Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson has died at 83 following a long battle with cancer.
In every game of his 21-year playing career, Robinson’s fans knew they were watching a legend. In every plate appearance, every swing of his bat, every trot around the bases, his teammates knew they were privileged to be playing with one of the greats. Of his late teammate, Baltimore Oriole Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said, “He could hit any pitch you throw, out of the ballpark, any part of the ballpark.”
Frank Robinson played for five teams as an active player, but it was his time with Palmer and the Orioles that would prove to be the most memorable years of his career. He came to Baltimore in a notorious trade from the Cincinnati Reds in 1966 at age 30. Cincinnati felt that their one-time Rookie of the Year and 1961 National League MVP winner had gotten too old.
Baltimore traded three players for Robinson, and in his first year with the Orioles, he won his second Batting Triple Crown, American League MVP, and had boosted his new team to their first-ever World Series title. It seems the Cincinnati Reds got the raw end of the trade.
1966 marked the first year of an era in Orioles history known as “The Glory Years.” Jim Palmer said, “Frank took us from being a good team in 1965 to being a great team in 1966. I’m glad Cincinnati thought he was ‘an old 30’ when they traded him.”
Robinson would go on to play five seasons in Baltimore, with whom his second World Series in 1970. Most young Baltimore fans are shocked to learn his legendary status as an Oriole lasted for only five years. The impact Robinson made on the team rivals only Cal Ripken, Jr. who played for the Orioles exclusively for 20 years.
In addition to his tremendous talent, Robinson was notoriously competitive, and teammates rarely minced words about their perception of Robinson’s ability and character. Orioles second baseman Davey Johnson said, “If a guy had on a different-colored uniform, Frank literally hated him. He gave the impression of having a chip on his shoulder, and he dared anyone to knock it off.” The Red’s Don Newcombe said of his young teammate in 1963, “I try to get along with all the guys but, even though he’s my teammate, I can’t take Robinson. That guy is out there trying to maim people.”
Likewise, Robinson himself was unlikely to blow any smoke when it came to his opinions. At age 23, he told Sports Illustrated writer Morton Sharnik, “I don’t believe I intrigue the fans, and obviously I don’t interest the sports-writers. All that I am is an uncomplicated, single-minded guy. And my single-mindedness is baseball.”
Certainly, his mind for baseball was sharper than most. His clubhouse attitude would soften as his career advanced. His teammates grew to cherish their time with him. His relentlessness served as an inspiration for all players, no matter which dugout they sat in.
Before his playing career ended, Robinson would add another remarkable achievement to his resume. He was named player-manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1975, becoming the first black man to ever manage a Major League Baseball team. The appointment launched a fearsome career as a coach and manager that would continue until his retirement in 2006.
As a lifelong Baltimore Oriole fan, I feel a true titan has been lost. The bronze statue of Frank Robinson near the entrance of Camden Yards will loom large this year as fans recall the golden years on their way to a game. Time marches on, but the legend of Frank Robinson is here to stay.