They began as collaborators, became friends: Trailblazers Frank Robinson and Jackson’s Janet Marie Smith

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Tom Sullivan

Frank Robinson and Jackson native Janet Marie Smith, architect and chief designer of Camden Yards, discuss ballpark intricacies in the home dugout of old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in 1989.

Baseball lost one of its greatest heroes last week when Hall of Famer Frank Robinson died Feb. 7 at the age of 83. In Robinson, Jackson native Janet Marie Smith, the nationally renowned ballpark architect and director of design of Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards, lost a dear friend and collaborator.

“Everyone knows Frank for his baseball accomplishments, but he was also an amazing man, so passionate about whatever he was involved in,” Smith said by telephone from her Baltimore home. “He accomplished so much in life that his important contribution to the design of Camden Yards ranks so far down the list it rarely gets mentioned.

“I can tell you, Frank was very much a part of it. He had very definite ideas about the design on the playing field and the clubhouse and his input was invaluable. When things mattered to Frank, they really mattered and, thankfully, Camden Yards really mattered to him.”

Rick Cleveland

Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992 to such widespread acclaim that it sparked a new trend in ballpark design. That new trend, still trending to this day, was away from the symmetrical, all-purpose stadia to what might be best described as a retro look, back to the early 1900s when Major League ballparks were designed to fit into neighborhoods.

Smith, a 1975 graduate of Callaway High who studied architecture at Mississippi State, and Robinson have worked together on other projects since then.

Kevin Allen

When the Frank Robinson sculpture was dedicated at Camden Yards in 2012, Robinson called Janet Marie Smith to the podium to recognize her for directing the project.

“We started out as colleagues though he had a big recognizable name and was already in the Hall of Fame,” Smith said. “As was the case of so many of the people who worked with Frank, we became really good friends. I am going to miss Frank. You know, when you read about him, you read about his toughness, that tough veneer of his as a player and a manager. But he was such a softie inside. He made the people around him feel special.”

Robinson hit 586 home runs over 21 seasons. He is the only player in baseball history to be voted Most Valuable Player in both the National and American Leagues.

As the New York Times obituary described his playing style: “He was an intense and often intimidating presence, leaning over the plate from his right-handed stance, daring pitchers to hit him (which they did, 198 times), then retaliating with long drives, ‘pounding pitchers with fine impartiality,’ as the baseball writer Roger Kahn once wrote. He broke up double plays with fearsome slides. … Robinson insisted that teammates match his will to win.”

Yes, and 28 years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color line as a player, Frank Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first African American manager on April 8, 1975, as the manager of the Cleveland Indians. Frank Robinson, still an active player, celebrated the occasion with a home run in the Indians’ 5-3 victory over the Yankees.

Frank Robinson also managed the San Francisco Giants, the Orioles and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals over the course of his career. He was a demanding taskmaster.

As the Times obit said, “As a manager, he had little patience with lack of hustle.”

Robinson served as manager of the Orioles from 1988-91. In 1989, he was named the American League Manager of the Year for guiding the Orioles to an 87-75 record, 33 more victories than the previous season. It was during that time that Robinson and Smith met and began to discuss the Orioles’ new ballpark.

Little Leaguers pose for photos at the Frank Robinson sculpture at Camden Yards.

“Frank had very definite ideas about specific field dimensions, the foul territory, the dugout, the clubhouse,” Smith said. “Our president Larry Lucchino wanted an old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities. Frank took that to another level. He cared about being a fair ballpark. He liked the idea of right field and left field having different dimensions with the outfield wall being different heights. His credibility allowed us to do something special.”

When Smith gave the keynote address at the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Cooperstown Symposium in 2014, she made sure listeners knew of Frank Robinson’s accomplishment that was not noted at the Hall of Fame. Said Smith, “We had a significant secret weapon: Frank Robinson, our manager, had played in the older, classic ballparks. For him to speak of the advantage of smaller foul territories to hitters and the defensive strength of knowing the outfield quirks added volumes to our credibility in advocating an old-fashioned park.”

Smith has worked on stadium projects for four Major League baseball clubs: the Orioles, the Atlanta Braves, the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom she now serves as vice president for planning and development. In Baltimore, with Camden Yards, she literally changed the landscape of baseball. No lesser an authority than author George Will wrote the following passage: “The three most important things that have happened in baseball since the Second World War were Jackie Robinson taking the field for Brooklyn in 1947, free agency arriving in 1975, and Orioles Park at Camden Yards opening in 1992. The last was an act of heroic nostalgia, but, then, baseball fans are disposed to live with cricks in their necks from looking backwards. Which is why Major League Baseball owes a debt to a willowy woman from Mississippi. To those who said, ‘You can’t turn back the clock,’ Janet Marie Smith responded with ‘Well, we’ll just see about that.'”

In Boston, the Boston Globe has descrbed her as “the architect credited with saving Fenway Park.” In Atlanta, she led the project to convert Olympic Stadium into Turner Field. In Los Angeles, she has been charged with modernizing Dodger Stadium. While still with the Dodgers, and busily preparing for the 2020 Major League All-Star game in renovated Dodger Stadium, she also is consulting with the Boston Red Sox on the construction of a Class AAA stadium in Worcester, Mass.

Janet Marie Smith and Frank Robinson, on Jackie Robinson Day in 2016.

Through all those projects with all those clubs, Smith kept in contact with Frank Robinson, his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Nichelle.

When the Orioles celebrated 20 years in Camden Yards, Smith directed the design of sculptures of the Orioles six Hall of Famers: Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripkin, Jr. and Eddie Murray. Frank Robinson was brought in as a consultant to review the work of artist Toby Mendez. Frank Robinson, whose sculpture was the first to be cast and unveiled, took it upon himself to ensure all six, including the other five of men he greatly respected, were depicted as accurately as possible.

“Frank played for – or with – or managed every one of them,” Smith said. “He was a stickler for detail, down to Earl Weaver’s countenance or Jim Palmer’s leg kick.”

When the Cleveland Indians decided to include a sculpture of Frank Robinson at Progressive Field, Robinson insisted on Smith being brought in to oversee the project. When the Los Angeles Dodgers unveiled a statue of Jackie Robinson in 2017, Smith made sure that Frank Robinson was involved.

“After all,” Smith said, “the sculpture was an idea Frank had championed for years. He gave the artist, Branly Cadet, a lot of feedback when it was in clay form.”

“Frank was very aware – and I think very proud – of his contributions to the civil rights movement in our country,” Smith said. “He was proud of being the first Major League manager of color after Jackie Robinson broke the color line as a player.

“Last summer when my husband and I went to the Major League All-Star game in Washington, Frank and Barbara and Nichelle invited us to tour the National Museum of African American History and Culture with them,” Smith said. “I’ll never forget how pleased Frank was when he saw the exhibit about his own contribution.”

Frank Robinson’s family has asked that donations be made in his memory to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis or the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Said Smith, “I think that tells us what he cared about and serves as a reminder that Frank’s legacy is much more than as a great athlete.”