Frank Robinson made his Major League debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956, the same year Jackie Robinson’s career ended.
At that point of his life, the spindly 21-year-old Texan could have had no idea he’d one day be remembered for doing as much for the evolution of the black player and manager in baseball as the great Dodgers infielder did.
Robinson was 83 when he died Thursday after a long illness. And as much as his 586 home runs (10th overall) over a 21-year career catapulted him to the Hall of Fame, his status as the first black manager in MLB history made him just as significant.
Playing primarily for the Reds and Baltimore Orioles, Robinson was also the only player to be selected Most Valuable Player in both the American and National Leagues. And in 1966 with the Orioles, his first year with the team, he won the Triple Crown, hitting .316 and smashing 49 homers with 122 RBIs.
His upright stance, the menacing way he leaned over home plate, generated his power. His straightforward approach paved the way for the long career as a manager and administrator that followed it.
He was a relentless competitor and clutch hitter. He collected 2,943 hits, 1,812 RBIs and played on five-pennant winning teams. But on April 8, 1975, he did something no other black had ever done when he was named the player-manager of the Cleveland Indians.
“They said this was the chance for you to break that barrier,” Robinson said in 2016. “Open the door and to let more African-Americans to have the opportunity to come through it. “I knew there was going to be an awful lot of pressure, a lot of expectation and a lot of unhappy people because when things went right, fine, but when things went wrong, it was going to be doubly bad because of me being the first black manager.”
The Indians announced the hiring in October 1974 and Robinson received a congratulatory from President Gerald R. Ford.
“I don’t think I was hired because I was black,” Robinson said. “I hope not. I think I’ve been hired because of my ability. … The only wish I could have is that Jackie Robinson could be here today to see this happen.”
Not only the Indians beat the New York Yankees in his first game, but Robinson, the designated hitter, homered to left field in his first at-bat.
Robinson would manage for 16 seasons with the Indians (1975-77), San Francisco Giants (1981-84), Orioles (1988-91), Montreal Expos (2002-04) and Washington Nationals (2005-06). None of his teams would win a pennant.
During his career, Robinson was always in the middle of powerful lineups on teams that won more than they lost. He led the Reds to the NL pennant in 1961, their first in 21 years, with his first MVP season – 37 homers. 124 RBIs and a .323 batting average.
Eventually, he became a part of one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history after hitting 33 homers in 1965. In need of starting pitching, the Reds dealt him to the Orioles before the 1966 season for righthanders Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun.
Pappas and Baldschun were nothing more than average pitchers, but teamed with Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Davey Johnson, Jim Palmer and manager Earl Weaver, he helped the Birds to AL pennants in 1966, 1969, 1970 and 1971. They won the World Series in 1966 and 1970, when they beat Robinson’s old team, the Reds.
“Frank Robinson was not only one of the greatest players in Orioles history, but was also one of the premier players in the history of baseball,” the Angelos family, owner of the Orioles, said in a statement. “Fans will forever remember Frank for his 1966 season, in which he won the Triple Crown and was named MVP during a year that brought Baltimore its first World Series championship. His World Series MVP performance capped off one of the greatest individual seasons in baseball history. An Orioles legend and a Baseball Hall of Famer, Frank brought us so many wonderful memories, including two championships, during his time in Baltimore.”
Robinson would briefly play for the Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels and Indians before retiring as a player in 1976 after hitting only .226 with Cleveland over his final three seasons.
After his managerial career ended in Washington, Robinson served MLB as executive vice president of baseball development in the commissioner’s office under Bud Selig and Rob Manfred.
“Frank Robinson’s resume in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “He was one of the greatest players in the history of our game, but that was just the beginning of a multifaceted baseball career.
“We are deeply saddened by this loss of our friend, colleague and legend, who worked in our game for more than 60 years. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Frank’s wife Barbara, daughter Nichelle, their entire family and the countless fans who admired this great figure of our National Pastime.”
President George W. Bush presented Robinson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, at a White House ceremony in 2005.
Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies. We were friends,” tweeted Hank Aaron. “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.”