When I was 10, Frank Robinson wrote me a note.
At the time, I was writer, editor and publisher of a fabulous four-page publication called “Sports Profile.” My mom turned my scribbles into properly typed and formatted pages, and my dad made copies at work. For a while, the motto was: “Comes with one free staple.”
It was a monthly, sometimes a bimonthly, depending on Little League practice and homework. Relatives, family friends and New Hampshire neighbors were the circulation. For the out-of-towners, I would fold the edition in half, apply a small piece of tape, write the recipient’s name and address and slap on a 13-cent stamp.
Loyal subscribers — all dozen of them — included my paternal grandparents, who lived in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles.
In December 1976, they shipped Issue 3, Vol. 1 back to me in New Hampshire. Clearly, an unhappy customer.
On the front cover, in navy ink and cursive writing, was a note from Robinson, who at the time was manager of the Cleveland Indians.
To Steven. This is very good work on your part. Keep it up. It’s nice to see a young person doing something on his own. Frank Robinson
He was the first African American to hold such a position. I had heard this was a big deal, but as a white kid growing up in rural New England, I could not appreciate it. I just knew he had hit a lot of home runs and played in the World Series.
So how did a personalized message from a baseball legend end up on my little mimeographed newspaper? He was in my family tree, sort of.
Here goes: My grandmother’s brother had a daughter who married a man whose sister, Barbara Cole, married Frank Robinson some 60 years ago.
The Robinsons made their home in Los Angeles. At some point in the fall of 1976, my grandparents either crossed paths with Frank at a family gathering or passed along “Sports Profile” to Barbara’s brother to show to Frank.
My grandfather was a huge sports fan. For a time, he owned Rams season tickets. Because of that, he was entitled to buy seats at the 40-yard line to the first Super Bowl at the L.A. Coliseum. He brought my father. My grandfather would have gotten a thrill out of a Goff quarterbacking the Rams in a Super Bowl.
Knowing his passion for sports, he also got a kick out of his eldest grandson entering the sports journalism business at a young age.
No doubt, securing Frank Robinson’s signature — and full-blown words of encouragement for his grandson — was a proud moment.
Over the years, whenever Robinson’s name came up in family conversation, my father would joke about “Uncle Frank.”
After the Montreal Expos moved to Washington in 2005, I was on occasional baseball duty — a soccer scribe serving as the backup to the backup baseball writer. (Yes, I once referred to the Colorado Rockies as the Colorado Rapids.)
Robinson had been with the Expos and followed the team to D.C. to serve as the Nationals manager in 2005-06.
His arrival in Washington rekindled memories of the note he wrote to me. I went through old boxes and files in an effort to locate the autographed edition. I found it, folded the same way it had been when mailed decades earlier, the print fading and the paper yellowing.
Several times while on assignment at RFK Stadium, I was tempted to flank him as he walked slowly through the depressing, late-night tunnels to his office after answering questions at the postgame news conference.
I never did. I wasn’t the beat writer and didn’t have any relationship with him. Plus, he just wanted to get out of the dumpy venue, and I needed to make deadline.
When I learned he would not return after the 2006 season, I regretted not approaching him. I certainly regret it now.
That kind note will remain our bond.