The only player to be named the MVP in both leagues. The sport’s first African-American manager. A first-ballot Hall of Famer.
A unique, irrepressible force on and off the field, Frank Robinson was one of a kind, and baseball lost a legend Thursday when he succumbed to bone cancer at home in Los Angeles. He was 83.
“Frank Robinson’s résumé in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations,” commissioner Rob 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.”
Robinson was born in Beaumont, Texas, the youngest of 10 children. Before he embarked on his groundbreaking baseball journey, a Cooperstown path that spanned 21 seasons, he was the basketball teammate of another pioneer, Bill Russell, at McClymonds High in Oakland, California. From there, Robinson signed with the Reds and made his debut at age 20, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1956, when he hit .290 with 38 homers and 122 runs scored.
That turned out to be only the starting point for a sustained period of dominance as he seemed to grow in stature each year. And through it all, Robinson — whose defiant, plate-crowding stance got him drilled 198 times by incensed pitchers — was at his best when the stakes were highest, or in attempting to prove wrong those who doubted him. Trying to intimidate him was a mistake, too.
“Frank Robinson might have been the best I ever saw at turning his anger into runs,” Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson once wrote, according to The Associated Press. “He challenged you physically as soon as he stepped into the batter’s box, with half his body hanging over the plate. As a rule, I’m reluctant to express admiration for hitters, but I make an exception for Frank Robinson.”
After the Reds traded Robinson to the Orioles in December 1965 for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson — Reds general manager Bill DeWitt said he was an “old 30” — Robinson led Baltimore to four World Series, including titles in 1966 and 1970, and homered during each Fall Classic.
In 1966, his first season with the Orioles, he won the Triple Crown, leading the AL in batting (.316), home runs (49) and RBIs (122) as well as in runs (122), on-base percentage (.410) and OPS (1.047). He earned his second MVP that year, a unanimous pick. The other came in 1961, when he hit .323 with 37 homers for the pennant-winning Reds.
Robinson also gained fame that first season in Baltimore by becoming the only player to hit a ball out of Memorial Stadium. The blast came off the Indians’ Luis Tiant, and it was marked by a flag that read “HERE” in the old ballpark before the Orioles moved to Camden Yards in 1992.
Robinson also was named MVP of the 1966 World Series after hitting two home runs in the Orioles’ sweep of the defending champion Dodgers. The second, off Don Drysdale, came in the 1-0 clincher.
In 1982, Robinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Hank Aaron. Aaron (755) then was the home run king and Robinson was fourth on the all-time list with 586. Only Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660) stood between them. Robinson currently is No. 10.
“Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies,” Aaron said on his official Twitter account. “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.”
Robinson was a 12-time All-Star and won a Gold Glove.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by President George W. Bush as a testament to his barrier-breaking efforts that transcended the game.
Three weeks after acquiring Robinson from the Angels in September 1974, Indians general manager Phil Seghi fired Ken Aspromonte and made Robinson the first African-American manager. On Opening Day in Cleveland in 1975 — with Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, in attendance — Robinson put himself in the lineup at DH and homered off the Yankees’ Doc Medich in his first at-bat.
Two years later, the Indians fired Robinson 57 games into the season. He was 186-189 with Cleveland and later managed the Giants (1981-84), Orioles (1988-91) and Expos/Nationals (2002-06). Robinson was named Manager of the Year in 1989 after rebounding from a 107-loss season to lead the Orioles to an 87-75 record and a second-place finish in the AL East.
Robinson’s No. 20 has been retired by the Reds, Orioles and Indians, with each of their ballparks featuring a statue of him. He also worked as an MLB executive with two commissioners, Manfred and Bud Selig. Robinson is survived by his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Nichelle.
“His skill and ferocity on the field were matched by his dignity and sense of fair play off the diamond,” union chief Tony Clark said in a statement. “The fraternity of players and the baseball family have lost a giant.”
1956 NL Rookie of the Year (Reds)
1961 NL MVP (Reds)
1966 AL MVP (Orioles)
1966 AL Triple Crown winner (49 HRs, 122 RBIs, .316 BA)
1966 World Series MVP
1971 All-Star Game MVP
1975 MLB’s first black manager (Indians)
1989 AL Manager of the Year (Orioles)
1982 Inducted into Hall of Fame (first ballot, 89.2 %)
586 Home runs (ranks 10th)
14 All-Star Games