- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

Fifty years ago today, Frank Robinson made his first professional visit to Washington with unhappy results.

The occasion was baseball’s 23rd All-Star Game at Griffith Stadium. Robinson, a 20-year-old rookie slugger for the Cincinnati Redlegs, struck out twice against Chicago White Sox left-hander Billy Pierce before manager Walter Alston took him out in the fifth inning.

A half-century later, the Washington Nationals manager ruefully remembers.

“You don’t have to be diplomatic about it,” Robinson said recently. “You know how many pitches he threw me? Six — one, two, three, one, two, three [and out]. No respect there.”

And what did Pierce, a notably crafty lefty, throw Robinson?

“I don’t know. He threw me something I couldn’t hit.”

Robinson survived that day to become National League rookie of the year and enjoy a Hall of Fame career with Cincinnati, Baltimore and other teams before becoming baseball’s first black manager in 1975 with the Cleveland Indians. But the 1956 All-Star Game — the first of three in the nation’s capital over a 14-year span — was strictly a downer.

In those days before interleague play and cable television, the All-Star Game was a much bigger deal than now. A great deal of league pride was involved, and the National League was entitled to do some preening after a 7-3 victory here, its sixth in seven outings. The American League had won 12 of the first 16 games, but the momentum shifted completely in the 1950s because the NL had many more black stars like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and, yes, Frank Robinson.

All-Star starters were chosen entirely by fan vote then, and an extremely aggressive campaign by a Cincinnati radio station resulted in the election to the starting lineup of five Redlegs — so called because some felt the team’s traditional nickname of “Reds” summoned up communist connotations. (The following year, all eight Cincinnati position players were voted in before commissioner Ford Frick decreed that superstars Mays of the New York Giants and Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals start the game.)

As Robinson finished taking batting practice at Griffith Stadium, a Cincinnati writer asked, “Nervous, Frank?” Replied Robinson, who earned his spot by batting .313 with 18 home runs and 39 RBI during the season’s first half: “You don’t know just how nervous.”

Sitting in his office deep in the bowels of RFK Stadium, manager Robinson remembered that, too.

“Yeah, I was nervous, but it was a special little nervousness — not the kind I couldn’t control,” he said. “I looked all around, saw all those great players and just wanted to absorb it, take it all in. But I had a lot of pride and confidence in my ability. I wasn’t cocky, but I felt I belonged there.”

That was Robinson’s first and likely only look at Griffith Stadium, a ramshackle structure built in 1911 that housed the Washington Senators and Redskins at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW before D.C. (later RFK) Stadium opened in 1961.

“I don’t remember much about it except that it was a $15 cab ride out to those [distant] bleachers,” Robinson said. “But I didn’t care where the game was played, I was just happy to be there. We didn’t have any [ballpark] jewels in the National League back then either.”

Oddly perhaps, the All-Star Game wasn’t the biggest news in Washington on July 10, 1956. During what the Evening Star called a “dramatic” press conference, Senate Minority Leader William Knowland announced President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s intention to run for a second term. (Ike trounced Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson in the fall even more solidly than the National Leaguers beat the Americans.)

The game itself was rather ordinary except for home runs by four future Hall of Famers — Mays and Musial for the Nationals, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle for the Americans — as a capacity crowd of 28,843 gaped.

With the NL leading 5-0, the AL closed the gap to 5-3 on back-to-back homers by Williams and Mantle off fellow Hall of Famer-to-be Warren Spahn in the sixth inning. But that was it for what was then called the junior circuit.

Robinson isn’t the only person who remembers that game. Others who played a role included Clark Griffith II, son of Senators owner Calvin Griffith; broadcaster Bob Wolff; and P.A. announcer Charlie Brotman.

The game was dedicated to the memory of longtime Senators owner Clark Griffith, who had died the previous October. When his grandson and namesake arrived at the ballpark, he got a big surprise.

“How’s your arm?” commissioner Frick asked the 15-year-old Sidwell Friends student and ballplayer. “You’re throwing out the first ball.” Young Griffith’s ceremonial toss sailed right into the hands of Cleveland pitcher Herb Score, standing with his American League teammates along the first-base line.

“Sure, I was excited,” recalled Griffith, now a lawyer in Minneapolis. “It was my only moment in the baseball spotlight and a great memory.”

Wolff, in his 10th season as the Senators broadcaster and now a Hall of Famer himself, did the game for Gillette, the only sponsor, over 500 Mutual Broadcasting stations and Armed Forces Radio. This was the first truly national assignment for Wolff, who went on to describe two of the biggest sports events ever: Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series and the Baltimore Colts’ overtime victory against the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL title game.

“It was such a break for me to do the All-Star Game,” said Wolff, now a sports commentator for News Channel 12 on Long Island. “I was nervous but eager, and the nervousness went by quickly. If it hadn’t been for that game, I wouldn’t have gotten to do everything else.”

Brotman, now a Washington institution at major sports events and Inaugural parades, was in his first season as the Senators assistant public relations director and P.A. man

“I just knew somebody else would do the All-Star Game, but Calvin [Griffith] told me, ‘You’re my guy,’ ” Brotman said. “The night before at the All-Star dinner, he took me around and introduced me to all the important people in baseball — and I was nobody. A lot of people knock Calvin because he moved the Senators to Minnesota, but he was great to me.”

For these people and surely many veteran fans, memories of the 1956 “Midsummer Classic” endure. Undoubtedly, there will be another All-Star Game in town after the Nationals’ Anacostia Waterfront ballpark opens, but for now those memories will have to do.

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