The ritual of renewal that is Opening Day can be both transformative and defining. While it offers the opportunity for a new beginning, it is also invites reflection as to where we have been and where we are headed. And that analysis applies to a city as well as its baseball team.
Although it has been half a century, the excitement that engulfed Baltimore on April 15, 1966, is still fresh and vivid in my mind. It was the day of the Orioles' home opener, and the team had recently made the trade that would transform the organization from a good franchise into a dominant one.
Frank Robinson had arrived from Cincinnati with National League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards to his credit. He was a perennial All Star, having already hit 30 home runs or more in a season seven times and posted a better than .500 slugging percentage nine times, with two seasons over .600 and two more at .595 and .583. And due to his practice of defiantly challenging pitchers by nearly hanging over home plate, he had led the league in being hit by pitches six times. His was an undeniably enormous talent, and true believers saw him as the force that would lead the Orioles to the promised land in October.
The Orioles had become contenders just six years following their 1954 arrival in town. Their extremely young 1960 team had battled the fabled Yankees for the pennant deep into September before finishing in second place with 89 wins. The 1961 team won 95 games while finishing third. They won 86 games in 1963, and the 1964 team went down to the wire before finishing two games out of first with 97 wins. A 94-win season followed in 1965. Still, they had been missing a key ingredient: the superstar leader who would put them over the top. And the acquisition of Frank Robinson was intended to rectify that shortcoming.
He delivered immediately, having homered in both of the first two games of the season in Boston. The Friday afternoon home opener against the Yankees fell during spring break, allowing me, without truancy, to join a fellow 8th grade classmate in heading to 33rd Street to witness our new hero's arrival firsthand. Our seats were squinting distance away from home plate in upper rows of the general admission section in left field, but we felt entirely lucky to be in the house that day. And, of course, Frank Robinson treated us to a homer in his third straight game that day.
The rest of the story is well known. He won the Triple Crown that year, topping the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in, and become the only player to be named Most Valuable Player in both leagues, while leading the Orioles to their first pennant and a World Series sweep of the Dodgers. Three more pennants would follow during the next five seasons. He would go on to become baseball's first black manager, and his 586 home runs, accumulated well before the steroid era, would be among the statistics that would ensure his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. He was the greatest baseball player I ever had the pleasure of watching on a day-to-day basis, and is surely one of the greatest players of all time. He possessed that rare ability to summon the last measure of what his body could offer, and lead others to achieving the best of their abilities. But there is more to the story of his time here that involves far more than baseball.
The Baltimore in which he arrived in 1966 was far from welcoming outside of Memorial Stadium. In my experience, this is a city that has long been populated by tremendously kind and genuine people. Yet it has a history of blatant and systemic discrimination. First restrictive covenants and then redlining made certain that Baltimore's communities perpetuated overt segregation. Frank Robinson, the beloved leader of the Orioles, could not buy a home in just any neighborhood of his choosing. Leafy north Baltimore was among the areas that were entirely off limits, as were the developing affluent suburbs of the surrounding counties.
During Frank Robinson's first year in Baltimore, George Mahoney achieved a razor thin victory in a three-way race for in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against a liberal congressman and a moderate state attorney general. Mahoney's slogan — "your home is your castle; protect it" — was a transparent appeal to segregationist opposition to open housing laws. Racial discrimination then was not merely something that was suspected; it was openly practiced, not just in housing, but in restaurants, hotels, beauty shops, amusement parks, swimming pools and tennis courts. Frank Robinson's career in Baltimore is as much about rising above segregationist hatred as it is about leading a team to new heights of excellence, and his on-field performance is even more dynamic when considered in the context of the discrimination to which he was subjected.
This year, the Orioles front office has engaged in unprecedented spending in an effort to ride the current core of talented players deep into the post season. We all anxiously anticipate the months ahead when we will learn whether a powerful lineup, stout defense and strong bullpen are able to overcome questions about the starting rotation and whether anyone can consistently get on base in front of the sluggers. And we wonder too what is in store for our town.
Fifty years ago, a joyful Opening Day concealed the ugliness of the times. We may have overcome the blatant discrimination of that era, but, as the last year has painfully reminded us, we have not put aside the damage done by generations of segregation and unequal opportunity. Perhaps a leader will emerge on the field who will lead the Orioles to the sweet spotlight of baseball in the fall. And perhaps we will find leadership among our own number that will help lead us to reconciliation and healing that has remained out of our reach. After all, on Opening Day, the world is all possibility and hope.