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The time Frank Robinson was blackmailed for an autograph

SCD columnist T.J. Schwartz shares a story about when he "blackmailed" major league Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to sign a baseball for him.

By T.J. Schwartz

The great Hall of Famer Frank Robinson recently passed away, and I have a Frank Robinson story that no one knows ... until now.

A native Bronx boy and Yankees fan, I moved to California in 1973 at 20 years old. I came out to the West Coast to get into the comedy business as a writer. I ended up “living” at The Comedy Store, next door to the Continental Hyatt House Hotel. Now what does all this have to do with Frank Robinson?

The Dodgers met the Yankees for the second year in a row in the 1978 World Series. To make ends meet, I drove a cab in the daytime and hung out at the Comedy Store at night. The hotel next door had a taxi stand in front. The Yanks stayed at the Continental Hyatt House when in Los Angeles. As a devout Yankees fan, I found this out. When they got to town, I parked my cab on that stand with no intention of taking a fare, but rather I was looking for Yankees.

I decked out the inside of my cab with Yankees pennants and pictures. I had clean baseballs and lots of Sharpies and yearbooks. I was ready.

Using my cab as an autograph den, game day finally arrived. If a member of the Yankees left the hotel, I was there, ball and Bic pen at the ready, but no Thurman Munson or Reggie Jackson, my idol, showed up. There were plenty of fans around.

I can hear you saying “Frank Robinson?” Well here we go. While waiting for the team bus to show up, I noticed a brand new Benz just sitting in the circular driveway of the hotel. The African American sitting behind the wheel looked very familiar to me. Yep, it was none other than Frank Robinson. I’ve got nerves of steel so I casually walked up to the car and knocked on the window. I tapped on his rolled up window. No answer. I knocked again. Still nothing. But before I could do it again, the electric window rolls down a few inches. “Yes, can I help you?”

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“Mr. Robinson,” I stammered, “May I please have an autograph?”

I had a ball in my hand. I’m a 6’7”, 275-pound, 25-year-old hippie with a giant afro and a beard. Lord knows what he thought I was. I looked like my friend, Artis Gilmore.

Frank said he couldn’t do it. I was young and gutsy so I said, “Hey Frank, do you really want me to yell out to all those fans that you’re sitting here?” He turned to me, rolled down the window all the way and said, “So you’re blackmailing me?” “You betcha Frank,” I said.

After a short pause he said, “Gimme the darned ball!”

He gave me a nice sweet spot signature. I thanked him and ran off.

Fast forward 20 years. I was leaving a Chicago National Convention and waiting at the United pre-board. I would save miles so I could fly First Class. I got into the First Class line and guess who was standing in front of me? Yep, Frank. I had to do it and relayed the story to him. I could tell he was only partially listening until I got to a certain part.

He replied, “Wait a minute, you’re the guy that blackmailed me for my autograph?”

Before I could say anything, he complimented me on my move and said that if I had waited a few more minutes, I could have had Reggie too as that’s why he was there, to pick him up. We both had a great laugh out of it.

Back to that day in 1978, which got better after I got Robinson’s autograph.

The Yankees bus pulled up and Yogi Berra was taking roll call as the players got on the bus. I was about 15 feet away watching everything thanks to my taxi. Nettles, Dent, Rivers, who had a young person with him. Yogi chides him about players only and Rivers pleads with him, telling Yogi this is his cousin. Yogi told him no way and not to argue with him. Rivers turned his head and spotted me in my taxi shirt.

He asked, “That your cab?”

“Sure is,” I mumbled, rather star struck.

He asked, “You know how to get to Dodger Stadium?”

“Oh yeah,” I said, to which he replied, “Then let’s go.”

I had the Yankees center fielder in my cab. He saw all the Yankees stuff and said he felt comfortable and offered me $100 if I beat the bus there. I made a u-turn on Sunset and got to the gates of Dodger Stadium, which were locked, this being four-plus hours before game time. Cars are lined up waiting to get in.

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Rivers yelled, “They’ll let me in.”

I honk my horn at the guard gate, stick my head out of the window and yell that I’ve got Mickey Rivers. They open the gate and I drive into an empty parking lot right up to the center field grass. Rivers and his cousin jump out. He signed some autographs for me and slipped me a Hundie. Wow, I floated out of there. That was quite a day for this Yankees fan and I’ll never forget it.

From The Wheelchair

Well, I now have my new prosthetic leg and have begun the nearly three months of required physical therapy. I have walked a bit and will have it down soon. You learn a lot spending nine months in a wheelchair. I plan on being more prolific when it comes to my column. I’d also like to thank all my readers for sticking with me.

Until next month I remain ... On Your Side.