Obituary: Frank Robinson (1935-2019)

RIP to Frank Robinson, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the only player to win the MVP Award in both the American and National Leagues, the first African-American manager in baseball history, and one of its most underrated superstars. He died on February 7, 2019 at the age of 83. It was reported a few days before that he had entered into hospice care. Robinson played for the Cincinnati Reds (1956-1965), Baltimore Orioles (1966-1971), Los Angeles Dodgers (1972), California Angels (1973-74) and Cleveland Indians (1974-76). He was also the manager of the Indians (1975-77), San Francisco Giants (1981-84), Baltimore Orioles (1988-91) and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals (2002-2006).

Why did I call Robinson “underrated” just now, and why did dozens of baseball writers and experts do their same in their own online tributes? I don’t think people realize just how complete of a player Robinson was. I was guilty of it. I knew of his MVP Awards and his general excellence, but check out the stats. You know he hit home runs, but his 586 long balls are still 10th all-time, ahead of the likes of Mantle, Schmidt, Foxx and McCovey. His 2,943 hits are ahead of Bonds, Hornsby and Ruth. His .2941 batting average is ten-thousandths behind Barry Larkin and Alex Rodriguez and higher than Tim Raines. His on-base percentage topped Tony Gwynn, and his slugging percentage is 0.0008 behind Ken Griffey Jr. While speed was never a big part of his game, he stole more than 200 bases. He won the Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year awards, as well as a Gold Glove and a Triple Crown. He was recognized as an MVP in the NL, AL, World Series and All-Star Game. Speaking of All-Stars, he was one on 14 different occasions across 12 seasons (there were two All-Star Games from 1959-62). He played for 21 seasons and received MVP votes in 15 of them.

Truly, Frank Robinson had one of the most storied careers that baseball has ever seen.

Frank Robinson was born in Beaumont, Texas on August 31, 1935 but grew up in Oakland. If you want a great, deep dive into Robinson’s life, I highly recommend you listen to Episode 69 of the This Week in Baseball History podcast. It’s an hour well spent and opened my eyes about his greatness. The short version is that he was the youngest of 10 kids. He didn’t have it easy, but when he dedicated himself to baseball, nothing could stop him.

The Reds signed him to a contract prior to the 1953 season and sent him to the Ogden (Utah) Reds, a Class-C team in the Pioneer League. That must have been an amazing case of culture shock for everyone involved. He and teammate Chico Terry were the first African Americans to ever play for the team. Robinson was a third baseman at the time, but once he got to the majors, he had just a handful of games there. The majority of his time was spent as a corner outfielder or first baseman.

This is the earliest picture of Frank Robinson, left, I could find. He’s about 17 years old and a member of the Ogden Reds. Teammate Chico Terry is on the right. Source: Ogden Standard-Examiner, June 29, 1953.

Robinson had three seasons in the minor leagues and demolished the ball. Unsurprisingly, when he joined the Reds in 1956, he was a full-time player right from the start. He was also the unanimous Rookie of the Year after he slashed .290/.379/.558, with 38 homers, 83 RBIs and an NL-leading 122 runs scored (and an NL leading 20 times hit by pitch).

Robinson led the NL from 1960-62 in slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ (not that the later two stats were counted in the sixties, but still). He won his first MVP Award in 1961 when he batted .323, slugged .611 and crushed 37 home runs. Oddly, his 1962 season was better in almost every way, as he slashed .342/.421/.624, leading the NL in the latter two categories, as well as runs scored (134), doubles (51) and HBPs (11). He finished 4th in the MVP voting behind Maury Wills, Willie Mays and Tommy Davis.

On December 9, 1965, Robinson was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in one of the more infamous trades of all-time. The Reds got back pitchers Jack Baldschun and Milt Pappas and outfielder Dick Simpson. All three players were ex-Reds within three seasons. Robinson, though, had much more to do in Oriole orange.

I’ve seen in previous articles that Reds President Bill DeWitt defended the deal by stating that Robinson was “an old 30” or “not a young 30.” The one quote from him that I found was this, in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Don’t forget PITCHING is the name of the game. The lack of it, especially in the bullpen, beat us last season.”

But what about Harry Dalton, director of player personnel for the Orioles? This was the first trade he ever made; he’d been on the job for two days before pulling the trigger on the deal. He probably didn’t have his name on his office door, and he’d set to O’s up for an incredible run.

Robinson was an Oriole for just six seasons, but in that time, the Orioles went to 4 World Series and won two championships (1966, 1970). Robinson was named to five All-Star teams and won the MVP Award in 1966. He won the Triple Crown that year, with a .316 batting average, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs. He also led the AL in runs (122), on-base percentage (.410), slugging (.637), OPS (1.047) and OPS+ (198). He played in 675 more games for the Reds, but when I think of Frank Robinson, I think of him in an Orioles uniform. If you go to Cooperstown to see his plaque in the Hall of Fame, there’s an Oriole on his cap. Sorry, Cincinnati.

Robinson was traded to the Dodgers in December of 1971, and that started his slow decline. Sidenote: He was traded to Los Angeles for pitcher Doyle Alexander, who would pitch long enough to be traded from Atlanta to Detroit in a 1987 deal that brought John Smoltz to the Braves. His 19-year career was bookended by trades for future Hall of Famers!

Robinson lasted a season with the Dodgers, than most of two seasons with the Angels before finishing his playing career with the Indians. He made history in 1975 when the Indians named him their player-manager. He was the first African-American manager in baseball history.

His managerial debut on April 8, 1975 couldn’t have gone better. Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, threw out the first pitch. Robinson, batting second and playing DH, homered in his first at-bat. The Indians ended the season a game under .500 and then 3 games over .500 in 1976. He was dismissed after Cleveland got off to a 36-31 start in 1977. He’d spend a total of 16 years as a manager, retiring with a 1,065-1,176 record. He won the AL Manager of the Year in 1989 when he turned the 100-loss Orioles of 1988 into a team that won 87 games and fell just shy of the playoffs.

His last stint as manager of the Expos came after Major League Baseball took over the operation of the team. Robinson had been working in the commissioner’s office as a vice president in charge of on-field discipline when he was asked to return to the field. The Expos were basically playing in limbo while MLB either found an owner or a way to contract them out of existence. With Robinson at the helm, they still finished 2nd in 2002 with an 83-79 record. He kept the team competitive as it moved to Washington DC to become the Nationals. After a 91-loss season in 2006, Robinson was told by the team’s ownership that he wouldn’t return to manage the following season. While it was an anticlimactic end, Robinson’s career was the stuff of legend and something that people will rediscover now that he’s gone on.

“Frank Robinson’s resume in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations,” said Commissioner Rob Manfred in a statement.

New York Times obit: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/obituaries/frank-robinson-dead.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage

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