On Thursday, baseball lost a luminary, an ambassador, a pioneer, and a phenomenal player. Frank Robinson’s death at the age of 83 marked the passing of one of the most influential figures in baseball’s long history.
A native of Beaumont, Texas, Robinson was born in 1935, the youngest of ten children. His family moved to the Bay Area of California, where he began to flourish as a baseball player, earning a small contract with the Reds in 1953.
Robinson then began his long baseball odyssey in Ogden, Utah, playing for the Class C Reds. A .348 average at Ogden put him on the fast-track to the Class A Columbia Reds, where he continued to flourish.
At this point one of the hottest prospects in the major leagues, Robinson debuted for Cincinnati on April 17, 1956 against the Cardinals. Batting seventh, his first career hit was a ground-rule double off of Vinegar Bend Mizell, the first of 528 in his career (44th all-time). The rookie was well on his way to a .290/.379/.558 slash line, garnering a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection and seventh place finish in the MVP voting.
Robinson was just getting started. Over the next four years, he asserted himself as a star, with 162-game averages of .301-36-102 (AVG-HR-RBI) and a pair of All-Star selections. In 1960, he led the National League in slugging, OPS, and OPS+, a feat he would repeat in 1961.
1961 was the first of Robinson’s two golden years, as he played in both of baseball’s All-Star Games (in the two All-Star Game era), drove in 124 runs (second-most in his career), led the league in OBP (.421) and steered the Reds toward a pennant.
Although he did homer in Game 5, the Yankees ultimately won that World Series in five games.
Four more productive seasons in the Queen City followed (with a .303-33-116 162-game average) until December of 1965, when the Reds made waves by dealing him to Baltimore for three players.
Trade winner: Orioles. Robinson won the Triple Crown and the MVP award in his first season as an Oriole in 1966, bashing 49 homers (career-high), driving in 122 RBIs, and hitting .316. He also led the league in runs, total bases, and every percentage stat, which paired with a formidable rotation to put the Baltimore superteam in the World Series. He swatted .286 in the Series and was named MVP as the O’s swept the Dodgers.
Robinson remains the only man to have won the Most Valuable Player award in both the American League and National League.
Although he remained a towering figure and a genuinely great player (he was still a .300 hitter as late as 1970), Robinson’s playing fortunes began to wane. He was traded to the Dodgers before the 1972 season, and to the Angels a year later; finally, he was sold to the Indians in September of 1974.
It was in Cleveland, however, that Robinson made perhaps his most important contribution to the annals of baseball: the Indians named the slugger as their manager in the 1974-75 offseason, making him the first black manager in the history of baseball.
In the Tribe’s 1975 opener, Robinson batted second, and opened the scoring with a dramatic, first-inning solo homer that is often considered among the Indians’ greatest moments. His career managing was not spectacular (.475 all-time winning percentage), but he opened an important door for others after him. For this accomplishment, the Indians have also retired his No. 20, joining Baltimore and Cincinnati.
Robinson managed 17 seasons in the Land, San Francisco, Baltimore, Montreal, and Washington. He never made a postseason as a manager, but deserves credit for
A) turning the Orioles from a 54-101 team in 1988 to an 87-75 team in 1989
and B) guiding the Expos through their move to Washington DC, and then the Nationals through their inaugural season.
It was during that inaugural season in Washington that Robinson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. After his career, he served in a ceremonial position as President of the American League.
Upon his death, tributes flowed in via Twitter. Hank Aaron characterized Robinson as “a hard-nosed baseball player who did things on the field that people said could never be done.” Bill Russell – a high school classmate of Robinson’s – called him a “dear friend.”
As is only right to end an in memoriam piece, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Robinson family has asked that donations be made to the National Civil Rights Museum or the National Museum of African American History.
It can be safely said that Robinson deserves his place in both.
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