Prolific slugger. Quintessential hard-ass player and manager. Baseball trailblazer.
Frank Robinson, who died in Los Angeles after a battle with bone cancer, was all of those things in a 60-year Hall-of-Fame career during which he hit (10th all-time) 586 home runs, was the only player in history to win Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues, became the first black manager in major league history, won the Triple Crown with the Orioles in 1966 and, as both a player and later-life MLB dean of discipline, was a vigorous proponent of how the game was supposed to be played. By the time he was done with the uniformed portion of his career, Robinson compiled a .294 average, a .926 OPS, 1,829 runs, 1,812 RBI and a 10th most all-time 198 hit-by-pitches. He also had 10 homers and 19 RBI in 35 postseason games with the Reds and Orioles, and in 1989 was named American League Manager of the Year with the Orioles.
Robinson, 83, was still working in baseball as a special advisor to Commissioner Rob Manfred in a long and decorated career that began in 1953 when he was signed for $3,500 by legendary Cincinnati Reds superscout Bobby Mattick out of McClymonds High School in Oakland, CA – the same high school that produced Vada Pinson, Robinson’s Reds’ outfield mate from 1958-65 and Curt Flood, another baseball trailblazer. Robinson was born in Beaumont, TX but grew up in West Oakland, the youngest of his parents’ 10 children. In 1949, he met and came under the tutelage of George Powles, a legendary local baseball coach for whom he played with both the American Legion team in Oakland and later at McClymonds.
After signing with the Reds, it took Robinson only three years to make the big leagues and it would probably have been a year sooner had he not suffered a shoulder injury making a throw while playing in the 1954-55 Puerto Rican winter league. In 1956, the Reds ended a streak of 11 consecutive losing seasons by hitting a major league record-tying 221 homers. Robinson, who won the left field job out of spring training, spearheaded the turnaround with a .290 average, a team-leading 38 homers and a league-leading 122 runs scored to win the National League Rookie of the Year award unanimously.
From there, Robinson went on to establish himself as one of the most feared – and fearless – hitters in the majors. From 1960-62, he led the NL three straight seasons in slugging, on-base pct. and OPS. In leading the Reds to their first National League pennant in 21 years in 1961, Robinson, who had now moved to right field, hit .323 with 37 homers. 117 runs, a league-leading 10 sac flies and won the NL Most Valuable Player award by a wide point margin (219-117) over the Giants’ Orlando Cepeda. He had an even better season in ’62 when he hit .342 with 39 homers, a career-high 136 RBI and led the league in runs (134), doubles (51), OBP (.421), slugging (.624), and OPS (1.045).
Robinson was elected to the Hall-of-Fame on the first ballot, along with his friend, Hank Aaron, in 1982. At the time, they ranked first and fourth on the all-time homer list.
While Robinson was regularly leading the league in various offensive categories, he was also becoming a frequent target for pitchers attempting to drive him off the plate. He led the league in getting hit by pitches seven times in his career, mostly because he refused to give in to them. A most notable example of that was June 9, 1960 when Hall-of-Famer Don Drysdale, the Dodgers’ notorious head hunter, threw a succession of brushback pitches under the chin at Robinson before finally plunking him on the left arm with a fastball that drew an immediate ejection and subsequent suspension. Unfazed, Robinson finished the game with two home runs, a bases-loaded double and seven RBI.
Robinson was also a famously aggressive baserunner, as best exemplified by his hard slide into Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews in the first game of a doubleheader, August 15, 1960. As he slid in, he jammed his elbow into Mathews, who immediately came up firing punches. Mathews clearly got the better of the fight as Robinson’s right eye was swollen and nearly shut, his nose bleeding and his thumb severely bruised. But in the second game, the repaired Robinson returned to hit a two-run homer and a double.
The otherwise triumphant 1961 season for Robinson was marred by an incident that severely tarnished his reputation. After being taunted by a short-order cook in a Cincinnati diner, he suddenly brandished a 25-caliber Baretta and pointed it at the cook. Two cops who witnessed the altercation from outside the diner rushed in to arrest Robinson and, despite being the best run-producer in Reds’ history, he was never viewed the same way by Cincinnati management.
On December 9, 1965, Robinson, who was only 30 and seemingly still in the prime of his career, was shocked when the Reds traded their franchise player to the Orioles for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. At the time, Reds president Bill DeWitt described Robinson as “an old 30”, but in fact it went down as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. Pappas, the key player for Cincinnati, won just two games for the Reds in 1966 before being traded again to the Braves. Robinson, on the other hand, went on to lead a renaissance in Baltimore with six more productive seasons for the Orioles including four trips to the World Series. In his first year with the Orioles, Robinson won the Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting (.316), homers (49), RBI (122), runs (122), OBP (.410), slugging (.637), OPS (1.047), total bases (367) and sac flies (7) and was named unanimous winner of the AL MVP award. He topped it off with a pair of homers in the O’s sweep of the Dodgers in the ’66 World Series. He also emerged as an instant clubhouse leader, introducing baseball’s first “kangaroo court” in which, with a mop over his head as a makeshift wig, he served as judge and jury in fining his teammates for various transgressions.
In 1971, Robinson was traded by the Orioles to the Dodgers, where he played one season, before moving over to the Angels in 1973, and was then traded again to the Indians at the end of ’74. When the Indians collapsed badly (6-14) down the September stretch, Ken Aspromonte was fired as their manager and in his place, on October 3, GM Phil Seghi made baseball history by naming Robinson the game’s first black manager. In his first game as player manager, Opening Day, April 8, 1975, Robinson received a congratulatory letter from President Gerald Ford and, with Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, among the 56,715 in attendance at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, he inserted himself in the lineup as the designated hitter and, in his first at-bat, hit a home run off the Yankees’ Doc Medich.
Despite guiding the Indians to a 79-80 record in ’75 and 81-78 the following year, he was fired after 51 games in ’77 following numerous run-ins with his players, who could not abide by his hard-driving style. Years later, in an interview with Sport Magazine, Robinson said: “I was the first black manager in baseball and there was incredible pressure. I don’t blame anyone else. I was too tough…I lacked patience. I wanted to win badly and I probably got on guys too much with the wrong tone of voice.”
Robinson would go on to manage three other teams, the Giants from 1981-84, the Orioles from 1988-91 and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals from 2002-2006. In 1989 he was named American League Manager of the Year when he improved an Oriole team that had finished in last place, 54-101, the year before to second place, 87-75.
Ever at the center of controversy, Robinson was a continual vocal critic of baseball for not hiring more black managers or general managers, and after being hired by MLB as vice president of on-field operations February 25, 2000, he incurred the wrath of players and managers alike for the stiff penalties meted out as he sought to be the game’s ultimate disciplinarian. Barely a month on the job, he fined and or suspended 19 Dodgers for incendiary mingling in the stands. Another time he enraged Yankee manager Joe Torre by suspended lefty Ted Lilly six games for hitting the Angels’ Scott Spiezio in the helmet with a pitch.
Robinson left the on-field operations job after the 2001 season when Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig asked him to go back into uniform and manage the Montreal Expos – who MLB had bought from Jeffrey Loria as part of a three-team ownership shuffle and proceeded to strip them of all their high salaried players. “I understand baseball credibility is on the line here,” Robinson told me in spring training that year. “People will be looking at the situation in Montreal and asking: ‘Does baseball really care?’ It’s my job to prove it does.” Against all odds, he succeeded, leading the lame duck Expos to respectable 83-79 seasons his first two years on the job as they played to half empty stadiums.