It is circa 1966. Consider the contrasts. On the one hand is Baltimore, a city riven with racial tensions, economic downslide, shifty politicians, and a deep sense of being unappreciated by the rest of the country. One the other is Los Angeles, whose very name conjured up visions of sun, wealth and the pursuit of hedonism. Add to this mix, a volatile Frank Robinson, the black outfielder who was traded at the height of his physical prowess from the Cincinnati Reds to the Baltimore Orioles at the end of the 1965 season, and Sandy Koufax, the golden-armed pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose injuries were catching up to him. That the Orioles prevailed over the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series is well known to baseball followers. Tom Adelman follows up his engrossing historical account of the 1975 World Series in the book, Long Ball, by taking the reader through the social milieu of 1966 and describing how out of the crucible of race, poverty, and advancing years, Frank Robinson found personal and professional salvation, and the city of Baltimore attained national prominence.
The focus of the first half of the book is Frank Robinson’s turbulent departure from Cincinnati and his arrival as the star outfielder for the Orioles. Baltimore was always an outsider looking in at the rest of the American League, even with seminal third baseman Brooks Robinson patrolling the infield. The arrival of Frank Robinson gave the Orioles the swagger they needed to parlay their young pitching staff to the pennant. Frank Robinson signaled his entry into the American League by having a Triple Crown year – first in batting average, runs batted in and home runs.
The Robinsons, Frank and Brooks, notwithstanding, the Orioles were decidedly the underdogs to the flamboyant Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. The Dodgers had Sandy Koufax, arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, and a veteran team of hitters and pitchers. Besides, they had the advantage of tailwind, being the defending champions. In a shocker, told with tremendous detail and a great sense of perspective brought on by the passage of time, the Orioles swept the Dodgers in four games and gave respite and a sense of identity, albeit only for a short while, to Baltimore.
The book is a fine intersection of baseball and social history, as astute in its observations about on-field strategy as it is about race relationships. It is at once a chronicle of a baseball season and a portrait of Frank Robinson, a complex man and a proud athlete who chose to answer his detractors in the best possible way, by leading his team to victory.