I was at work when I found out that Frank Robinson had died. It was not unexpected, as he’d been suffering with bone cancer, but it still landed on me with a weight I didn’t anticipate, but perhaps should have. Although not a member of my own inner circle of baseball immortals, Mr. Robinson was a source of interest to me for reasons that were not entirely driven by his on-field performance. Not that his athletic career was anything other than certifiably great. The only man to win the Most Valuable Player Award in both Major Leagues, he made fourteen All-Star teams, held the rookie record for home-runs (since broken), won the Rookie of the Year Award, led the league in runs scored three times, and had a litany of other career highlights that could fill a page, but I’m sure you get the point. There is no reasonable way to evaluate his achievements without putting him on a very short list of the best players who ever lived. If asked for my opinion on the best right fielders (his position) of all-time I’d not hesitate to place him third. All of which is impressive but only tangentially related to my admiration for him. I think that the fact that my respect for him has ascended as I’ve aged is more about the milestones he didn’t pass.
Robinson retired after the 1976 season with 586 homeruns and 2,943 hits. His final two seasons (as a playing manager) with Cleveland were not unmitigated disasters. In particular he had produced respectably in limited plate appearances in 1975. Which makes his decision to stop playing when he was so close to some magic baseball numbers (600 home runs, 3000 hits) altogether even more inspiring. He could have found between 100 and 150 at-bats for himself for another couple of seasons and might well have crossed the above mentioned thresholds. He didn’t do it. When I was a kid I saw this as an almost tragic failing. In my early teens it was hard for me not to see the whole thing as some sort of near miss failure. First, I couldn’t understand why he’d quit. Then, convinced that no one would voluntarily fall short of the accomplishments in question, I ascribed his retirement to a combination of physical breakdown and the day-to-day pressures of managing. Such is the wisdom of callow youth. Much as it was impossible at that age to understand his motivations, things became clearer to me as I began to grow up myself. He stopped because he didn’t need any special numbers attached to his record. He had a vivid understanding of what he was and how good he’d been. The fact that he was on the precipice of some “trophy” statistics didn’t seem to mean a damn thing to him. He was, of course, right. Frank Robinson’s understanding of his own value as a baseball player was rooted in the knowledge that he’d spent the better part of twenty-one seasons committed to the idea that it was his job to make sure that the other team had to compete for everything they got.
The story I’ve heard that best sums up his legacy is not about some herculean feat of clutch hitting or the full-back approach he took to base-running that he was famous for. It’s a smaller, more personal remembrance by Oriole teammate and Hall of Fame pitcher, Jim Palmer. Palmer tells of a night in Boston when Robinson hit a towering drive to left field that he assumed was going to clear the wall. It didn’t. Between Robinson’s relaxed cadence as headed for first and Carl Yastrzemski‘s excellent outfield play, Robinson was held to a single. Baltimore won anyway. After the game Earl Weaver, the Oriole manager, returned to his office to find a note of apology and two one hundred dollar bills. Robinson felt he had embarrassed the team and fined himself accordingly. That’s who he was, and there isn’t a statistical component in sight. When I read of his death I thought of these things and wondered who else I might think of, regardless of field of endeavor, that might compare to him in this narrow regard.
Jerry Seinfeld, of all people, comes to mind. Running for nine seasons, from 1989 through 1998, the situation comedy that bears his name was one of the most successful and influential t.v. programs in the history of the medium. By the time he called it quits he’d earned over a quarter of a billion dollars, and had starred in a “show about nothing” that was as quoted as any I can remember. NBC was so desperate to take another bite at the apple that they offered him a surreal $5 million per episode for the tenth season, which would have made him the highest paid sitcom star ever. And he said no without much fanfare. He felt that the show was still at a high level and wanted that to be the lasting impression. I remember hearing him on a Tom Papa podcast saying that if the Beatles had only lasted nine years, that was enough for him too. He moved on and doesn’t seem to spend too much time dwelling on what might have been.
Wanting, I suppose, to cover all the arts, I thought a little while about the musicians whose careers I had followed. The first one to come to mind was Billy Joel, albeit only in relation to actually making albums. Although Joel has had a pretty active performance schedule to date, he has not released an album of popular music since 1993 (River of Dreams). Aside from a collection of classical compositions (Fantasies and Delusions) in 2001 that he did not actually play on, it is now more than a quarter of a century since a man whose career record sales have exceeded 150 million, has recorded anything that I am aware of. He has stated that he is still writing but has not authored anything that he thinks is worthy of being reproduced. Considering the fact that his monthly show at Madison Square Garden is a perpetual sellout there is clearly still an audience for his work, and I can’t imagine him having anything other than commercial success if he were to put out new music. But he doesn’t need to do anything else to pointlessly try and burnish what is an already incandescent catalog.
The actor that I’m most likely to think of this way is Gene Hackman. Having been active for just shy of fifty years (1956-2004) his acting career essentially drifted to a close. In the last fifteen years he has a couple of minor voice-over narrations to his credit, and that’s it. His artistic output in that time has been as a writer. It isn’t unusual for an older actor to essentially retire without a specific acknowledgement of the fact. For most of them it’s simply a matter of failing memory. With Hackman it seems more of a case of him slowly losing the drive to act and replacing it with a new endeavor. With five novels in the last twenty years he is neither a word churning dynamo or the second coming of Harper Lee. It’s hard to believe that there aren’t a plethora of directors who would love to have a chance to work with him, but for him, done is done.
Those are just three examples off the top of my head and I’d have to say they are each of only marginal similarity. Not that the men listed didn’t walk away from something when it would have been easy to just continue on. They did and I do find something commendable in their stories. But their changes lead to new creative lives that were to one extent or another different means to already established ends. Seinfeld continued being funny (The Marriage Ref, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee), Joel, as referenced, still plays in front of thousands, and Hackman is still communicating with an audience, although his mode is entirely different now. Robinson simply stopped doing the only thing he’d ever really known. Because it was time to do so. As much as I admire the resolve it took to do that, what I really focus on at this point in my life is the part of him that didn’t seem to be concerned with losing the adulation of his fans. When asked to try and explain the inner torment of Robin Williams, Billy Crystal said that “Robin always needed a hug from a stranger”. At fifty-five years of age I have to admit I suffer greatly from the same affliction. Frank Robinson, to the best of my understanding did not.