On June’s final day, knowing of a movement afoot to re-name the Show’s Most Valuable Player Awards, I suggested re-naming them in honour of the commissioner who ended “organised baseball’s” disgraceful colour line. That by itself would rebuke the commissioner whose mealy-mouthed segregation enforcement stained and distorted the game.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis may have brought the criminal gambling elements in baseball to heel with and following the Black Sox scandal, but he absolutely refused to sanction a game open to anyone except white men.
So long as he ran the game with the absolute authority he’d accrued during his term, nobody—not even Branch Rickey, who’d long wanted to break the colour line but knew Landis wouldn’t let him—could even think about it without getting the Landis treatment. The treatment saying verbally that nothing in the rules stopped it, but factually that nobody was going to allow it, either.
It took Landis’s death of heart failure in 1944 to end both his tyrannical reign over the game and the colour line, which didn’t quite end right away. Incoming commissioner Albert Benjamin (Happy) Chandler, elected in April 1945, wasted no time answering when asked by Pittsburgh Courier writers Wendell Smith and Rick Roberts, “I’m for the Four Freedoms, and if a black boy can make it at Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball.”
Rickey now had his chance. Recall that Chandler refused to take office formally until World War II but, a week before he did, Rickey signed Kansas City Monarchs (Negro American League) shortstop Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organisation. Having the power to void any contract, Chandler didn’t even think about voiding Robinson’s.
Robinson went to Montreal to get his feet wet. Rickey concurrently signed another pair of Negro Leaguers, pitcher Don Newcombe and Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. When Rickey brought Robinson up to the Dodgers for 1947, Chandler refused to stop him, promising to fight with him instead. The Show’s colour line was broken formally.
In actual fact, 73 years after Robinson suited up for the Dodgers, baseball’s integration remains an up-and-down thing, in the dugouts and on the coaching lines, and particularly in the game’s front offices up and down the organisations. That, I repeat, isn’t Chandler’s fault.
It’d still be a fine gesture—not to mention the final overdue rebuke to Landis—to remove Landis’s name from the Most Valuable Player Awards and replace it with Chandler’s. But there’ve been numerous comments in the press and around social media suggesting that, well, if we’re going to remove Landis’s name from the MVPs, why not replace it that of a player?
That’s not an unsound thought. But Jackie Robinson’s name went on the Show’s Rookie of the Year Awards in 1987. Appropriately enough, since the Hall of Famer and colour line breaker won the first ROY in 1947—when it was a major league, not an each-league award.
Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s name is on the World Series MVP award. The Roberto Clemente Award honours each year’s most charitably inclined player in memory of the Hall of Famer killed in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission. Hall of Famer Henry Aaron’s name goes on the award handed to each season’s best hitter. Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s name is on the award handed to the All-Star Game’s most valuable player. And the pitchers are covered nicely by an award named after a Hall of Famer named Cy Young.
Any one of those players’ names would have graced each league’s regular-season MVP. Since they’re covered on very significant awards already, however, there’s a candidate untouched as yet and still too often under-appreciated for just how great he was—despite being a Hall of Famer and the only man in baseball history still to have won MVPs in each major league.
The Frank Robinson Most Valuable Player Award, anyone?
Robinson died last year after a battle with bone cancer. Three years after his groundbreaking namesake spoke aloud saying he lived for the day when he’d see a black man managing a major league team, Robinson made that wish come true, when the Cleveland Indians named him their player/manager.
As a player, Robinson combined a take-no-prisoners style of play with an often underappreciated sense of humour. Underappreciated outside his clubhouses, that is. Stories abound about Robinson’s wicked wit, including the once-fabled tale of the Baltimore Orioles team bus approaching a junkyard in slow traffic and Robinson asking the driver to stop at the junkyard so less-than-sure-handed outfielder Curt Blefary (whom Robinson nicknamed Clank) could pick out a new glove.
After the Orioles downed the Minnesota Twins in the 1969 American League Championship Series, Robinson hollered in the clubhouse, “Bring on the Mets and Ron Gaspar!” Corrected by catcher Merv Rettenmund—“It’s ROD, stupid!”—Robinson didn’t miss. “Then bring on the Mets and Rod Stupid!”
When he got to manage the Orioles in due course, it came thanks to Cal Ripken, Sr.’s firing as the team’s to-be-infamous 1988-opening losing streak was at a mere six games. Told of a local disc jockey swearing to stay on the air until the Orioles won, Robinson lamented, “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.” When the streak hit twenty straight losses, he opened his desk drawer and showed a reporter a button he’d been given: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”
The following season, Robinson managed the Orioles to second place in the American League East and himself into Manager of the Year honours. I could be wrong, but he may also be the only man in baseball history to win two MVPs and a Manager of the Year award.
Not too shabby for a man who was also a fourteen-time All-Star, a Triple Crown winner (in 1966, his first with the Orioles), a Rookie of the Year (National League, 1956, with the Cincinnati Reds), a World Series and All-Star Game MVP, and—persuaded by the Indians’ front office that he should also play in the first game he managed—squared off against New York Yankees pitcher Doc Medich and blasted a home run his first time up.
After the Orioles started slowly in 1991, Robinson moved to the front office where he stayed until a shakeup left him open to his hiring as baseball’s vice president in charge of discipline. He got one more chance to manage, shepherding the Montreal Expos’s transition into the Washington Nationals.
Robinson often showed his humane side out of the public eye. As the founder and judge of the Orioles’ kangaroo court in the 1960s, he decreed that the fines collected for 1969 should go to Pat Corrales, a catcher on the Reds, after Corrales’s wife died while giving birth that year. When ESPN writer Buster Olney was an Orioles beat writer, he asked Robinson for advice on handling asking his prospective father-in-law for permission to marry the man’s daughter.
“He shriveled in horror,” Olney writes, “his body folding in a nearby seat as if he were ducking underneath a fastball, and Frank began to cackle, his laughter taking the form of a hiss. ‘Oh boy, you’re in trouble,’ he told me, doing everything he could to exacerbate my anxiety. ‘You’re on your own with that one’.”
Robinson also preferred to break barriers quietly. When he joined the Orioles in 1966, a clumsy reporter honest-to-God couldn’t distinguish between him and the Orioles’s well-established Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, he cracked, “Can’t you see we wear different numbers?” Relentless though he was on the field, Robinson preferred to break barriers with wit, with a first-inning blast, or quiet reflection otherwise.
“Jackie and Floyd Patterson were brave men to go [integration marches], but I couldn’t,” he told those who wondered why he lend his baseball prestige to civil rights battles. “Not now. Not until I’m through with baseball. I don’t believe baseball should be a fight for anything except baseball.”
The Baseball Writers Association of America (which has the power to do so, since they confer the prize) may not see fit to re-name the MVPs after the commissioner who ended baseball segregation formally and officially. Perhaps they’ll see fit to re-name it for the assassin on the field and the gentleman off the field who won every conceivable MVP award baseball has to confer.
If the Albert Benjamin Chandler Most Valuable Player Award doesn’t work for you, the Frank Robinson Most Valuable Player Award should. Admirably.