Frank Robinson, R.I.P.

Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., in 2005. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
Tough, fearless, competitive, and smart, he left his mark on baseball.

Frank Robinson died yesterday at age 83. Robinson had one of baseball’s truly monumental careers over his six decades in the game, from his first game as a professional ballplayer at age 17 to the last game he managed at age 71. Though sometimes overshadowed by more-glamorous contemporaries, Robinson left an indelible stamp on the National Pastime and how it is played and run. A tough, smart ballplayer who advanced to the high ranks of team and league management, he will be best remembered for his ferocious competitive fire, his winning teams, and the many historic milestones in his career.

Born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1935, Robinson was moved to Oakland by his mother early in life when his parents divorced. Robinson was a high-school basketball teammate of NBA legend Bill Russell (Robinson outscored him), and he was signed by the Cincinnati Reds at 17 in 1953, just six years after Jackie Robinson (no relation) had integrated professional baseball; he would make the majors in Jackie’s final season. Playing in Ogden, Utah, and Columbia, S.C., Robinson got a much harsher taste of in-your-face racism than he had experienced in Oakland.

As National League Rookie of the Year in 1956, Robinson tied the record for most home runs hit by a rookie, 38, and debuted the fearless style that would become his trademark. He led the league in being hit by a pitch (20 times), the first of seven times he would have that distinction; he would be drilled 198 times in his career. He also began a career-long campaign of terrorizing infielders who tried to turn a double play with Robinson barreling down on them. Robinson wasn’t a man to go looking for fights, but he asked no quarter on the field and gave none. In 1960, he got a swollen eye, bloody nose, and jammed thumb from a basepath fistfight with Eddie Mathews in the first game of a doubleheader and came back to hit a double and a home run in the second game. The list of injuries Robinson played through, many of them suffered in collisions with baseballs, infielders, and walls, is staggering, ranging from blurred vision and a busted elbow to the mumps.

Robinson’s one brush with the law, in 1961, was characteristic of his take-nothing-from-nobody attitude — as the New York Times described the incident in 1974:

It came after a game of half‐court basketball that Robinson and two friends played in a gym early in 1961. They went to a restaurant for a late snack. There they got into an argument with three white customers. The whites left, and Robinson and his friends remained. The police arrived and arrested one of Robinson’s cronies. Later, Robinson went back to the diner. Then, he contended, the owner of the restaurant flashed a knife at him.

Robinson then pulled out a Beretta, an Italian pistol, and opened his palm for the chef to see. “I just wanted to let him know that if he had a knife, I had something more,” he explained. But he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon.

Yet, while Robinson was a civil-rights pioneer within the game, he resisted being drawn into politics; he once criticized Jackie Robinson himself for calling on ballplayers to take public stands.

Robinson’s list of individual on-field accomplishments, accolades, and milestones was staggering: the only man to be Most Valuable Player in both leagues, Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, Triple Crown (only one other man would win it between 1967 and 2011), MVP of the World Series and All-Star Game, Manager of the Year, first-ballot Hall of Famer, Presidential Medal of Freedom. Robinson in 1975 became the game’s first African-American manager,with the Cleveland Indians, and in 1981 the National League’s first black manager as well. He would go on to become Major League Baseball’s vice president of on-field operations in charge of discipline.

Frank Robinson lacked the glamour of Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, and he never broke a single headline record, unlike Henry Aaron. The numbers, however, tell the story of one of the game’s greatest, matching talent with consistency and durability. His 586 career home runs was fourth on the all-time list until he was passed by Barry Bonds. He hit .299/.374/.543 (batting/on-base/slugging) in the 1950s, .304/.402/.560 in the 1960s, and .268/.375/.483 in the 1970s. Despite being continually banged up from his aggressive style of play, Robinson averaged 606 plate appearances a year over his first 19 seasons. From age 23 to 35, he hit 405 home runs while walking more often than he struck out.

His team accomplishments were as impressive as his individual ones. He led the Reds from a sixth-place finish in 1960 to the National League pennant the following year. Arriving in Baltimore in 1966, his Triple Crown season powered the Orioles to the franchise’s first pennant in the city and first world championship. He was a key veteran bat and team leader on the Orioles team that, in 1969–71, won three straight pennants and a World Series, averaging 106 wins a year. He played in five World Series and homered in all of them. Robinson’s leadership by example left an enduring stamp on both the Reds and the Orioles franchises, where teammates such as Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Brooks Robinson would emulate his durability and aggressiveness.

In his first season as Indians manager, Robinson broke 20-year-old future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley into the rotation. Taking over in 1981 as Giants manager, he led a moribund franchise to within two games of the National League West title in 1982. In his second year as Orioles manager, in 1989, he led the club to a 33-game improvement. Robinson as a manager soaked up the philosophy of his Baltimore skipper, Earl Weaver, years before many of Weaver’s ideas became popular among statistical analysts.

Robinson’s career goes back so far that his first manager as a rookie had backed up Mickey Cochrane, and lasted so long that he managed Bartolo Colon, who is still active. In 1957, he was in the Reds lineup that was elected as a group to the All-Star team, leading to reforms that temporarily abolished fan voting. In 1969, he was on the first team to win the AL pennant under the new system of divisions. In April 1973, he was one of the game’s first designated hitters. He managed winter ball in Puerto Rico and was the last manager of the Montreal Expos and the first manager of the Washington Nationals.

Robinson leaves behind two children and his wife of 58 years, Barbara Ann.

Very few men left their mark on the game of baseball in more ways than Frank Robinson. His combination of toughness, fearlessness, brains, and competitive fire has few parallels. A life in the game well lived. R.I.P.

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