On a normal day in an offseason that’s been light on significant Orioles roster news, the signing of pitcher Nate Karns to a one-year deal would have lit up the social media switchboard. The conversations would have touched on his chances of filling a spot in the rotation, his injury history, the pros and cons of a low-risk move that eliminated infielder Jack Reinheimer from the 40-man roster, and maybe the assignment of uniform No. 36, which had belonged to catcher Caleb Joseph.
The passing of Frank Robinson yesterday from bone cancer at 83, a baseball legend credited with teaching the Orioles how to win, made everything else seem unimportant. The Karns news was shoved to the proverbial back pages where it belonged.
Tributes flowed throughout the day and night. From the commissioner’s office and politicians. Current and former players. Current and former athletes in other sports. Hall of Famers and guys who had modest careers.
They spoke of Robinson’s broad skill set, his tenacity, his no-nonsense approach and leadership as a player and manager, his role as a pioneer - the first African-American manager in major league history. The 586 home runs and Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues are only part of the story.
The Ravens illuminated M&T Bank Stadium in orange lighting while offering condolences.
Brooks Robinson had spoken to his friend four days ago.
“He wanted to be home, not in a hospital,” said Robinson, the Hall of Fame third baseman and teammate on championship teams in 1966 and 1970. “I had a nice chat with him and he sounded pretty good. I told him that he was in our prayers, and (wife) Connie said the same thing.
“We had a great relationship and I loved every minute of it. When he came over (in ‘66) he just made us a little bit better than most teams, and we ended up getting in four World Series. We had a lot of fun on and off the field.
“He played the game the way it was supposed to be played and he was tough. I’d put him out there with anyone - Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle. He was just a terrific player and he was a winner. I’m just happy to get a chance to play with him.”
Frank Robinson was appointed judge of the Kangaroo Court, where modest fines were distributed for various transgressions after wins. Never following a loss. He wore the white coarse strings of a mop on his head to simulate a powdered wig.
“Frank didn’t pick himself, I’m telling you that right now,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. “Even though he might have wanted to. But he was Frank. He was the guy.
“You know how it is now. Everybody has the same agents, whatever, but Frank never talked to the other team. Frank wasn’t having idle chatter behind the batting cage. Frank wasn’t about that.”
“He always had something,” Brooks Robinson recalled. “The guy who was the worst baserunner, a checked swing. I mean, it kept going on and on. That seemed to be a unifier more than anything else.
“I got fined one night for fraternizing with another player, Ronnie Hansen. I got fined a dollar. But he didn’t want to be too friendly with anyone that we played against. And I think the most satisfaction Frank got was the ‘66 Series.
“Don Drysdale and Frank did not like one another. Drysdale pitched inside, Frank was on the plate. Drysdale said, ‘Well, it’s my part of the plate, too,’ and consequently he hit Robinson many, many times. So Frank goes up there in the first inning and hits a two-run homer off him, and then in the fourth game hits a home run to win the game for us off Drysdale.
“I can remember seeing a shot when Drysdale threw the ball and Frank hit it, Drysdale knew it was a home run. I could see him kicking the mound. I think that meant a lot to (Robinson).”
The Orioles tried to bring back a version of the Kangaroo Court in later years, but it paled in comparison to Robinson’s tenure.
“You could get fined for anything. There were some things guys got fined for that you can’t talk about,” said former first baseman Boog Powell.
“If you left a man on third base with less than two outs, it cost you a dollar. But it wasn’t about the dollar. It was about that somebody brought it up in front of everybody else. You already felt pretty bad. Now you really felt bad. Everybody’s laughing at you and all that stuff.
“It was all done in fun, but we aired our dirty laundry in that court, too. If you had a grievance against somebody, you brought it out. We talked as friends and a lot of good things happened. I think we had close to $1,000 in fines and we donated $700 of it to somebody, and we had a party with $300.”
Teammates were curious how the Robinsons would mesh, how Brooks would welcome such a strong personality on a team that had largely become his own.
“We didn’t know what to think of Frank when we heard that he was coming over, but when he got there he just fit right now,” Robinson said. “I mean, he was a guy who, everyone knew he was there to win and he was tough. We played the game the way it was supposed to be played. It’s just a sad day here for everyone in the Robinson family.
“He put us over the top.”
“Brooks didn’t look at Frank as a threat,” Palmer said, “he looked at him as an addition that was going to help us to where we almost got in ‘60 and almost in ‘64.
“Brooks knew how good he was. It’s hard to believe we got Frank Robinson at age 30, an old 30. Well, he wasn’t old in ‘66, he wasn’t old in ‘67 until he had the concussion. He wasn’t even old at 35 or 36.
“He changed baseball in Baltimore. There’s just no doubt about it. He had a lot of help doing it, but he was the guy. You could tell. You get two outs and you needed a guy to get on base, Brooksie would hit a single to center field. It was like automatic. It’s like you had seen this before. Because Brooks didn’t try to overswing. Over the second baseman’s head and up the middle. But if you wanted somebody that was going to intimidate the other guys and make the other guys better, it was Frank Robinson. No two ways about it.
“I don’t think anybody really realized, unless you were there or you pitched against him or you played the game, how good a player he really was.”
So much for being an old 30, the reasoning behind the Reds trading him.
“No one knew how to take Frank Robinson because he had a little baggage when he came over here, but boy, what a trade that was to get him here,” Robinson said. “They all fell in love with him and we started winning. That was it.”
Powell remembers standing next to Andy Etchebarren as Robinson, having just arrived from the Reds, kept launching tape-measure home runs over the palm trees in left-center field at the spring training complex in Miami.
“Etch just said, ‘Booger, I think we just won the pennant,’ ” Powell recalled. “And I said, ‘Yep, I think you’re right.’
“He brought a mental toughness to the organization, to the team, that we just didn’t have. Another way to play baseball, a dead-serious way. No excuses, no nothing. We’re going to go out and we’re going to kick your butt today.
“He would say to the guys that were talking to players on the other team, ‘Don’t talk to those guys. We’re going to kick their butt tonight. I don’t want you to be friends. If you want to take them out to dinner, take them out after the game.’ That was the attitude that we had.
“When you think about baseball in Baltimore, you’ve got to think about Frank.”
The Orioles traded Robinson to the Dodgers prior to the 1972 season, a decision that general manager Frank Cashen later regretted and might have avoided had he known that baseball would implement a designated hitter in the American League in 1973.
“I thought that was a mistake, and it was,” Brooks Robinson said. “He could still play and there’s no doubt in my mind that we could have won in ‘73 and ‘74. He had terrific years. I don’t think anyone could believe that he got traded at that time.”
Powell was dealt to the Indians in February 1975, reuniting him with Frank Robinson, the new manager. Another chapter in a legendary career was penned on opening day.
“It’s 35 degrees,” Powell said, “the wind’s blowing about 25 miles per hour, it’s not fit for man nor beast, and he gets up there and cranks one off Doc Medich, and I go, ‘It ain’t that easy.’
“He hits a home run and then he comes back into the dugout and has to be the manager again.”
Pitcher Ben McDonald was the first overall pick in the 1989 draft and made his major league debut later that summer during the “Why Not?” season. Robinson was the manager, and he taught McDonald a valuable lesson that stuck with the rookie.
“I remember him being a hard-nosed guy,” McDonald said. “I actually made the mistake of calling him ‘coach’ one time because I was right out of college. Frank heard me and right away he said, ‘I’m not your coach, I’m your manager.’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’”
Here are more tributes collected yesterday:
Statement from Hall of Famer Eddie Murray:
“I was saddened to hear that Frank Robinson passed away today. He was a great player. As an African-American youth, I looked up to Frank and Jackie Robinson. My thoughts are with the Robinson family.”
Statement from Hall of Famer Hank Aaron:
“Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies. We were friends. Frank was a hard-nosed baseball player who did things on the field that people said could never be done. I’m so glad I had the chance to know him all of those years. Baseball will miss a tremendous human being.”
Tweet from former Royals second baseman Frank White:
“This is a sad day for me. We lost my idol and the reason I wore the number 20. Frank Robinson. What a great player and person. A real trailblazer. RIP Frank and my thoughts and prayers to your family.”
Tweet from former Orioles closer Gregg Olson:
“RIP Frank, you were an amazing man that gave me an opportunity, always had an open door for a stupid 21 year old. You will be missed. Prayers for the Robinson family.”
Tweet from Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins:
“Sad day in history, one of the greatest to ever do it! My condolences and prayers to all family and friends of the great Frank Robinson #RIP”
Tweet from Orioles left fielder Trey Mancini:
“The baseball world lost a legend today. If you don’t know much about Frank Robinson, I recommend looking him up. He is what every player and person should strive to be!”
Tweet from radio broadcaster Joe Angel:
“Been down all day. Will be for a while. My friend has passed. My daughter called him ‘Dad’ He treated her like a daughter whenever he saw her. My son would always get a hug. He made my wife laugh. He made me a better broadcaster. He is now with better ANGELS. I will miss #20”