King Kaufman's Sports Daily

At the Jackie Robinson tribute game, Hank Aaron's and Frank Robinson's stories have more to say than another bunch of speeches about No. 42 do.


Salon Staff
April 16, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

I'm usually not a fan of the celebrity visitor to the announcing booth during the broadcast of a game. Definitely not when it's some random actor hawking his latest movie or TV show during the action.

Even when it's a sports celebrity who happens to be in town, or wants to talk about his charity, it's not a big deal, and sometimes the interviews are nice, but I'd rather the focus stay on the game.

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I have to give ESPN not just a pass but high marks, though, for its parade of stars during the Sunday night game because of the special event of Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium and the magnitude of the stars on hand. Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, sat with announcers Jon Miller and Joe Morgan for an inning or so, as did Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson. Off in another room somewhere, Stuart Scott talked to Don Newcombe and Dave Winfield.

The network had a fine line to walk, getting these interviews in and talking about Robinson, the clear focus of the evening, with every member of the Los Angeles Dodgers as well as San Diego Padres center fielder Mike Cameron wearing his No. 42, without ignoring the actual baseball game.

A better ballgame would have suffered for the treatment, being made to seem like an exhibition game, but ESPN caught a little bit of a break when the Dodgers jumped ahead early and stayed there, eventually winning a not terribly interesting contest 9-3.

Miller and Morgan were even able to comment that the Dodgers were playing a Jackie Robinson-style game after they stole five bases in the first four innings. Robinson led the league in stolen bases twice in his first three years and was known throughout his career as an aggressive runner.

Here's hoping ESPN remembers that this broadcast was a special event. It went well, but it shouldn't be seen as a blueprint for the future.

Unless you can get Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson every night.

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Listening to Aaron tell stories of playing against Jackie Robinson was a treat, the kind of thing you used to get during rain delays, before standard procedure for a rain delay was to throw it back to the station for alternate programming, meaning listener phone calls on radio and "Cheers" reruns on TV. This was before my time. I've heard stories about it.

Aaron talked about a game in his first year in the big leagues when he was playing second base and Robinson scored from third on a pop-up that Aaron caught just beyond the infield. He also compared his swing with Robinson's, talking about how he derived his power from his wrists while Robinson had more of a sweeping swing.

And he recalled a little newspaper gamesmanship Robinson engaged in, threatening to talk about the Milwaukee Braves' "playboy" ways just before a crucial series, which Aaron said made the Braves nervous and threw them off their game.

Wait, Hank Aaron at second base? I knew he'd played shortstop as a teenager in the Negro American League with the Indianapolis Clowns, but most great players who were any kind of athlete and not left-handed started out at shortstop.

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I don't remember hearing about him playing second, and frankly can't quite picture it, even though at 6-0, 180 he was pretty much the size of a typical modern-day second baseman during his prime. My picture of him is colored by the fact that when I saw him play, in his mid-30s and on, he had filled out and looked very much like not a second baseman. Though come to think of it, Ronnie Belliard is rocking a similar waistline these days.

I looked it up, and while Aaron never played short in the bigs, he did play 27 games at second base in 1955, his second year, which is when the incident with Robinson must have happened, because Aaron didn't play second as a rookie. He occasionally filled in at second and third base over the next decade or so, playing 11 games at second as late as 1964, when he was 30 and had been an All-Star nine years in a row.

Can you picture any of today's elite sluggers going over to cover second for a dozen games? We've had Alex Rodriguez move from shortstop to third base and Chipper Jones from third to left field in recent years, but those are both still destinations for sluggers. Second base is more of a dumping ground, a last stop for players before they run out of positions to try.

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The things you learn when guys like Aaron start talking, especially when they don't have anything to sell.

Frank Robinson was entertaining as well, bantering with fellow Oaklander Morgan about their hometown. Morgan joked that he came from the intellectual side of town, having gone to Castlemont High in east Oakland, while Robinson was from the athletic side. Robinson went to McClymonds High with Bill Russell, whom the pair discussed. Russell was the first black head coach in the NBA.

Robinson also told the story of being hired as a player-manager by the Cleveland Indians in 1975, making him the first black manager in the majors. He noted that the team offered him $200,000, but that he was already under contract to make $180,000 as a player for the Indians, who had traded for him the previous September.

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"'That means you're going to pay me $20,000 next year to manage the ball club, is that right?'" Robinson recalls asking an Indians executive, probably general manager Phil Seghi. "He said, 'That's right. Take it or leave it.'"

Robinson said he took it because he had no way of knowing when the next opportunity would arise for an African-American to manage in the big leagues. Morgan pointed out that in those days before arbitration and free agency, "Take it or leave it" was pretty much how all negotiations went between a club and a player.

All of that, I think, is a lot more educational than another half-hour of speechifying about the greatness of Jackie Robinson, great as he was, which is what Major League Baseball provided before the game, ostensibly to educate the younger generations, who have been fed a steady diet of the great Jackie Robinson for 10 years now.

If baseball wants to get black kids, or any kids, interested in the game again, I think stuff like what Aaron and Robinson were talking about would go a long way. Not many of us can identify with the Jackie Robinson who appears in these tributes, a great man who did great things. At one point Sunday he was called the greatest man in the 20th century, not just in baseball.

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I don't want to come off as anti-Jackie Robinson. I don't know about his being the greatest man in the 20th century, but as Vin Scully might say, he's in the photo. He was a -- small g -- giant.

I just don't know if kids are listening anymore when he gets talked about. He has become another Great Figure in History Who Did Great Things. He's another dude you have to learn about in school, like Abe Lincoln and Leonardo da Vinci. I think kids don't get inspired by figures like that, pantheon figures who through repetition get polished down to just their greatness.

But who hasn't been schooled by a veteran during a game, as Aaron was schooled by Jackie? What kid can't identify with Frank Robinson being told by an authority figure to take or leave an unsatisfactory offer?

Good stuff, ESPN. Let's have more of it. But not during every ballgame. How's next April 15 for you, when -- I have a dream here -- Major League Baseball uses the occasion of the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut to, say, pay tribute to Frank Robinson, or to the surviving stars of the Negro Leagues.

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That's a crowd that includes Aaron, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks, among others. Some good interviews there.

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