Frank Robinson always will be remembered for the strength of his character and the uniqueness of his achievements. Well he should, as the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball. It was an honor that would have been unthinkable for him as a child in Oakland because the majors back then, by unwritten rule, did not allow blacks to even play on a team, let alone run one.
His reputation is so extraordinary as a pioneer and fierce competitor that it overshadows another aspect of his core that also never should be forgotten: He was one of the greatest ballplayers of all time.
The baseball world, mourning the death of Robinson Thursday at the age of 83, always has firmly respected his playing career. He was a 14-time All-Star and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But the sport and its followers might never have given him his rightful share of awe. In other words, he probably was even better than you thought.
He was the only one ever named Most Valuable Player in both the National and American Leagues, a distinction mentioned in all of the tributes over the past few days. He also was one of only 10 players to have earned the Triple Crown, winning a league’s batting average, home run and runs batted in titles in the same season — a feat so special that it has been accomplished only twice since he did it in 1966 (Carl Yastrzemski, 1967, and Miguel Cabrera, 2012).
At the time of his retirement, Robinson was fourth on baseball’s most prestigious list, career home runs, behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays (he still ranks 10th). He was a Gold Glove outfielder. He is the only one to have completed this grand slam: Rookie of the Year, regular season Most Valuable Player, World Series MVP and All-Star Game MVP. And he was a winner. He was the best player on five teams that reached the World Series, leading two of those to championships.
One observer said he single-handedly transformed the Orioles franchise. The observer was no less an authority than teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who told the Baltimore Sun, “He was the best player I ever played with. When he came here in 1966, he put us over the top.”
Conventional wisdom never put Frank Robinson in the same constellation as contemporaries Mays, Aaron and Mickey Mantle, but a closer look reveals that he really was in their orbit. Fellow Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who watched Robinson play every day with those Orioles, once called him, “the best player I ever saw.”
There are several reasons why Frank (no middle name) Robinson has been undervalued by history, at least so far. He did not play centerfield, which was the glamor position in his era. His prime did not take place in a big market. He played for five teams, not just one. He did not have a catchy nickname. His game was marked more by defiance — crowding the plate, just daring pitchers to throw inside — than flamboyance.
He was a serious guy, toughened by years of racial taunts and “whites-only” restaurants in the minors. So, he was no quipster in interviews. “He did all of his talking in the batter’s box,” Pete Rose, who broke in with the Reds when Robinson was their superstar, told Chris Russo on Sirius/XM’s Mad Dog Sports channel Thursday.
Perhaps the greatest explanation is that Robinson came along far too early for detailed statistical analysis. No one in the 1950s and 1960s spoke of on base plus slugging, so there was no way to know that he led his league in that now-valued category four times and that he surpassed the gold standard of .900 OPS 12 times.
Baseball-reference.com now analyzes myriad batting data to come up with Similarity Scores, comparing players from different eras. By that calculation, Robinson is most like Ken Griffey Jr., considered the greatest player of his generation. In the website’s related comparisons by age, the 25- and 26-year-old Robinson is deemed most like the 25- and 26-year-old Mike Trout, who is widely seen as the best player today.
“He was a great player for most of the years if not all of the years he played. He was a great baserunner, he knew how to play defense, he had great power and he could hit for an average. There’s nothing that Frank lacked in as far as being a baseball player,” Rose said in the radio spot, making the case that his former teammate and mentor was underrated. He added that he would have been embarrassed if he were Reds management for having trading Robinson to Baltimore for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson — one of the most lopsided deals in history.
What Robinson, like everyone else in his era, did lack was an agent to plot a strategy and schedule to promote the player’s image and “brand” every offseason. In a 2002 Newsday interview, Robinson joked that during the winter, “I used to eat four or five banana splits a day so I would have something to work off in spring training.” In a more serious vein, he added that because ballplayers’ salaries were so low back then, he used to do manual labor after October. Once, he nearly lost an eye — and his career — when a hot piece of pipe hit him while working at an Oakland galvanizing plant.
That sort of dues paying made him more demanding of himself and others on the ballfield. “He was smart and tough,” NBA great Bill Russell, his schoolmate at McClymonds High in Oakland (and his league’s first black coach), told MLB Network. Robinson did his due diligence by managing in winter ball.
Before the 1975 season, he was named player-manager of the Indians. His debut on Opening Day against the Yankees was brimming with symbolism. Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, was in the stands.
Frank Robinson added some symbolism of his own. On the afternoon when he made such significant history, he also hit a home run in his first at-bat. It was a reminder for then and forever that he could play with the best of them.