Robinson revels in return to Cincinnati
Reds legend tosses out first pitch at Civil Rights Game
CINCINNATI -- Frank Robinson threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Game at Great American Ball Park, and even though Barack Obama had been the first choice, this was a match between a person and a city that was made during the civil rights movement and a match that finally is a joyous one to both parties again.
The 73-year-old Hall of Famer, who spent his first 10 years with the Reds and infamously was traded away to Baltimore in 1965 for Milt Pappas and two others, sat at a podium with Hank Aaron and others before Saturday's White Sox-Reds game and expressed happiness over what he said is a new day of respect between he and his first club.
"It's always a pleasure to come back to Cincinnati. I didn't leave here on good terms," Robinson said, as Aaron sat next to him and nodded along with nearly each word. "The trade was fine, that's part of baseball, but the rhetoric that took place after the trade ... it didn't sit well with me. And also when I was completely ignored without any recognition from the organization when I went into the Hall of Fame, that didn't sit well with me, either.
"So I was like an outcast, and I wanted nothing to do with the Reds organization. But since Bob Castellini and his group have come in here, they have reached out to me and made me feel welcome, and I certainly feel welcome and I enjoy coming back here now, because I think people really appreciate me -- and not only as a baseball player, but as a human being. And it feels good."
Castellini was at the podium, and afterwards he responded to Robinson's remarks by remembering how he felt as a diehard Reds fan himself.
"It was the worst trade in the history of the franchise," Castellini said. "I've been here all my life. I'm a Reds fan. We miss him in the worst way -- best player we had, and we traded him."
Robinson was part of a dramatic on-field ceremony before the Civil Rights Game, which has been a two-day joyous occasion played to nothing but packed crowds in the Queen City. Aaron (Life), Muhammad Ali (Change) and Bill Cosby (Hope) were honored on the field for having been named Beacon Award recipients at the luncheon just hours earlier downtown. Those three were escorted into the ballpark in golf carts that circled the warning track, giving a capacity crowd a chance to pay their respects to legends.
Grammy Award-winning gospel singer BeBe Winans and the Gospel Freedom Choir sang "America" and the "Star-Spangled Banner". Former Negro Leaguers were introduced, including Chuck Harmon, the first African-American player signed by the Reds. There was a military flyover and a giant flag unfurled in the outfield. Then Robinson threw the first pitch, tossing it in to a beloved figure here as well -- Tony Perez, an anchor of the Big Red Machine.
Robinson might have been part of that machine. Who knows? He was traded in 1965, and the next year he led the Orioles to the World Series title. He won another in 1970, beating the Reds. But bitterness remained after he left.
"This is where I got started," Robinson said. "This is where everybody put up with my strikeouts and my blunders on the field. Misplays, going up the terrace and coming down the terrace, and never got booed. And it really helped a young man develop into a baseball player. You polished the rough stone, and Baltimore reaped the benefits."
The "terrace" Robinson referred to was a quirky hill in left-center field at old Crosley Field. Babe Ruth tripped over it in his last game. Joe DiMaggio tripped over it in the 1939 World Series. Willie Mays had a nightmare or two on it. Robinson used to say that he had to climb it, because if you tried to run up and down it, you would fail.
Those are the kinds of stories that can be told again now that "Frank is back."
"It was great playing here, and every time somebody asks me about Cincinnati, I say it's a great city to be in. I enjoyed being here for 10 years, and I enjoy coming back here now. I look forward to coming back here more years and maybe being a bigger part of it one day."
Aaron, meanwhile, reiterated what he said earlier in the luncheon about a friend named Pete Titus who had befriended him when The Hammer was just 18.
"Cincinnati and I are kind of touched together," Aaron said. "I started my career here, I broke my ankle here, and I spent two months at Christ Hospital. I got my 3,000th hit here. ... It's a tremendous day for me just to be back in Cincinnati. One of the friends I met 50 years ago, Pete Titus, he came to my bedside to stay with me. I'm grateful for that."
Does he know anything more about Titus now?
"I lost track of him, and he really was one of my best friends," Aaron said. "I was 18, just a kid. He even brought me breakfast and dinner while I was in that hospital. He was the only one who was there for me."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.