Simply Baseball Notebook's Legends

Frank Robinson

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Frank Robinson
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Harry Heilmann
Stan Musial
George Sisler
Roy Campanella
Rogers Hornsby


Cincinnati Reds 1956-65 Baltimore Orioles 1966-71
Los Angeles Dodgers 1972
California Angels 1973-74
Cleveland Indians 1974-76 

Ted Williams passing in July has sparked the debate over who the greatest living player is. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial are the names most mentioned - with the overall consensus being Mays. While no one can dispute the credentials of the above, one must wonder why Frank Robinson's name is seldom mentioned. All Robinson did was belt out nearly 600 home runs (586), smack out nearly 3,000 hits (2,943), win an MVP in both leagues, capture a Triple Crown, and win a World Series MVP. What else can a player do?

Frank Robinson was born on August 31, 1935 in Beaumont, Texas. He grew up in Oakland, CA, where the family moved when he was four. After a standout high school career the Cincinnati Reds selected Robinson in the 1953 draft.

It took the talented Robinson just three years to work his way through the Cincinnati farm system, by 1956 he was ready for the show. It took Robinson little time to make his mark in the big leagues, as he hit .290 and tied Wally Berger's rookie record of 38 home runs. His stellar play earned him NL Rookie of the Year honors.

After hitting .322 and belting 29 home runs in 1957, Robinson was hampered by an arm injury in the next two seasons which caused him to play first base. He hit just .269, but still managed 31 home runs in 1958, and returned to form hitting .325 with 36 long balls and 125 RBI in 1959.

After another solid season in 1960 (.297 31 HR), Robinson led the Reds to their first pennant since 1940 in 1961. Although the Reds fell to the mighty Yankees in the World Series, Robinson earned his first MVP thanks to his strong regular season performance (.323 37 HR 124RBI).

Although his individual numbers topped his 1961 performance (.342 39 HR 136RBI), Robinson finished fourth in the 1962 NL MVP race after the Reds slipped to third place. By this time Robinson had gained a reputation for his intense play and "take no prisoners" attitude. Phillies manager Gene Mauch even fined pitchers for throwing at Robinson - he said it only made him more aggressive and dangerous.

Because of the political climate at the time and the racial tension throughout the country, Robinson began receiving death threats from racist "fans". Robinson took the threats seriously and even began carry a gun. Thankfully, Robinson's life was never seriously threatened, but he was arrested in 1961 after waving his firearm at a restaurant employee that refused to serve him.

After three more solid seasons in Cincinnati, the Reds dealt their star player to Baltimore for two pitchers - Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun, and OF Dick Simpson. The Cincinnati fans were livid, but Reds GM felt he was acting proactively, calling Robinson an "old 30." It was one of the worst trades in major league history - at least for the Reds.

Not only was Robinson not over the hill, he played his best baseball in 1966 winning the Triple Crown and leading the Orioles to a World Series Championship. Not only did Robinson lead the AL in hitting (.316), home runs (49), and RBI (122), but he also topped the junior circuit in slugging percentage (.637) and runs (122). Robinson topped off his dream season by winning the World Series MVP, as his home run in Game 4 won the game 1-0 and capped off a sweep of the Dodgers.

Robinson nearly duplicated his Triple Crown feat in 1967, but an injury slowed him down. He still managed a .311 average (second in the AL), 30 home runs (fourth), and 94 RBI (third) in just 129 games.

Robinson would spend four more seasons in Baltimore before being dealt to Los Angeles in a six player deal. He would hit 19 home runs in 1972, his only as a Dodger, but managed just a .251 average. He was dealt to the cross-town Angels following the season.

The 38 year old Robinson rebounded to hit 30 home runs in 1973, and belted 20 more in 1974 for the Angels before being traded to Cleveland late in the season. Now rapidly approaching 40, his days as a productive player were over.

By this time Robinson was managing winter ball and expressing his desire to manage in the big leagues. Before the 1975 season the Indians appointed Robinson player/manager, making him the first African-American manager in major league history.

Indian's ace pitcher Gaylord Perry soon questioned Robinson's qualifications as a manager. Robinson responded by belting the game winning home run on opening day and giving Perry the win. By June however, Perry, as well as his brother, Jim, were both traded.

Robinson performed admirably in his first stint as a manager, leading the Tribe to a 79-80 record in 1975 and a 81-78 mark in 1976. Following the '76 campaign Robinson retired as a player and began managing full time. It didn't last long. Robinson was fired after 57 games when the Indians stumbled to 26-31 start.

Robinson's days as a manager weren't over, however, he piloted the San Francisco Giants from 1981-84 and the Baltimore Orioles from 1988-91, winning the AL Manager of the Year in 1989.

Robinson spent the rest of the 1990s in various front office capacities with the Orioles and Major League Baseball before taking over the reigns of the Montreal Expos in 2002. To this point, he remains noncommittal about managing in 2003.

Few men have given more to the game of baseball than Frank Robinson. He was a Hall of Fame player, the first African-American manger, and helped bridge the gap of prejudice throughout his life. Next time the "greatest living player" discussion arises make sure that Frank Robinson's name enters the mix.
-David Zingler, October 2002

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