The Kangaroo Court and Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson was king of the kangaroo court. (via Rubenstein)

In regular life, there are many informal ways of processing and policing failures in human behavior. In baseball, it’s called the Kangaroo Court. The man who presents a charge has to bring a witness to support it. An accuser who can’t prove the charge has to pay the fine. Sessions are always after a victory because when is it easier to talk about your faults than after a win? Judges are nominated, but must be approved. It’s group therapy that can even involve the batboy.

All fines must be paid before the next game. Sometimes part of the court money goes to a team party; sometimes part of it is donated to charity; sometimes it’s split among the batboys.

For the court, nothing goes unnoticed: missing a sign, tripping on a foul line, wearing an ugly suit. Once, Vince Coleman was fined for allowing a rival to borrow his glove. He lent his glove to Willie McGee, a former teammate, who had his equipment stolen at Shea Stadium. Coleman had to pay $10 for each ball McGee caught. Total fine: $30. The Mets punished Alejandro Pena for shaking hands with Dave Magadan, thinking the game was over. Houston’s Steve Finley, after helping beat New York, was fined for appearing on the Mets’ postgame radio show. Cleveland’s Albert Belle was demoted to the minors for not running out a ground ball, and soon after, Cleveland created a court for guidance.”We’ll take care of it if it happens again,” catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “If he doesn’t run, it’s going to cost him a lot of money. The manager won’t have to say a thing. Everyone will tell it to his face.”

“I didn’t want any foul language in my court,” Tom Foley, Montreal’s arbiter, said. “No talking out of turn.”

Don Baylor, formerly a judge in Oakland, Baltimore, Boston, and New York, also ruled with an iron hand. He fined Oakland’s Mark McGwire with a charge of “not dressing up to major-league standards.” “Ralph Lauren would not have been proud,” Baylor, said. “Stripes one way with stripes the other way, a tie with a leather jacket. … Oh, God. If I had stayed around here, he wouldn’t have any money.”

Ron Guidry didn’t ask for a trial. He knew he would be guilty for sure. “If a pitcher gave up a hit on an 0-2 count, they would fine him $25 a base,” Baylor recalled. “Once, Guidry gave $100 before the season started because he said he throws strikes even on 0-2 counts, and this would be a down payment.”

More recently, in the 2008 season, the great closer Mariano Rivera was punished by the Yankees’ kangaroo court for guiding Roy Halladay through improving his cutter. That season Halladay beat the Yankees three times.

Baylor had learned a lot about the kangaroo court since his rookie days with the Baltimore Orioles of Chief Judge Frank Robinson. In the spring of 1970, Robinson stood in the middle of the Orioles dugout at Miami Stadium with a newspaper in hand. He read aloud from the article. He kind of smiled about a young spring-training invitee telling writers that if he got hot, he didn’t care if the Orioles had Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, Merv Rettenmund or Don Buford. “If I get into my groove I’m gonna play every day.” Frank quoted the hotshot as saying.

When that interview was published, the team was traveling to West Palm Beach. Robinson had stayed in camp and read the story in the Miami papers. He had a whole day to plan his revenge. The next day, Robinson brought the whole team in and read every single word Baylor had said. From that day on, his teammates called him “The Groove.” “That’s going to stick for a long time,” Mark Belanger said.

Even Brooks Robinson consulted Frank about his troubles. How to run the bases, how to play certain stadiums walls, how to hit the ball, whatever. Frank had charisma. He was the manager on the field and handled the clubhouse with absolute authority. Third base coach Billy Hunter had advised Frank begin a kangaroo court when he joined the Orioles. He ruled the court after every win at home. He locked the clubhouse for 15 minutes or so. Players would relax and speak up. He didn’t punish players for physical errors, but fines for mental mistakes were automatic. Those included pitchers giving up homers on 0-2 counts or baserunners being thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple with either no outs or two outs in an inning. If you failed on the bases, you lost more than money. An old beat-up shoe would hang on your locker, Frank’s “base running” award. He also had a “long ball” award: a seized ball he hung in the locker of the pitcher who gave up the longest dinger. And there was the “redass” award, a toilet seat painted red. It was for hotheads.

In 1984, after losing Goose Gossage, having to convert Dave Righetti from starter to reliever, and dealing with a Detroit Tigers team that started the season winning 35 of 40, Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees manager, asked Baylor if he could start a kangaroo court, just to remind the players to help each other. Yogi was like Earl Weaver; he didn’t see the court as a threat for his authority. He thought the court would bring the emphasis back on execution. And he also looked to inject some levity to stop the boredom and frustration. Baylor’s first choice was to name Phil Niekro as a one-man Supreme Court. Frank Robinson never reported to a higher authority, but Baylor assumed that Niekro’s word would outrank his. To appeal any fine he delivered, players had to consult Niekro. If they lost, the fine automatically doubled. Baylor knew that Niekro was implacable. He never changed a verdict.

If you batted with a man at first or second base and less than two outs, you either advanced the runner or it was five bucks. Fraternization also cost five dollars. Two minutes, no more, were allowed to ask a friend on another team about the family. Pitchers were punished for allowing 0-2 base hits, with the severity of the penalty depending on the circumstance. Baylor’s fines were in the five-dollar range. When Niekro surrendered a grand slam to Ken Phelps on a 0-2 pitch, the fine was $100 — $25 for each base.

That was the second of only two $100 fines he ever issued. The other one was against Steve Lyons, two years later when they were both with the Boston Red Sox. In a game against Milwaukee, Brewers pitcher Mark Clear faced Wade Boggs with two outs and two on in the ninth. Lyons stood on second base. Marty Barrett was on first. Boggs already had three hits. Barrett told Lyons that Clear had a big leg kick, so he should take off on Clear’s first move. But Barrett had failed to update his information; Clear had canned the high leg kick. He threw the ball to the plate, the catcher fired on to third, and Lyons was an easy out. Game over.

By 1986, Baylor had joined the Boston Red Sox. Sometime around the beginning of the season, Dwight Evans, the right fielder, told Baylor he thought it could be a good idea if he started a kangaroo court. “It might make the game a little more fun,” Evanst said. “There are some guys here that don’t have fun. It might also help to improve fundamentals.” Baylor still needed the approval of two others before he could say yes. It was John McNamara’s team. And Jim Rice was the captain. When both agreed, court was in session again. Evans was right. The court brought an element of fun. The Red Sox became a team that would come within one victory of being world champions.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Evans also helped Baylor a lot. He always remembered the day when Evans handed him the Bible passages to read when Baylor asked him if he should go after Jim Rice. It was something that both took seriously. Baylor read the Bible and found solace, enough to coexist with Rice no matter that their views on team play were diametrically opposed.

Any time a new session of the Baltimore Orioles’ kangaroo court was about to begin, Frank Robinson put a mop on his head (yes a floor cleaning mop, but this one was extremely white, very bright) as the most solemn English judge. Bat in hand, he presented himself as “Da Judge,” a reference to a recurring sketch on the TV comedy series “Laugh-In.” “We’d come in, get a sandwich and a drink and relax a little bit. And we’d bring up whatever mistakes were made. If a guy hadn’t hit a cutoff man the night before, he’d hear about it. If he hadn’t taken an extra base, he’d hear about it. People sometimes got the purpose confused. It wasn’t to bully people. It was to get them to thinking about the game.”

“If you made a mistake, you didn’t want to have to come in the clubhouse and hear about it,” said the late Elrod Hendricks, a catcher on the Orioles’ 1969 squad and Baltimore’s longtime bullpen coach. “So, yes, it made you concentrate.”

“He was the judge and jury,” Robinson’s Orioles teammate and fellow former Nationals manager Davey Johnson,  told MLB Network. “I kneeled down in front of him a couple times, because he was on me all the time. Begging for mercy. He was the king, but he initiated this stuff to keep us all trying to do our best. It was fun. . . . It was amazing when he put that wig on and was up there.”

On August 13, 1969, four days after he returned to play from the disabled list, Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer no-hit the Athletics at Memorial Stadium. In the clubhouse aftermath, Orioles coach Charlie Lau took the team’s kangaroo court to a new level of absurdity by taping the head of a mop to a catcher’s plastic skull cap and handing it to Robinson to wear. As Palmer chatted with teammates about his no-hitter on the other side of the room, Robinson gestured on his locker with a bat to announce court was in session.

“The misdemeanors were dispensed with first,” the Baltimore Sun’s Doug Brown reported. “Eddie Watt had been detected fooling with the grounds crew’s tractor before the game and was assessed $1. Andy Etchebarren was spotted in the A’s dugout. Dave May threw a clubhouse boy in the whirlpool. Don Buford was talking to a girl in the stands. A buck apiece.”

Paul Blair got the Weak Swing Award for a seventh-inning pop-up and the No-Touch Trophy for dropping a ball in the third inning, Brown reported. The John Mason Baserunning Award went to Palmer, who was thrown out while trying to score from second base on a single.

Lau, who served as the court’s treasurer, collected $11 that night. The Orioles at first planned to use all of the money collected for a late-season party, but Robinson said a week later that the fines, which already totaled more than $600, would be sent to the educational fund for Reds catcher Pat Corrales’ four children. Corrales’s wife, Sharon, had died in childbirth a month earlier.

No one escaped the law in Robinson’s court, not even Weaver.

“I was among the first — and most consistently — fined because my coaches ganged up on me,” Weaver told The New York Times. “In a doubleheader in Cleveland, I rested Mark Belanger in one game, then put him in for defense in late innings. Mark made two errors. In the clubhouse afterward, the kangaroo court was called to order, and Billy Hunter stood up and said: ‘Your honor, I’d like to charge Earl Weaver with misguided managing. He sent in Belanger for defense, and Mark made two errors.’”

The players in the clubhouse were shouting “Guilty!” even before Hunter called his witnesses.

“Earl Weaver, how do you plead?” Robinson asked.

“Guilty as charged, and I’ll pay the fine,” Weaver replied.

Jay Mazzone was a special batboy. His hands were so severely burned in an accident when he was two years old that they had to be amputated. He did his job, from 1967 through ’72, with metal hooks. He and Robinson had a great friendship, but several players didn’t know how to socialize with Mazzone at first.

“Frank Robinson broke the ice,” Mazzone said. “He was running his kangaroo court and calling a vote among the players, whether to fine somebody or not.”

“It was either thumbs up or thumbs down. After the vote he said, ‘Jay, you’re fined for not voting.’ Everybody laughed. After that, I was treated just like everybody else. Somebody even made a big cardboard hand with a thumb,” said Mazzone, “so I could take part in future votes.”

Robinson was someone who motivated a whole team by his behavior on and off the field. When he had a wrist injury so intense he was unable to swing the bat, only his teammates knew how badly he was hurting. Never mind that. Robinson bunted for a hit, stole second and scored the winning run on a hit.

After a pitcher in the minor leagues knocked Robinson down, he grounded out a couple of pitches later. As he crossed the infield heading back to the dugout, he punched the pitcher in the face.

During his National League days, he had some hellish battles with Don Drysdale. Drysdale would throw one at Robinson’s head. Robinson would get up and slap one off the wall.

One day, some journalists were asking Robinson about the best pitchers he’d ever faced.

Juan Marichal? “Killed him,” Robinson said.

Bob Gibson? “Killed him.”

Don Drysdale? “Killed him.”

Sandy Koufax? “Killed him,” Robinson said. “Wait. You said Koufax? No one killed him, and if they said they did, they’re lying.”

References and Resources

  • Don Baylor and Claire Smith. Nothing But the Truth. A Baseball Life. St. Martin’s Press. New York. 1989.
  • “Frank Robinson is the player I measure every other against, and they almost all come up short.” April 23, 2012.
  • “In Baseball’s Wild Kangaroo Court, Anyone Can Get Bounced.” Vincent Cinisomo. Associated Press, July 6, 1991.
  • “Mop on head, bat in hand, Frank Robinson was ‘judge and jury’ of Orioles’ kangaroo court.” Scott Allen. Washington Post. February 8, 2019.
  • “What Mariano Rivera Shared with Roy Halladay, Besides Credentials to the Baseball Hall of Fame.” Tyler Kepner. The New York Times. January 20, 2019.

Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.
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4 years ago

Hank Aaron hit .362/.431/.647 in 130 PAs against Sandy Koufax.

Source: The Anti-fun Brigade

4 years ago

Given the connotations of the phrase I wasn’t expecting this to be so wholesome. What a great read, thank you.

4 years ago

This was superb! Very funny.