SAN FRANCISCO -- On Opening Day of the 1983 season, Mike Krukow took the ball knowing that he was already in a hole with his manager. Frank Robinson wasn’t a fan of the trade that brought Krukow over from the Phillies, and he wasn’t shy about it, particularly when Krukow had a rough spring.
Before Krukow could begin his work that day, he watched as actor Yul Brynner threw out the first pitch in front of more than 50,000 fans at Candlestick Park.
“He comes trotting out and grabs the ball and it looks like it’s the first time he’s had a baseball in his hand,” Krukow recalled Thursday. “He goes into his imaginary windup that I think he thought he was nailing and he throws a three-hopper to the plate.”
A short while later, Robinson met Krukow on that same mound. The debut hadn’t gone well. Krukow’s elbow was barking and he allowed four runs in 1 1/3 innings.
“Frank comes out there and takes the ball and says, ‘Yul Brynner’ had better (stuff) than you did,’” Krukow said.
Robinson was intense and unapologetic, but on Thursday, a few hours after the news of his passing, a couple of his former Giants players remembered him as someone who, above all, made them better.
“If you were a guy that needed a rah-rah speech, he wasn’t your guy. If you went out and pitched a shutout with 10 strikeouts, that’s your job. That’s your job,” Krukow said. “But if you didn’t do your work or you were lazy, that’s when you’d hear from him. He made you better. He made you tougher. He toughened up a bunch of guys that had him here.”
Bill Laskey, who also pitched for Robinson’s Giants teams, said the Hall of Fame hitter taught him how to be a more effective pitcher. Robinson led the league in hit-by-pitches seven times and he forced his pitchers to learn how to throw strikes on the inside part of the plate.
“He was very aggressive with his pitchers, very aggressive with his hitters,” Laskey said. “He forced me to pitch inside. That was one of his biggest pet peeves for all of his young pitchers. He said that if you don’t learn how to pitch inside, you won’t last in the big leagues.”
Robinson managed the Giants from 1981-84. He became the first African American to manage in the National League, and despite the fact that the vast majority of his legendary career was spent elsewhere, he remained an occasional presence at Giants games. In 2017, the organization honored Robinson during a pregame ceremony that included Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Barry Bonds.
Krukow and broadcast partner Duane Kuiper often spoke fondly of Robinson during broadcasts. They both played for him, and that left a lasting impact.
“He was very professional,” Krukow said. “No matter what, at the end of the year he would be there and he would reach out and shake your hand.”