Major League Baseball trailblazer, outfielder, manager, and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson passed away on February 7, 2019, at the age of 83, after a bout with bone cancer. His reputation for his baseball talents was closely followed by his reputation for his fiery personality throughout his career.
Robinson was born the youngest of 10 children in Beaumont, Texas; following his parents’ divorce while he was an infant, he went with his mother to California, and grew up in Oakland. Throughout school he was a multi-sport athlete, playing both baseball and basketball.
Robinson made an impact from the get-go, knocking in 38 home runs (tying the record) during his inaugural season with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956 and easily winning the award for Rookie of the Year. In 1961 he was the Reds’ star player, helping the team to the National League pennant and picking up the NL Most Valuable Player Award that season. During his time with Cincinnati, he also picked up eight All-Star nods and a Gold Glove. Robinson was known as one of the earlier batters to deliberately crowd the plate, essentially daring pitchers to throw inside and hit him.
Before the 1966 season began, Robinson was traded to Baltimore in exchange for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson – this was sort of a lopsided deal, though perhaps not in the way that Cincinnati expected (having referred to him as “an old 30” at the time of the trade). In 1966, Robinson smashed his way to the Triple Crown, the American League MVP, and his first World Series Championship ring (and World Series MVP award) with the Orioles. To nab that Triple Crown, he batted .316 (the lowest ever for an AL winner, incidentally), with 49 home runs and 122 RBI. On May 8 of that season, he became the only player ever to hit a dinger completely out of Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. A flag simply labeled “HERE” was flown at the spot where the ball left the stadium, up until the opening of Camden Yards in 1991.
During Robinson’s tenure with the Orioles, they would go on to win three consecutive pennants between 1969 and 1971, notching the 1970 World Series win over Robinson’s old club, Cincinnati. Robinson continued to rack up the personal achievements, receiving All-Star recognition every year he was in Baltimore, save for ’68.
It was in Baltimore that Robinson became a more outspoken civil rights activist. After seeing the heavy segregation and discriminatory practices occurring in Baltimore at the time, he began speaking out against the racism prevalent in society.
Following the ’71 season, Robinson was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. After just one season with LA, he was traded to the California Angels, where he became their first designated hitter; he would finish his career in Cleveland, where he only managed to play in 100 games over the course of two and a half seasons. Over the course of his 21 years as a player, Robinson batted .294 with 586 home runs, and 1,812 RBI. He won the World Series twice, picked up league MVP honors in both the NL and AL, received All-Star honors 14 times, was the World Series MVP, was a Rookie of the Year, a Gold Glove recipient, and Triple Crown winner.
Though his playing career was heading into the sunset by the mid-1970s, the Indians named him player-manager in 1975, giving Robinson the distinction of being the first black manager in the Major Leagues. He continued managing for Cleveland until 1977, and later managed the San Francisco Giants from ’81-’84, the Orioles from ’88-’91, and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals from ’02-’06. After being hired by the Giants, he became the first black manager in the NL, as well.
In 1989, Robinson was awarded the AL Manager of the Year Award after helping the Orioles to an 87-75 record, a remarkable bounce back for a team that had gone a middling 54-107 the previous season. After spending several years as MLB’s Director of Discipline, he was chosen by MLB to manage the Expos in 2002, as the team was owned by the league at that time. He continued managing the franchise after their relocation to D.C. in 2005, when they became the Washington Nationals. On April 20, 2006, the Nats beat the Phillies to earn Robinson his 1,000th win as a manager, becoming the 53rd person to reach that milestone. The Nats declined to renew his contract after the 2006 season, and he managed his final game on October 1, 2006.
Following the conclusion of his managerial career, Robinson rejoined the MLB front office as a Special Advisor for Baseball Operations, and he later serves as a Special Assistant to Bud Selig, Senior Vice President for Major League Operations, and Executive Vice President of Baseball Development.
As one of the most prolific players the game has ever seen, Robinson picked up a number of awards along the way. The Reds and Orioles both inducted him into their respective team Hall of Fames in 1978, and in 1982, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as an Oriole in his first year of eligibility. The Reds, Orioles, and Indians all retired his uniform number, 20 (making him one of just two MLB players to have his number retired by three different organizations), and all three teams have bronze statues of Robinson at their respective ballparks. The Nationals added his name to their Ring of Honor in 2015, citing “significant contribution to the game of baseball in Washington, D.C.” and the following year, Cleveland inducted him into their Hall of Fame.
Robinson was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in November of 2005. “All who receive the Medal of Freedom can know that they have a special place in the life of our country and have earned the respect and affection of the American people,” Bush said during the ceremony.
Following the news of his passing, many of his former teammates and players offered tributes via social media.
“So honored to not just have known you, Frank, as a great man, manager, person, and human being, but who I truly called a good friend and someone who I honestly played as hard as I could for, hoping you would respect me back. I last saw you at the All-Star game in Miami two years ago and never thought it would be my last. I’m gonna miss ya skipper, you were the best to me and my family and you’ll never be forgotten,” said Brian Schneider, who played under Robinson for the Expos/Nationals.
“Another sad day in Birdland with the passing of Frank Robinson. Played the game tough, hard but fair. Made all of us better players, and winners,” Robinson’s Orioles teammate Jim Palmer said.
From making flashy moves on the field during his playing career to engaging in some terse showdowns with umpires over the course of his managerial life, Frank Robinson was the definition of a baseball lifer.
“Frank Robinson’s résumé in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations,” MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred said in a statement. “He was one of the greatest players in the history of our game, but that was just the beginning of a multifaceted baseball career.”