Frank Robinson, Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer, dies at 83

Orioles outfielder Frank Robinson had those skinny legs and a gingerly gait that made it seem as if his feet always hurt. But the ferocity with which he played baseball belied his appearance. He crowded the plate with abandon and hurtled into fielders to break up double plays. Once, at Yankee Stadium, he decked a fan who tried to rob him of a fly ball.

"I always had the willingness to push myself. I tried to be better than what I was," said Mr. Robinson, a 13-time All-Star and first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1982. "Sure, it’s just a game. But it’s my life."

Mr. Robinson, 83, died Thursday morning at his home in California, according to Major League Baseball.

“Frank Robinson’s resume in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations. He was one of the greatest players in the history of our game, but that was just the beginning of a multifaceted baseball career,” baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday in a statement. “We are deeply saddened by this loss of our friend, colleague and legend, who worked in our game for more than 60 years.”

Mr. Robinson’s baseball life carried him from the recreational fields of West Oakland, Calif., to enduring greatness as a player, to pioneering status as Major League Baseball’s first black manager in 1974. President Gerald Ford called that milestone, which came 27 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for players, “welcome news for baseball fans across the nation” and a tribute to Mr. Robinson’s “unsurpassed leadership,” the New York Times reported.

Mr. Robinson played down the weight of the moment, saying: “The only reason I’m the first black manager is that I was born black. That’s the color I am. I’m not a superman. I’m not a miracle worker.”

But after his debut, in which he also hit a home run, he said, “I feel better than I have after anything I’ve done in this game.” In the 45 years since, just 15 African-Americans have followed Mr. Robinson to major-league managerial jobs, according to a 2018 study by The Undefeated.

In Baltimore, Mr. Robinson will always be known as the fierce leader who brought the city its first World Series championship. Acquired in a trade from the Cincinnati Reds late in 1965, he put the oh-so-close Orioles over the top. His quick wrists and cheeky arrogance helped launch the team’s run of four World Series appearances in the next six years.

Mr. Robinson’s arrival "was like John Wayne coming to help us climb the hill to raise the flag," teammate Bob Johnson said.

Cast off by Cincinnati owner Bill DeWitt, who called him "an old 30," Mr. Robinson seethed.

"I was hurt and angry," he said at the time. "I feel I have something to prove and the quicker I can, the better off I’ll be."

On Opening Day, 1966, in his third at-bat as an Oriole, Mr. Robinson homered in a 5-4 victory. One month later, he hit a pitch completely out of Memorial Stadium — the only player ever to do so.

"The [one-minute] ovation the fans gave me after I trotted back on the field following the homer was the thing I remember most about my years in Baltimore," Mr. Robinson said later. "I knew then that I had been accepted."

He hit a club-record 49 home runs, drove in 122 runs and batted .316. He led the Orioles to their first American League pennant and a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. He won the Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs, and both the AL and World Series Most Valuable Player awards. Moreover, he brought a brassy edge to the Orioles that remained long after his departure in 1971.

"If a guy had on a different-colored uniform, Frank literally hated him," teammate Davey Johnson said. "He gave the impression of having a chip on his shoulder, and he dared anyone to knock it off."

That spunk galvanized the 1966 Orioles, then-manager Hank Bauer said:

"One game, Frank took out [New York’s] Bobby Richardson with a body-block slide at second base, and I’ll be damned if Luis Aparicio, the smallest and lightest man in the league, doesn’t do the same thing the next time he gets a chance."

Mr. Robinson’s take-charge persona helped make him Major League Baseball’s first black manager. On the bench, his demeanor rarely changed. With the Indians, Mr. Robinson once told a reliever being shelled that he was being yanked "because our infielders have wives and children."

In 1988, he became manager of an Orioles team that went 54-107; the next season, they won 87 games and Mr. Robinson was named AL Manager of the Year.

The best deal the Orioles ever made

The youngest of 10 children, Mr. Robinson was born in Beaumont, Texas, on Aug. 31, 1935. His parents, Frank and Ruth Robinson, divorced soon after, and his mother moved her brood to West Oakland, Calif. There, Mr. Robinson attended McClymonds High, played multiple sports and made the all-city baseball team. Graduating in 1953, he signed with Cincinnati for $3,500. Three years later he broke in with the Reds, hit 38 homers and was named National League Rookie of the Year. In 1961, he was the league’s MVP, and after the season, he married Barbara Ann Cole.

But Mr. Robinson’s image slipped that year after his arrest in a Cincinnati restaurant, where he pulled a .25-caliber handgun on a cook who he said had threatened him with a knife. Convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, Mr. Robinson was fined $350.

On the field, his aggressiveness was legendary. Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe accused Mr. Robinson of “trying to maim people.” In 1957, while breaking up a double play, he spiked Milwaukee second baseman Johnny Logan, who was sidelined for six weeks. Another time against the Braves, Mr. Robinson slid into third base so hard he was punched out by Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews.

The collisions took their toll. In 1962, Mr. Robinson considered retiring because of “the physical beating I’ve taken playing baseball."

On Dec. 9, 1965, the Reds traded him to Baltimore for pitcher Milt Pappas and two others. It was the best deal the Orioles ever made. Four times Mr. Robinson hit .300 or better, while averaging 30 home runs and 91 RBIs in six years here. But he could also beat out a bunt with the bases loaded, and score from second base on a double-play ground ball.

“Frank took us from being a good team in 1965 to being a great team in 1966,” Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said Thursday. “I’m glad Cincinnati thought he was ‘an old 30’ when they traded him.”

Twice, during the Orioles’ pennant drive in 1966, he fell into the stands at Yankee Stadium while making game-saving catches. Baltimore won its first four AL pennants and two World Series on Mr. Robinson’s watch, and a grateful city responded by renaming the street on which he lived in Ashburton in Northwest Baltimore "Robinson Road."

"Frank taught this franchise how to win, period," the late Chuck Thompson, Orioles announcer, once said. "He hit with power, he could bunt and he was a stickler for detail. If a player made a mistake, he might not hear from the manager, but he knew he’d hear from Frank."

Brooks Robinson called him “the best player I ever played with. I don’t think I ever saw the guy make a mental mistake."

Teammates took note and followed his lead.

"Frank was a joy to watch, kneeling in the on-deck circle," Mr. Johnson said. "He’d be talking to himself, going over the situation. By the time he got into the batter’s box, he had eliminated all doubt of failing in his mind and he was programmed to do the thing that had to be done."

On May 8, 1966, against the Cleveland Indians, Mr. Robinson crushed a fastball from Luis Tiant that soared over 50 rows of left-field bleachers and out of Memorial Stadium. It rolled under a parked car and stopped, 540 feet from home plate.

"I thought it might come down in Scranton [Pa.]," first base coach Gene Woodling said. The Orioles placed an orange banner atop the wall where the ball left the park. "HERE," in bold black letters, is all it said.

In August, triumph nearly turned to tragedy. At a pool party thrown by an Orioles booster in Towson, Mr. Robinson nearly drowned. Somehow, during the hoopla, he landed in the water. Unbeknownst to teammates, their slugger couldn’t swim.

"I saw Frank at the bottom in the deep end, waving his arms," catcher Andy Etchebarren said. "I thought he was messing around, but I dived in and went down to get him."

Mr. Etchebarren pulled Mr. Robinson, gasping, from the pool. Recovery was quick. The next game, Mr. Robinson homered twice. A month later, in the Orioles’ pennant-clinching celebration, first baseman Boog Powell doused Mr. Robinson with champagne.

"Booger, stop that," he said. "You know I can’t swim."

Mr. Robinson’s sense of humor usually served a purpose. With the Orioles, he established a "Kangaroo Court," a postgame session lorded over by Mr. Robinson, who wore a robe with a mop on his head while doling out fines to players who’d messed up on the field.

"We did it only after a win," Mr. Robinson said. "We’d come in, get a sandwich and drink and … bring up whatever mistakes were made. If a guy hadn’t hit a cutoff man, he’d hear about it. People sometimes got the purpose confused. It wasn’t to bully people. It was to get them thinking about the game."

Mr. Robinson also had his own radio sports show, six days a week, on WEBB (1360) AM.

The Orioles took the pennant by nine games, then swept the Dodgers. The last two World Series games were played in Baltimore. Beforehand, Mayor Theodore McKeldin asked tavern owners to ignore the state law allowing them to ban African-Americans from bars.

"I find it a distasteful piece of irony that I must make this plea in light of the fact that without Frank Robinson, a person who could be excluded by such business, we would probably have no World Series," McKeldin said.

Mr. Robinson homered in games 1 and 4, the latter a 1-0 victory that touched off raucous celebrations downtown. That evening, when he and his wife pulled up to their home in Ashburton, exhausted, hundreds of fans converged to greet him. Police tried to hold back the crowd but Mr. Robinson intervened.

"These are my friends and neighbors," he said. "I’m in no hurry until they get their autographs."

Of his 21 years in the majors, he said, none were as self-satisfying as 1966.

"I couldn't have scripted the first year [with the Orioles] any better," Mr. Robinson told The Baltimore Sun in 2012. "That's winning the pennant, that's sweeping the Dodgers, that's winning the Triple Crown and the Most Valuable Player. That's Hollywood stuff."

‘One phenomenal player’

In a June 1967 game against the White Sox, a collision at second base left Chicago infielder Al Weis with a broken leg and Mr. Robinson with the double vision that would nag him for the rest of his career. Still, he helped the Orioles win three more AL flags (1969-1971) and the 1970 World Series against his old team, Cincinnati.

Mr. Robinson was “one phenomenal player,” Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said. "I remember the first game I ever managed [for Baltimore] in 1968, when Frank won it with a headfirst slide into home. I’d have voted for him for the Hall of Fame right there."

In December 1971, Mr. Robinson, 36, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Doyle Alexander and three others. Soon after, the Orioles retired his No. 20 jersey. They wouldn’t reach the World Series again until 1979 and didn’t win another title until 1983.

Mr. Robinson bounced from the Dodgers to the California Angels and finally, to the Indians. Even as his skills faded, he made a new kind of history in 1974, when the Indians named him the first black manager in the sport.

Mr. Powell was traded to Cleveland that offseason and recalled that Mr. Robinson "really didn’t make a big deal" of his historic achievement "so we didn’t either."

He proved no less willful as a manager than he’d been as the Orioles’ leader, instilling a punishing conditioning regimen that spurred a conflict with ace pitcher Gaylord Perry during his first spring training.

Mr. Robinson quickly helped himself in his April 8, 1975, debut, homering in his first at-bat. Mr. Powell added a home run as the Indians beat the New York Yankees, 5-3.

"That was just like, ‘Who’s writing this script?’ " Mr. Powell said. "It was just about perfect."

Mr. Robinson might not have let on at the time, but the day meant a lot to him.

"Of all the pennants, World Series, awards and All-Star games I've been in, this is the greatest thrill," he said later.

His only regret, he said, was that the late Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the sport’s modern era, could not be there to see the game. President Ford sent a congratulatory telegram.

Times weren’t always so glorious with that team. Mr. Powell said during one bad stretch, Mr. Robinson tossed the names of all his starters in a hat and let the players draw a batting order at random. The hulking Mr. Powell batted leadoff for the first and only time.

"I dropped a bunt, just to keep the mood light," he remembered with a chuckle. "Frank just turned his back on me."

Mr. Robinson retired as a player in 1976 with 586 career home runs and a .294 batting average. He’s still the only player to be named MVP in both leagues.

He lasted into 1977 as the Indians’ manager before he was fired, finishing his pioneering stint with a 186-189 record. He managed the San Francisco Giants from 1981 to 1984.

But Mr. Robinson did perhaps his best managerial work for the Orioles during the club’s delightful "Why Not?" season in 1989.

He’d taken over the Orioles under difficult circumstances the previous spring, when manager Cal Ripken Sr. — also the father of the club’s superstar shortstop — was fired after just six games. Mr. Robinson would suffer through the remainder of a record 21-game losing streak to start that season.

Many assumed the Orioles would lose 100 or more games again in 1989, but Mr. Robinson’s youthful crew remained in the pennant race until the last weekend of the season, charming fans with all-out effort on defense and improbable late-inning rallies.

"I like these players," Mr. Robinson said before the season. "I like their enthusiasm."

He could still be gruff, especially toward umpires, but players praised his communication skills and more patient demeanor. The Orioles went back to losing in 1990, and Mr. Robinson was reassigned 37 games into the 1991 season.

He’d manage one more time, taking over the Montreal Expos in 2002 and guiding the team through its transition to Washington. He stepped down after the 2006 season, during which he turned 71.

Mr. Robinson also worked in various front office roles for the Orioles and went on to serve as executive vice president of baseball development for Major League Baseball.

“Frank’s contributions to the Orioles and his work as an ambassador for Major League Baseball will never be forgotten,” the Angelos family said in a statement issued by the Orioles. “This is a difficult day for our entire organization and for our many fans. We extend our condolences to his wife, Barbara, his daughter, Nichelle, his entire family, and his many friends across our game.”

Plans for funeral arrangements were not immediately announced. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Mr. Robinson’s name to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., or the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.

At his Hall of Fame induction in 1982, Mr. Robinson paid homage to Baltimore, Memorial Stadium and its fans.

"Going to Baltimore was the turning point of my life. Section 34, I love you," he said. "My only regret was that my playing career in Baltimore was too short. But the love affair I had with the city, the club and the fans still goes on."


Frank Robinson career highlights

Led Orioles to four American League pennants and two world championships, including four-game sweep of Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966 when he was World Series Most Valuable Player

Won AL Triple Crown in 1966

Only player to win MVP award in both American (1966) and National (1961) Leagues

Only player to hit a home run out of Memorial Stadium (May 8, 1966)

Hit grand slam home runs in consecutive innings on June 26,`1970

First black manager of a major league team (Cleveland Indians, 1975)

Named AL Manager of the Year in 1989, taking Orioles from last place to second in AL East

Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982


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