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Schmuck: Orioles honor late Hall of Famer Frank Robinson with touching pregame celebration of life

The Orioles had honored Frank Robinson in a variety of ways since he passed away at age 83 on Feb. 7, but not in a manner that brought together his family, his friends and his Baltimore fans for a poignant tribute to the man who put the O’s on the map.

There was a huge memorial service at Dodger Stadium on Feb. 24, but the Orioles waited for the first weekend of the regular season to celebrate Robinson’s life and the contribution he made to the franchise as a player, manager and front office executive.

“Frank loved this place,’’ his widow, Barbara, said Saturday. “He loved the people here. It was his home. His whole life was built around here. It’s so final for me. It’s so hard for me because it’s his final place. This is a pain I thought I could never feel.”

His daughter, Nichelle, said it was difficult for her and her mother to make the trip to Baltimore for such an emotional evening, but they could not stay away.

“I just want to thank this city and the fans for loving him so much … and he loved them,’’ she said. “It has always been special here. This is our home away from home.”

That love affair started when the Orioles traded pitcher Milt Pappas and two other players to the Cincinnati Reds to add Robinson to an Orioles team that won 94 games in 1965 and had finished higher than third just once in its first 12 seasons in Baltimore.

“He changed the face of the franchise,’’ Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said. “We were a good team. He made it great. We had 24 really good players and he took us exactly where we wanted to go — to the World Series.”

The pregame ceremony featured speeches by Orioles greats Palmer, Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell, Baltimore’s acting mayor Jack Young and Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and a who’s who of former Orioles sat with the family in three rows of seats facing the stage that was built in front of the pitcher’s mound.

Young read a proclamation extolling Robinson’s achievements and designating April 6, 2019 as “Frank Robinson Day” in Baltimore City. Idelson also chronicled Robinson’s career from the year he was named National League Rookie of the Year for the Reds in 1956 through the singular achievement of winning the Most Valuable Player Award in both leagues to being named Major League Baseball’s first African American manager.

Brooks Robinson, Palmer and Powell all recounted Robinson’s arrival in Baltimore and the immediate impact he had on the team and their lives.

“As far as greatness is concerned, he is in an elite class,’’ Brooks said. “Like players like [Mickey] Mantle, [Willie] Mays and [Hank] Aaron, he could do it all. We started winning and we [went to] four World Series after Frank arrived, and that was in six years.”

Powell talked nostalgically about the years he batted behind Robinson in the Orioles lineup, witnessing virtually all of his offensive heroics from the best possible vantage point.

“I was fortunate to be on deck for most of the time Frank was an Oriole,’’ Powell said. “It was like watching Picasso at work. And when Frank took Luis Tiant all the way out of Memorial Stadium, I asked him, ‘Did you get it all?’ And he said, ‘Naw, I might have broke my bat.’ What a bomb. Frank went on to win the Triple Crown and I had a front-row seat.”

Former Oriole Ken Singleton was in the New York Yankees broadcast booth during the ceremony, but he remembers the way Robinson was revered in the Orioles clubhouse long after he was traded to the Dodgers in 1972. That reverence spread across the nation when he broke the managerial color barrier with the Cleveland Indians a few years later.

“First of all, he’s a historical figure, and not only for what he did on the field,’’ Singleton said. “He was one of the greatest players ever and, of course, the first African American manager in both leagues. Certainly that alone would place him in a historical framework, but he was much more than that. He was a real leader.

“I played for the Orioles after Frank was here, and from what I understand, he was so good he was referred to by his number instead of by his name. They know if ‘20’ got hot, they were going on a roll. I’ve heard of situations where he walked in the clubhouse and said, ‘Boys, I feel good, jump on for about a week or 10 days,’ and he would go do it. That was the type of person he was and the type of player he was.”

This night was about the mark Robinson left on baseball and the Orioles franchise, so it featured players from the golden era of Baltimore baseball. But Robinson’s importance to the city and the sport was not lost on some of the veteran members of the current team.

“When somebody has impacted the game so much like he has, especially a certain organization, it’s nice to see that person gets their due respect,’’ said Orioles pitcher Alex Cobb, who met Robinson several times when he was a kid growing up in Vero Beach, Fla. “I know he played before my time, but I was a big baseball fan growing up. He would always come to Dodgertown for the fantasy camps and I would chase him around and get his autograph.”

Reliever Mychal Givens had a closer connection. He said Saturday that his great grandfather was a friend of Robinson’s and was revered in his home.

“Frank once wrote me [a letter] when I was a young child playing baseball, “ Givens said, “so he meant a lot to me and my family and for everything he’s done, especially being the first black manager. That’s a great accomplishment and I’d like to see more out there. To talk about his past and talk about what he’s done is a really good thing for everybody now who doesn’t know.”

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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