The first time I saw Frank Robinson play was at Memorial Stadium on my 9th birthday in May 1966. The Baltimore Orioles were playing the Detroit Tigers on a Sunday afternoon, and were down 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th inning. Frank hit a double, then was thrown out in a close play at home plate trying to score. What I remember vividly was his aggressive base running from second base and his putting up a beef with the umpire after being called out.
That play and his reaction personified the forceful, take-charge attitude that Frank Robinson brought to his career as both baseball player and manager. Robinson, who died Thursday at 83, was acknowledged as one of baseball’s all-time great players, as well as an important racial pioneer.
His 586 home runs ranked 4th all-time when he retired after a 21 year major league career in 1976 (even today, beyond the “steroid” era, Frank ranks 10th); he drove in 1,812 runs, had 2,943 hits, and had a career .294 batting average. Robinson won two Most Valuable Player awards, the only player to be MVP in both leagues, and was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982.
Robinson is an iconic baseball figure in two cities (Cincinnati and Baltimore) with statues commemorating his achievements. Primarily a right fielder, he spent his first 10 seasons with Cincinnati, winning Rookie of the Year (1956), and winning MVP of the National League and leading the Reds to the World Series (1961). After the 1965 season, Robinson — considered an “old 30” by the Reds — was dealt to Baltimore, in what is considered one of baseball’s worst trades. In his six seasons with the Orioles, Robinson won the MVP in the American League and “Triple Crown” (first in homers, RBI’s and batting average) in 1966 and led the Birds to four World Series (1966, 1969-1971) and two championships (1966, 1970).
The hard-nosed play that Robinson showed that Sunday afternoon in 1966, he exhibited throughout his career. A batting stance, leaning over the plate, resulting in brush-backs and being hit by pitches (often he would get up and deliver a key hit, occasionally a home run); aggressive base running; a no-nonsense attitude on the field; and his leadership in the clubhouse were all part of Frank’s persona. When striding up the plate, Robinson almost seemed a John Wayne in spikes.
But just as importantly, Frank Robinson broke racial barriers. As an African-American player signed after Jackie Robinson (no relation) broke the color barrier, Frank encountered racial discrimination in the minor leagues, then at times during his years in Cincinnati and Baltimore. After arriving in Baltimore, he had problems finding housing until Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger intervened. Robinson was the Orioles first black marquee player, and he became the most prominent African-American player in the American League (which lagged behind the National League with black and Latino players).
Robinson strongly desired to manage, skippering in the Puerto Rico winter league while an active player, but major league baseball never had a manager of color. That changed when the Cleveland Indians hired Frank as player-manager in 1975, the first African-American manager in MLB. In his first game, Robinson hit a home run and the Indians won.
Several years after Cleveland dismissed him, Robinson was hired by the San Francisco Giants, becoming the first black manager in National League history. Later, he managed the Orioles, and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals. Despite compiling a career losing won-lost record as manager, in almost every managerial stop, Robinson improved his team’s performance. Later, Robinson was in the Orioles front office, and spent his last years as a special assistant to the baseball commissioner.
Although he downplayed assertions that he was a racial pioneer, Frank Robinson was as important as any African American in baseball history, and the history of American sports itself. President George W. Bush honored Frank with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 in recognition of his contributions to baseball and sports in America.
Forty years after seeing Frank Robinson play for the first time, I went to RFK Stadium in Washington to see the Nationals. When he came out of the dugout to change pitchers, jacket on, covering his uniform, someone near me asked, “Who’s that?” Well, nobody had to tell me who the man was walking with the John Wayne stride toward the mound; the same walk that for over 2,400 baseball games struck fear in the heart of many an opposing player. That was Frank Robinson.