Hall of Famer. All-Star. World Series Champion. The Judge. Innovator. Pioneer. Competitor. Leader. These, among many others, are some of the ways you can describe the legendary Frank Robinson. If I had to describe him in a way that wasn’t mentioned though, I’d call him a legend of the game.
At his home in Los Angeles, California, 83-year-old Frank Robinson passed away after a lengthy battle with bone cancer. The news about his deteriorating health broke a few weeks ago, as he was described as being, “in the late stages of a long illness.” He had been under Hospice care for the past few months and unfortunately, succumbed to the disease early Thursday afternoon. When the news broke of his passing, the Major League Baseball community came together in unison to mourn the loss of one the greatest to ever grace us on the diamond. More importantly, we mourn the loss of one of baseball’s most recognizable, cultural icons who revolutionized and changed the way the game was played forever.
Robinson spent 13 years in the Cincinnati Reds organization, including three in their minor league system. With the Reds, he won the Rookie of the Year award in 1956, his first Gold Glove in 1958, made six All-Star game appearances and finished in the top-10 in MVP voting six times – including winning the Most Valuable Player award in 1961. In 1,502 games he hit .303 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .943. Robinson smacked 324 total home runs, while tallying 1,009 RBI.
In December of 1965, after producing a .296/.386/.540 season in Cincinnati, Robinson was traded to the Orioles in exchange for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. After turning 30 that summer, Robinson was described as, “an old 30,” by Reds General Manager Bill DeWitt. Due to his production with the Orioles after the trade, the move has been highly regarded as one of the worst trades in Major League Baseball history.
With the Orioles for six seasons, he was key in helping the team capture two World Series championships. He won the Triple Crown in 1966 and was the league’s Most Valuable Player, while finishing as second runner-up in 1969 and 1971, and was voted an All-Star in five of his six seasons in Baltimore. Robinson ended his tenure with the Orioles with an even .300 batting average, while hitting 179 home runs – including one 541′ blast that cleared everything at Memorial Stadium. In 1966, Robinson went 4-for-16 (.286) in the postseason that year, claiming World Series Most Valuable Player. He hit two home runs in the series, including a solo shot in game four of Hall of Famer, Don Drysdale. That long ball clinched the Orioles’ first World Series title.
After his stint in Baltimore concluded, Robinson was then traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in December of 1971. The following November, he was traded to the (then) California Angels where he played 276 games and made his final All-Star appearance. In September of 1974, Robinson was dealt from the Angels to the Cleveland Indians where he spent the final three seasons of his 21-year professional career.
As a member of the Indians organization, Robinson not only became the first player-manager in Major League Baseball history, but he also became the first African-American manager ever. Over different tenures with the Indians, Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals, Robinson compiled a career managerial record of 1065-1176. His most successful season as a manager in Baltimore was in 1989, when he was at the helm for the, “Why Not,” campaign. Taking over the year prior for the late Cal Ripken Sr., Robinson guided the team to an 87-75 finish. They stayed in the pennant race until the final series of the season, being overthrown by the Toronto Blue Jays on the final day of the season. He earned himself a Manager of the Year award that season and finished top-five in Manager of the Year voting in 2002 and 2003 with the Montreal Expos.
Frank Robinson was the ideal baseball player and the only player to ever win MVP in both the American League and National League. According to fellow Hall of Famer, Brooks Robinson, “he played the game the way it was supposed to be played, and he was tough.” After word broke of (Frank) Robinson’s passing, (Brooks) Robinson released the following statement:
“Today is a very sad day because I lost not only my teammate, but also a very dear friend. I loved Frank and got to know him so much better after we both retired. I spoke to him a few days ago and he sounded good. He wanted to be home. I let him know that Connie and I were pulling for him, and that he, Barbara, and Nichelle were in our prayers. As a player, I put Frank in a class with Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Mickey Mantle. He was the best player I ever played with. When he came here in 1966, he put us over the top. He was a great man and he will be deeply missed.”
Many of Frank’s former teammates and colleagues shared their thoughts on his passing. Hank Aaron said via Twitter, “Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies. We were friends. Frank was a hard nosed baseball player who did things on the field that people said could never be done. I’m so glad I had the chance to know him all of those years. Baseball will miss a tremendous human being.”
Ozzie Smith tweeted, “RIP to HOFer Frank Robinson. You were a friend, a gamer, a fierce competitor and a Champion not just in Baseball but also a Champion for Civil Rights. Always had my respect. God Bless you and all who love you at this sad time.”
The Angelos Family also released a statement on Robinson’s passing:
“Frank Robinson was not only one of the greatest players in Orioles history, but was also one of the premier players in the history of baseball. Fans will forever remember Frank for his 1966 season in which he won the Triple Crown and was named MVP during a year that brought Baltimore its first World Series championship. His World Series MVP performance capped off one of the greatest individual seasons in baseball history. An Orioles Legend and a Baseball Hall of Famer, Frank brought us so many wonderful memories, including two championships, during his time in Baltimore.
“As the first African-American manager in Major League history, Frank was a proponent of civil rights causes on and off the field, including policies that paved the way for minorities to have increased access to executive and management positions in baseball. His leadership in the front office and as manager of the Orioles was highlighted by being named the American League Manager of the Year in 1989. To this day, Frank remains the only person in Orioles history to serve as a player, coach, manager, and front office executive.
“Frank’s contributions to the Orioles and his work as an ambassador for Major League Baseball will never be forgotten. This is a difficult day for our entire organization and for our many fans. We extend our condolences to his wife, Barbara, his daughter, Nichelle, his entire family, and his many friends across our game.”
Frank touched more lives – on and off the field – than he could have ever imagined. He was loved and adored everywhere, but fans in Baltimore had the opportunity to pay their respects to him this afternoon. Gates at Oriole Park at Camden Yards remained open until 11p.m. last night in order to allow fans access to leave flowers on his statue. A subtle gesture by the Orioles, appreciating what Robinson has done for fans of Baltimore baseball.
Fans also shared their memories of Frank throughout the years. Roger Lear of Baltimore told me of one of his first memories of Frank Robinson. “I was very young at my first game ever. Sitting three rows back of the Orioles on-deck circle, I screamed his [Robinson’s] name forever until he turned around and acknowledge me. I was the happiest kid in the world.”
Leroy Travers of Lewes, Delaware told me his thoughts on when Frank was managing the Orioles. “I remember thinking when he was manager, how classy he seemed.” Charles Kriston of Roxboro, North Carolina gave me another example of just how classy Frank truly was.
“In May 1966, Frank was signing autographs at Don Flax Westview Dodge on route-40. My mom took me to meet him but I had nothing for him to sign. He signed a trifold they were handing out that included the season schedule. This was the first Oriole [player] I ever met and spoke to. My mom saved that brochure for me. In the early 80’s I took my two sons to Memorial Stadium and the first Oriole they ever met was Frank. He signed their gloves for them.”
Andy Hefty of Jacksonville, Florida told me, “Really the only thing I can contribute is how he was a pure class act with Jon Miller and Chuck Thompson when he was manager. That, and the fact that he said almost nothing about race, treating everyone equally and expecting each to give his all regardless of tenure, status, pay grade, or skin color.”
The founder of our website, Brian Hradsky, even provided me with his thoughts on how he felt about Robinson. Brian told me, “Frank Robinson was a legend in Orioles history. His accomplishments and the way fans that were blessed enough to watch him play made him sound more like a myth, than a man. Robinson was a pioneer in baseball and an example of what every baseball player should strive to be.”
One of the most iconic baseball speeches ever made comes from the movie, The Sandlot and can be directly applied to the legacy that Frank Robinson leaves behind. In the movie, Babe Ruth tells Bennie “The Jet” Rodriguez, “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends; heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” Although his physical body passed yesterday, baseball fans all over the world will never let the spirit and memory of Frank Robinson fade.
Rest in peace, Robby. We’ll never forget you.