request.
The Orioles swept the Series in four games, ending with a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Memorial Stadium. Robinson's home run over the left-field fence won it that October afternoon and earned him Most Valuable Player honors. Around the city, horns blared, confetti flew and firecrackers exploded. That night, the Orioles held a victory party at a Timonium restaurant. Robinson and his wife arrived late, insisting on going home first to celebrate with joyous neighbors.
"I wanted to be there for them because they were the first ones to open their hearts to me and my family — and I wanted to return it a little bit," Robinson said. "I wanted to make them understand that they hadn't been forgotten."
McKeldin continued to use Robinson's stature to push for change. In November, he asked the Baltimore Park Board to name a city playground after Robinson. The board declined, at the same time adopting a policy prohibiting the naming of parks and playgrounds after living people.
Leaving a legacy of change: Robinson remained an Oriole until December 1971, leading the team to four AL flags and two World Series titles. His effect on the city and its people resonates with other Baltimore athletes of the time.
"I'm very proud of what Frank did here," Moore said. "Somebody has to be the key to opening the door for others down the road — and you do whatever you can to try and keep that door open, even though the ground around it may be shaky."
Raymond Berry, the Colts' Hall of Fame receiver, called Robinson "a classic example of a figure who helped melt the resistance to accepting blacks as equals in America."
Berry, who is white, had in 1964 led a human relations committee to restore peace in the riot-torn Eastern Shore town of Cambridge.
"Those were turning points in time, and it was due to athletes like Robinson that a whole lot of stuff got turned around," Berry said. "He probably wasn't thinking about anything but hitting curves and chasing flies and helping to win the World Series. He probably didn't realize how influential he was in addressing one of the major problems facing America."
Historically, athletes have been known to grease the wheel of social reform, Fraser Smith said, adding: "Sports is a common ground that brings us together, eases tensions and helps us understand each other. Little by little, it brings change. Robinson proved himself to be proud, incredibly talented and worthy of as much respect as anyone could earn for himself and his race over time."
Integration would continue slowly in Baltimore, in fits and starts. Half a century later, his old neighborhood, now predominantly black, has not forgotten Robinson's stay during that magical summer.
"It has been a conversation piece from time to time," said Wendell Wright, 81. A retired social worker, Wright bought the house at 3613 Cedardale Road for $23,000 when Robinson moved out after the World Series and has lived there ever since.
"Once in a while people will come by and say, 'Y'know, I heard that Frank Robinson lived around here,'" Wright said. "I point to the floor and tell them, 'That somewhere is here.'"
Fifty years later, Robinson, 80, harbors no bitterness over the prejudice he faced on his arrival in Baltimore. Though he spent only six of his 21 playing years here, when enshrined in Cooperstown in 1982, he chose to enter as an Oriole
"Baltimore is my second home, yes sir," the Hall of Fame outfielder told The Baltimore Sun from his California home.
Asked whether he believed that how he carried himself in 1966, on the field and off, helped change a city's mindset toward racial bias, Robinson paused in thought.
"I really don't know," he said. "How do you measure that? But I hope it did. That was always on my mind."