Editor’s Note: The Sentinel sports staff is putting together a summer series looking at the legacies of the most influential African-American athletes in history. Today: Frank Robinson.
Few athletes have had the influence of Frank Robinson.
He was one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game. He was also an outspoken activist and a pioneer in coaching in American sports.
Sounds like someone who should be a household name.
But for some reason, Frank Robinson is not a household name.
Maybe it is because he isn’t the most famous or most pioneering Robinson in baseball. Maybe it is because he played outfield during the same era as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.
Whatever the reason, Frank Robinson is the most underappreciated player in the history of baseball.
He hit 586 home runs, won the triple crown and became the first — and still only — player in history to win the MVP in both leagues.
If that wasn’t enough, Robinson was the first black manager in major league history, breaking the color barrier in management in 1975.
That is household name material.
Frank Robinson carried on the Robinson legacy in baseball. His rookie year of 1956 was the last year for Jackie Robinson.
Frank also helped usher in a new era of black superstar in baseball. He didn’t have to worry about not fighting back when taunted or challenged like Jackie did his first three years when he integrated the game.
Frank joined the league with a new kind of aggression.
He was aggressive at the plate, crowding it so the strike zone seemed cut in half. The result was pitchers not coming inside as much, leaving the ball over the plate. When they came inside, Robinson was often hit by the pitch. It happened so frequently that he led the league in the category seven times and finished with 198.
His rookie year, he was hit a stunning 20 times.
Robinson didn’t care, he would just take out his aggression on the base paths, breaking up double plays and going hard from first to third, knocking down anyone in his path.
He won the Rookie of the Year in 1956 for the Cincinnati Reds. In addition to his 20 hit by pitches, he hit 28 home runs, the rookie record until 1987, led the National League with 122 runs scored and had 319 total bases.
The National League was put on notice. Nothing was going to stop Robinson.
In 1961, he led the Reds to the pennant and was named MVP after totaling 37 home runs, 124 RBIs, 117 runs scored, a 3.23 average and 333 total bases. But his next year was his best in Cincinnati. He led the majors with 134 runs and 51 doubles, had 208 hits, 39 home runs, 136 RBIs, batted a stunning .342 and led the NL in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Somehow, he finished fourth in the MVP voting that year.
When asked if Robinson was available for a trade, the Reds owner reportedly remarked, “I wouldn’t trade Frank Robinson for your whole team.”
Of course, just three years later, the Reds did trade Robinson, thinking he was nearing the end of his career. After the 1965 season, despite 33 home runs and 113 RBIs, the Reds traded him to Baltimore for pitcher Milt Pappas and two others.
It became one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.
Pappas was a good starting pitcher and went 110-74 with a 3.24 ERA in Baltimore, but in Cincinnati went just 30-29 with a 4.04 ERA.
Meanwhile, Frank Robinson, in his first season in Baltimore, had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. He won the triple crown with 49 home runs, 122 RBIs and a .316 batting average, also leading the American League in runs (122), on-base percentage (.410), slugging percentage (.637) and total bases (367).
Robinson was named the MVP unanimously and the Orioles went on to win the World Series.
He wasn’t finished.
Robinson teamed with Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer to lead the Orioles to a dynasty. They won again in 1970 and also won pennants in 1969 and 1971. In just six years, Frank Robinson hit 179 home runs in Baltimore and batted an even .300.
Frank Robinson finished his career with 586 home runs, 2,943 hits, 1,829 runs, 1.812 RBIs, 528 doubles and a .294 career average.
One of the greatest players in the game, he was so close to reaching 3,000 hits. If he did that, he would have joined only Aaron and Mays at that time with both feats. He also was so close to 600 home runs.
The steroid era sent several players past Robinson’s 586, pushing him further down the list and out of memory for a new generation of fans. He was fourth, only behind Aaron, Ruth and Mays. Now he is 10th.
But perhaps Robinson’s biggest legacy is not as a player at all.
In 1975, he was named manager of the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first black manager in major league history.
Cleveland finished 79-80 that year, better than many anticipated. The real victory was integrating management in baseball.
Robinson was in a position of power, something no black player had been in integrated baseball.
He went on to manage 17 seasons. After leaving Cleveland, he managed the Giants, Orioles and Montreal Expos, ushering in the transition to the team becoming the Washington Nationals. He also was an executive in Major League Baseball prior to joining the Expos.
“Does anybody have as complex, as long and as distinguished a career as Robinson?” Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh history professor and author of “Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game,” said in an interview with the Washington Post. “If this guy had played in New York or L.A. or Chicago, more of baseball America would have been aware of that.”
But he played in Cincinnati and Baltimore, and integrated management in Cleveland.
Robinson is in the upper-most echelon of the Hall of Fame as a player and as a trailblazer, in management, his place in history is set.
Now, we just need to continue to remember it.
— Follow Sports Editor Dan D’Addona on Twitter @DanDAddona and Facebook @Holland Sentinel Sports.
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