Robinson awarded Medal of Freedom

Robinson awarded Medal of Freedom

WASHINGTON -- Frank Robinson has accomplished a lot on the baseball field in the past 50 years. He was one of the best players in the Major Leagues from 1956-76 and, in 1975, became the first African-American to manage in the big leagues. Thirty years later, Robinson managed the Nationals to a surprising 81-81 record.

On Wednesday afternoon, Robinson was rewarded for his accomplishments when President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil award. The ceremony took place in the East Room of the White House.

President Harry S. Truman created the Medal of Freedom in 1945 to recognize United States citizens for their efforts during World War II. But in 1963, President John F. Kennedy reinstated the award to honor distinguished service.

Robinson was one of 14 people to receive the award, including boxer Muhammad Ali, golfer Jack Nicklaus, comedian Carol Burnett and singer Aretha Franklin.

The star-shaped medal was placed around Robinson's neck by President Bush.

"It doesn't get any better than this," said Robinson, who spoke to about an hour after the ceremony ended. "It's a tremendous honor to be presented the medal from the president along with all the other recipients. It's mind-boggling. I stayed away from injuries. Fortunately, I had a lot of good teammates and we had success. And that's what it is all about."

When President Bush was reading Robinson's accomplishments, which included winning the Most Valuable Player in both the National and American Leagues and being the first black manager in the big leagues, Robinson was fighting back tears.

During that moment, he said he was thinking about all the black baseball players who paved the way for him to be successful.

"I think about the Negro League players," Robinson said. "You think about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. You think about Roy Campanella, Willie Mays -- those guys in the old days when they had to take the rough times on and off the field. They made it easy for me to accomplish what I've been able to do."

There was a point during the ceremony when Robinson seemed happier for the other recipients than for himself. He was relieved to know that the recent reports of Ali's suffering due to Parkinson's disease were overblown. While Ali needed help to get on the podium and to his chair, he was strong enough to joke with President Bush and received a lot of laughs from the audience.

"It was great to see Muhammad Ali," Robinson said. "He was an inspiration to all African-Americans. To me, he helped bring this country together during the course of his career."

During the ceremony, Robinson was sitting next to Paul Rusesabagina, whose life was depicted in the movie "Hotel Rwanda." Rusesabagina gave people shelter at the hotel he managed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

"I heard about his deeds and I saw the movie, and it was very touching," Robinson said. "To be sitting next to him was a tremendous thrill and honor. I was really happy for him."

In attendance were Robinson's wife, Barbara, and daughter, Nichelle. Robinson often talked about how they made sacrifices for him to be successful in baseball. It was Barbara who told Frank, "Whatever you have to do, you do it. The kids and I will adjust to you."

"They are on Cloud 9," Robinson said. "It was good to have them with me, because a lot of times when I was playing, they couldn't be with me. I wouldn't have been able to accomplish anything if not for them. They have made it comfortable for me to be able to focus on the job that I was doing at hand. I worry about them when I'm on the field, but it doesn't occupy my mind because they make it comfortable for me."

Robinson is still not sure if he will have a job with the Nationals next season. His contract expired on Oct. 31, and he hasn't heard from anyone about his future.

"I haven't heard a thing," Robinson said. "I only hear what I read in the paper. I don't let it consume my time. It will happen when it happens. That's when I'll put the focus on it."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.