Frank Robinson, Superstar Slugger and Trailblazer (1935-2019)

Frank Robinson always went into second like a guy jumping through a skylight with a drawn Luger.”
Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1974

Frank Robinson may not have had the mythic grace of Willie Mays running down a drive to center field, or the staying power of Hank Aaron as he chased Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run record, but the mark he left on baseball, through the combination of his supreme talent and white-hot intensity, was of similar caliber. Though he never played in the Negro Leagues, as both Mays and Aaron briefly did, he was the spiritual heir to Jackie Robinson in bringing the Negro Leagues’ hard-charging style of play to the majors, and in blazing a trail beyond his playing days. At the tail end of a 21-year major league career that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Robinson became the majors’ first African-American manager, and he spent more than 40 years working in baseball at the managerial and executive level.

Robinson passed away on Thursday at the age of 83 after battling cancer. Since 2015, he had served as a special advisor to the Commissioner and the honorary president of the American League, the final lines on one of the fullest resumés any player has ever assembled.

In a playing career that spanned from 1956-1976, Robinson won the NL Rookie of the Year award and a Triple Crown, made 12 All-Star teams, and became the first player to win the MVP award in both leagues. He was modestly built, listed at 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds per Baseball-Reference, but it didn’t hold back his powerful right-handed swing. He hit .294/.389/.537 for his career, collecting 2,943 hits and clouting 586 home runs; that last total ranked fourth behind Aaron, Ruth, and Mays when he retired, and still ranks 10th. Additionally, he’s currently among the top 25 in a host of other major categories, including total bases (5,373, 13th), runs (1,829, 16th), times on base (4,561, 17th), RBI (1,812, 21st), games played (2,808, 23rd), plate appearances (11,742, 24th), and walks (1,420, 25th). He’s 18th in both FanGraphs’ and Baseball-Reference’s versions of WAR (104.0 and 107.3, respectively), 25th in wRC+ among players with at least 7,000 plate appearances (153), and fifth in JAWS among right fielders (80.1), behind Ruth (123.4), Aaron (101.7), Stan Musial (96.2), and Mel Ott (80.3).

How heavy a hitter was Robinson? He qualified for the batting title 18 times, and finished in his league’s top 10 in slugging percentage in 17 of those seasons (leading in four). He ranked among the top 10 in on-base percentage and wRC+ 16 times apiece, leading the former category twice and the latter four times. He had far less success as a manager, going 1065-1176 (.475) in parts of 16 seasons, and never finishing higher than second. For as much as the numbers in either capacity testify to his impact, they don’t totally capture it.

Born in Beaumont, Texas on August 31, 1935, Robinson was the youngest of 10 children. His parents divorced when he was an infant, and his mother moved to California, eventually settling in the West Oakland neighborhood of Oakland. At McClymonds High School, he played football and basketball as well as baseball; on the court, he played with Hall of Famer Bill Russell, while on the diamond he was teammates with Curt Flood and Vada Pinson, both of whom would join him in Cincinnati (the former only briefly). After he graduated in 1953, he was signed by the Reds for a $3,500 bonus.

In contrast to the more integrated and ethnically diverse environment in which he was raised, Robinson faced virulent institutionalized racism and segregation during his time in the minor leagues, beginning when he was assigned to the Reds’ Ogden, Utah affiliate as a 17-year-old in 1953. In the Mormon-dominated city, no restaurant or movie theater allowed black patrons. “[T]hough I didn’t know it, at that time the Mormon religion insisted that Negroes were inferior beings,” he recalled in Extra Innings, his 1988 autobiography. “I got my first taste of racial bigotry in Ogden.” While his next stop (aside from a brief, eight-game stint in Tulsa, Oklahoma) was in segregated Columbia, South Carolina, Robinson considered it “much better than in Ogden.”

Robinson reached the majors as a 20-year-old in 1956, claiming the starting left field job for a team that hadn’t finished above .500 since 1944. On Opening Day, April 17, he collected a ground-rule double and a single off the Cardinals’ Vinegar Bend Mizell, and while he hit safely just twice over his next six games, he got on track with a two-hit day against the Cubs on April 28, hitting his first major league home run off Paul Minner. Two days later, he rapped out two more hits and homered again, this time off the Cubs’ “Toothpick” Sam Jones. He was on his way.

Robinson was voted into the starting lineup for the All-Star Game as a rookie, and by the end of the season, he had tied Wally Berger’s rookie record with 38 homers, scored an NL-high 122 runs while batting .290/.379/.558, and helped the Reds to a 91-53 record and a third-place finish. He was unanimously voted the league’s Rookie of the Year, and placed seventh in the MVP voting. His 5.6 WAR ranked fifth in the league.

Robinson would make five more All-Star teams over the next nine years with the Reds. Over that decade, he totaled 59.6 WAR (fifth in the majors) and hit 324 homers (tied for sixth) while batting .303/.389/.554 for a 149 wRC+ (sixth). He led the majors in slugging percentage (.595) and wRC+ (168) in 1960, then — after shifting from left field to right — did so again the following year, batting .323/.404/.611 (156 wRC+) with 37 homers, 22 steals, and 7.1 WAR. Though both Aaron and Mays outdid him in the last of those categories, Robinson led the Reds to 93 wins and their first pennant since 1940, enabling him to capture his first MVP award. He could not secure a championship, however; he went 3-for-15 in the World Series against the Yankees, with a pair of doubles and a homer, but the Reds fell in five games.

By this point, Robinson’s chip-on-the-shoulder style — crowding the plate, taking the extra base, breaking up double plays with a vengeance, even brawling — made him so feared that managers such as the Phillies’ Gene Mauch ordered their pitchers not to throw at him, and fined them if they did, lest they motivate him further. “Pitchers did me a favor when they knocked me down,” he once said. “It made me more determined. I wouldn’t let that pitcher get me out.” For all of that, Robinson led the NL in being hit by a pitch six times in his 10 years in Cincinnati, including four out of five from 1959-1963. His 198 hit-by-pitches rank ninth all-time.

Robinson was even better in the follow-up to his MVP season, hitting .342/.421/624 in 1962; those last two marks led the NL, as did his 171 wRC+, and only Mays outdid his 8.2 WAR. But after his bat tailed off slightly over the next three years, Reds general manager-turned-owner Bill DeWitt decided he was “an old 30,” and on December 9, 1965 traded him to the Orioles for pitchers Jack Baldschun and Milt Pappas, plus outfielder Dick Simpson.

It would turn out to be a remarkably lopsided deal; Robinson produced 33.5 WAR over the next six seasons, while the three new Reds combined for 7.9, virtually all of it from Pappas. By mid-1968, all three players were gone from Cincinnati.

“I did not feel I had anything to prove,” Robinson later said of the trade, “Yet I wanted to prove to Bill DeWitt that I was not done at age 30.” The Orioles, who were coming off back-to-back third-place finishes despite winning 97 games in 1964 and 94 in ’65, welcomed him with open arms, embracing his aggressive style in a league that had not experienced nearly the same impact from the influx of talent brought by integration.

Joining an already-potent lineup with third baseman Brooks Robinson, first baseman Boog Powell, and left fielder Curt Blefary — not to mention defensive whizzes Luis Aparicio at shortstop and Paul Blair in center field — Robinson proved to be “the missing cog,” to use manager Hank Bauer’s words. He commanded respect. “If you made a mistake on the field, you were afraid to come back in the dugout because you knew you had to face Frank,” said catcher Elrod Hendricks. “That was worse than anything you’d hear from a manager. He just didn’t tolerate mistakes, especially mental mistakes.”

Robinson homered in each of his first three games with the Orioles, and went on to do nothing less than win the Triple Crown by hitting 49 homers and driving in 122 runs while batting .316/.410/.637 for a 195 wRC+ with 8.2 WAR; he was unanimously voted the AL MVP. The Orioles won 97 games, taking the AL pennant by nine games. In the World Series, Robinson bookended a sweep of the defending champion Dodgers by hitting a two-run homer off Don Drysdale in the top of the first inning in Game 1, then tormenting Drysdale again with a solo homer that produced the game’s only run in Game 4; for that, he was named World Series MVP as well.

Though he couldn’t quite live up that introduction, Robinson hit .300/.401/.543 for an AL-best 168 wRC+ in six seasons with the Orioles, making four more All-Star teams and leading them to three straight pennants from 1969-1971, all under manager Earl Weaver, who took over from Bauer in mid-1968. In 1969, the Orioles won 109 games but lost to the Mets, but they stormed back to win 108 games and beat the Reds the following year (alas, DeWitt had long since sold the team). After “slipping” to 101 wins in 1971, they lost a seven-game World Series to the Pirates; Robinson’s series-ending 0-for-13 skid didn’t help.

Though Robinson had been the centerpiece for the Orioles’ run of success, by this point he was 36 and making $130,000. Wanting to find space for up-and-comer Don Baylor, the Orioles traded Robinson to the Dodgers in a six-player deal. He spent a forgettable, injury-plagued season in Los Angeles, then on November 28, 1972 was part of a seven-player swap with the Angels. He hit for a 144 wRC+ in the better part of two seasons with the Halos (seventh in the majors). Nonetheless, he clashed with manager Bobby Winkles, and was vocal enough about his own ideas of how things should be done that he was viewed as campaigning for the job; notably, Angels general manager Harry Dalton, had traded for Robinson while serving as the Orioles’ GM.

On September 12, 1974, Robinson was traded yet again, this time to the Indians, who acquired him with their own designs to replace manager Ken Aspromonte at the end of the season. Indeed, after Aspromonte was fired, Robinson was named player-manager. By the time he took the field in his first game for the Indians, on April 8, 1975, it had been one week shy of 28 years since Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier, and two and a half years since the great Dodger had called for the hiring of the first black manager. Sadly, Jackie didn’t live to see his protégé take the helm, as he died of a heart attack nine days after making those comments. Rachel Robinson, his widow, was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Frank’s managerial debut.

Wearing the Indians’ garish all-red uniform and batting second as the designated hitter, Robinson homered in his first plate appearance off the Yankees’ Doc Medich, the 575th homer of his career; the Indians won 5-3. Though he hit a respectable .237/.385/.508, Robinson played himself sparingly (149 PA in just 49 games). The Indians finished the season 79-80, a mild improvement over the previous year’s 77-85 record, but a fourth-place finish in the six-team AL East.

Robinson guided the team to an 81-78 record in 1976, their first season above .500 since 1968, but he played in just 36 games, making 79 plate appearances. After the season, he announced his retirement as a player; managing kept him from reaching both the 3,000 hit and 600 home run milestones. Alas, he wasn’t long for managing the Indians. When the team started the 1977 season at 26-31, he was fired. While he didn’t meet with tremendous success during his tenure, in 2017 the Indians honored him with a statue depicting him delivering a lineup card as he broke a barrier. Statues commemorating his playing career were also erected at Great American Ball Park in 2003 and at Camden Yards in 2012; all three teams have retired his uniform number.

Robinson spent four years as an Orioles coach before getting another chance to manage, and when he did so with the Giants, he became the first African-American manager in NL history, a stark illustration of the game’s lack of progress in that area.
He spent four-plus seasons managing the Giants, but only in the second half of the strike-split 1981 season and in the full 1982 season — the year he was elected to the Hall of Fame alongside Aaron, with 89.2% of the vote — did the team finish above .500; they went 87-75 in the latter year, placing third in the six-team NL West. After a 42-64 start in 1984, he was fired again.

Robinson returned to Baltimore to spend three years as the bench coach alongside a revolving door of managers; during that span, Joe Altobelli, who had piloted the team to its 1983 World Series win was fired, Weaver came out of retirement, and then yielded to Cal Ripken Sr. When Ripken was fired following an 0-6 start in 1988, Robinson reluctantly took the reins. The Orioles proceeded to lose 15 more in a row on his watch before notching their first win, and finished the year 54-107.

Yet despite that inauspicious return, Robinson guided the Orioles to an 87-75 record and a second-place finish in 1989, earning him AL Manager of the Year honors. The team couldn’t match that success in 1990 and he was gone from the dugout by early 1991, moving into an assistant general manager role that lasted through the 1995 season.

Robinson spent the next seven years working for Major League Baseball. From 1996-1998, he was the Director of Baseball Operations for the Arizona Fall League and consultant to the Commissioner for special projects. From 1999-2002, he was MLB’s Vice President for On-Field Operations, overseeing player discipline and other on-field matters. At the age of 66, he returned to the dugout for a five-year run with the Expos (2002-2004) and Nationals (2005-06). For as difficult as the situation was in Montreal, with the franchise owned by the other 29 teams, he guided the Expos to back-to-back 83-79 records; in the first of those years, the Expos finished second in the NL East. He led the Nationals to an 81-81 record in their inaugural season in DC, imparting a much-needed credibility to the transplanted franchise as it emerged from years of turmoil. Later that year, he received the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.

Robinson rejoined the Commissioner’s office in 2007 and served in a variety of capacities for the remainder of his life: Special Advisor for Baseball Operations (2007-09), Special Assistant to the Commissioner (2009-10), Senior Vice President for Major League Operations (2010-11), Executive Vice President of Baseball Development (2012-15), and Senior Advisor to the Commissioner and Honorary American League President (2015-2019).

That’s as full a resumé as any player has produced in the game. Frank may not have been as celebrated Mays, Aaron, or Jackie Robinson, but his spot in the pantheon is every bit as deserved.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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tramps like us
5 years ago

Simply one of the best baseball players ever. As good as Mays or Aaron or Mantle, and none were more fierce. He simply played the game with bad intentions. A friend had the bad fortune to encounter Robinson at a Lakers game about 10-12 years ago and had the gall to ask for an autograph. He asked politely, waited until a good moment (or so it seemed). Frank loudly and angrily berated him, saying he was tired of “you people bothering me everywhere I go.” My friend slunk back to his seat. Much like Bob Gibson, his nature didn’t seem to improve with age. And that’s neither good nor bad…it is.

My personal memory was that of a 14-year old kid in the left field bleachers at Dodgers Stadium in 1971, Robby’s only season with the Dodgers. I was convinced I could catch a home run with my bare hands if given the opportunity. Frank hit a rope right at me. I mean it was hammered. I couldn’t move out of the way fast enough. Yikes.

Thanks, Frank, for some great memories.

5 years ago
Reply to  tramps like us

Not quite Willie. Willie’s defense, arm, and base running sets him apart from everyone.
But read my tribute above.