Yesterday, Major League Baseball held its annual celebration of Jackie Robinson, with every player donning the number 42 in honor of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. While Jackie blazed a new and essential trail for black players in baseball, it was another Robinson who took the next step by becoming the first black manager in baseball history.
Frank Robinson is a legend of baseball, both in and out of the dugout. This post recounts Robinson’s remarkable career and legacy, certainly one the most important in the rich and storied history of America’s Pastime.
Frank Robinson By The Numbers
Very few baseball players have a résumé as impressive as Frank Robinson’s.
He ranks ninth all-time in home runs (586) and twentieth in RBIs (1,812). When he retired in 1976 he ranked fourth and twelfth, respectively.
Robinson was a fourteen-time All Star and two-time MVP. In fact, he remains the only player ever name the MVP of both leagues—winning the award in 1961 with the Reds and in 1966 with the Orioles.
In 1966 he won the triple crown, leading the American League with 49 homers, 122 RBIs, and a .316 batting average.
Robinson won two World Series rings with the Orioles, in 1966 and 1970.
In 1975, while he was playing with the Cleveland Indians, he became a player-manager and the first African American manager in Major League history.
Seven years later the Baseball Writers Association of America elected Robinson into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Robinson’s Hall of Fame Playing Career
Frank Robinson was born in Beaumont, Texas on August 31, 1935. When he was four years old, his family moved from Texas to Oakland, California.
Robinson was part of the first generation of players to come of age during integration. In 1953, only six years after Jackie Robinson (no relation) and Larry Doby had broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Robinson signed as a free agent with the Cincinnati Reds shortly after his graduation from McClymonds High School in Oakland. At McClymonds, Robinson played on the basketball team with future University of San Francisco and Celtics legend Bill Russell.
He made his Major League debut in the Reds outfield in 1956. As a rookie he was an All-Star and the National League’s Rookie of the Year. Robinson played ten years in Cincinnati, during which time he thrice led the National League in OPS (not that anyone back then knew what OPS was or why it mattered). Robinson’s Reds won the 1961 National League Pennant, but lost the World Series to the Yankees in five games. While he played for Cincinnati, he took classes at Xavier University.
In 1966 the Reds dealt Robinson to Baltimore in exchange for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. By 1969, none of the three was still playing in Cincinnati. Robinson, on the other hand, thrived with the Orioles, winning a World Series ring, the American League MVP, and the World Series MVP in his first year in Baltimore.
During Robinson’s six season with the Orioles, the O’s won four pennants (1966, 1969, 1970, 1971) and two World Series titles (1966, 1970).
Robinson Blazes A New Trail
Robinson finished his career with the Dodgers (one season), Angels (not quite two seasons), and Indians (just over two seasons). The Indians named him player-manager in 1975, beginning Robinson’s lengthy coaching career.
Robinson managed the Indians from 1975-1977, the Giants from 1981-1984, the Orioles from 1988-91, and the Montreal Expos-turned-Washington Nationals from 2002-2006. Major League Baseball, which owned the Expos at the time, appointed Robinson manager, and he oversaw the team’s transition from Quebec to the capital of the United States. (He was there when the team was playing home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.)
Robinson wasn’t nearly as impressive as a manager as he had been as a player. His career managerial record stands at 1065-1176 (.475). But he did win American League Manager of the Year in 1989 when he led the Orioles—a team that had gone 54-107 in the previous season—to an 87-75 record.
Early in his career Robinson shied away from the Civil Rights struggle in the United States. But after coming face to face with segregated housing in Baltimore while playing with the Orioles, and after realizing that the Orioles organization was doing nothing to help overcome the problem, Robinson became an outspoken advocate for the African American community and for African American ball players.
Both the Reds and the Orioles retired Robinson’s number, 20, and the Reds dedicated a statue of Robinson at Great American Ball Park. In 2005 President George W. Bush awarded Robinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award for civilians who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”