Frank Robinson Set A Standard For Athletes That Might Never Be Touched Again

Sports | 2/28/19

At 83 years old, Major League Baseball icon Frank Robinson passed away in 2019 after a long fight with bone cancer. Making his professional debut in 1956, Robinson was a trailblazer for African American athletes, setting records and breaking barriers everywhere he went. In 1982, Robinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame. His legacy for setting the gold standard was further cemented as a manager, where he commanded respect and loyalty. His story is one of hard work, determination, and proof that taking risks in life can be worth the reward.

Robinson Played Basketball With Bill Russell

frank robinson played with bill russell growing up in oakland
Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

When he was four years old, Frank Robinson moved to Oakland, California with his mother. Once he was old enough, he began playing sports. He played baseball for the Powles’ American Legion and also played basketball alongside Bill Russell.

Russell played in the NBA for 14 seasons and won 11 championships. He was named the league’s most valuable player five times and found his place in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975. Robinson, as you’ll find out, earned a similar number of accolades during his career.

His First Contract Was With The Cincinnati Reds

frank robinson signed with the reds in 1953
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Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1953, Frank Robinson signed his first professional contract with the Cincinnati Reds. He was paid $3,500 and began his career in the minor leagues. While there, he experienced racism on a daily basis.

Robinson didn’t let the insults and derogatory name calling get to him. He continued to play at a high level, earning his call up to Major Leagues in 1956. Once he was there, he changed the face of baseball forever, turning Cincinnati into a true baseball city.

Rookie Of The Year

frank robinson rookie of the year
Hy Peskin/Getty Images
Hy Peskin/Getty Images

In his rookie season in Cincinnati, Frank Robinson bashed 38 home runs and with 122 runs batted in. He was a clear cut choice for Rookie of the Year and was a candidate to be named Most Valuable Player.

Most significantly, Robinson was named to his first of 14 all-star teams as a rookie. He earned a reputation as a rookie as someone who would stand on top of the batter’s box during at-bats. He also loved getting physical, oftentimes running into infielders as he would dive to the base.

Most Valuable Player

frank robinson mvp with reds in 1961
Bettmann/Corbis via Getty Images
Bettmann/Corbis via Getty Images

As an established veteran in 1961, Robinson won the league’s Most Valuable Player award. He ended the year with 37 homeruns and 124 runs batted in. He was even better the following year, but failed to win the award two seasons in a row.

For as good as he was, Robinson’s “in your face” style of play caused him to get hurt a lot. He persevered through severe aches and pains, all while dealing with incredible racial tensions. It can even be argued that one racially charged incident forced the Reds to trade him in 1965.

The Reason The Reds Traded Him

frank robinson traded to orioles over restaurant incident
Diamond Images/Getty Images
Diamond Images/Getty Images

Robinson was a wonder on the field, but off the field he was a black man in a time before equality. He worked hard to mask the anxiety he felt from death threats, but couldn’t always contain his emotions.

In 1965, the Reds traded Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles after he waved a pistol at a restaurant employee during a heated exchange. The manager for the Reds denied the incident was the reason he was traded, citing his injuries and calling Robinson “not a young 30.”

He Proved The Reds Wrong In Baltimore

frank robinson orioles mvp world series champion
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Frank Robinson used his trade from Cincinnati as motivation. In his first year in Baltimore he hit a career best 49 homeruns with 122 runs batted in. The Orioles won the World Series and Robinson was unanimously voted as the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

The amazing feat made Robinson the first player to win the MVP award in both leagues. With his numbers, Robinson also won the league’s “Triple Crown,” ending the year with the best batting average, most homeruns, and most RBIs.

He Became A Journeyman At The End Of His Career

frank robinson journeyman dodgers
Diamond Images/Getty Images
Diamond Images/Getty Images

By the end of the ’60s, Frank Robinson was still a productive player but was also viewed as a movable piece. After winning the World Series with the Orioles in 1970, the team sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Robinson spent two years in Los Angeles before becoming a California Angel. While there, he had one final 30-home-run season before ending his career with the Cleveland Indians. With his playing days all but over, Robinson chose to stay in baseball, becoming a manager.

He Was A Rare Player And Manager

frank robinson player manager first african american
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1974, the Cleveland Indians’ shocked the baseball world when they announced Frank Robinson would be playing for the team as well as managing them. The move to manager made Robinson the first black manager in Major League history.

His first two seasons saw him compile a 160-158 record. He then retired as a player, making managing his main focus. Robinson finished his playing career with 586 home runs and 1,829 runs batted in. The next season he was fired by Cleveland after a 26-31 start.

He Moved To The Bay Area

frank robinson manager giants san francisco three seasons
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Four years after being fired by the Indians, the San Francisco Giants hired Frank Robinson to manage the team. The team played inspired ball for him in 1981, and he was named the UPI Manager of the Year. One year later, Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, Robinson’s last three years in San Francisco didn’t prove as fruitful as his first and he was fired after the 1984 season. He returned to Baltimore in 1988, accepting the job as the manager of the Orioles.

Bad Luck In Baltimore

frank robinson orioles manager
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The 1988 season was not a good one in Baltimore. After losing the first six games, the team fired their manager and hired Frank Robinson. They would go on to lose 15 more games in a row.

The next season saw the team fare better. They won 87 games and Robsinson was named Manager of the Year for the second time in his career. He remained the Orioles manager until 1991, when the team moved him into a front office position.

A Decade Behind The Scenes

frank robinson mlb behind the scenes
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

From 1991 until 2002 Robinson moved between the Orioles front office and a life behind the scenes for MLB. He was hired by Bud Selig in 1996 to be a special consultant then was named the vice president for on-field operations in 1999.

The position made Robinson the league’s “discipline czar.” He held the position until 2002 when the dugout came calling again. He was older, wiser, and ready to take a crack at leading another team to glory.

A Return To Managing

frank robinson return to managing
Ed Wolfstein /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images
Ed Wolfstein /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

Frank Robinson accepted the job as the manager of the Montreal Expos in 2002. For two straight seasons, the team won 83 games. In 2005, the team moved to Washington and rebranded themselves as the Nationals.

Robinson served as a stabilizing presence in the dugout while everything else was changing around the players. After the 2006 season, Robinson retired for good. He finished his managing career with a 1,065-1,176 record. In 2007, he was honored with the first ever Jackie Robinson Society Community Recognition Award.

One Last Gig

frank robinson and bud selig working together mlb
Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

With his managing days officially behind him, Frank Robinson stepped back into his role behind the scenes with Major League Baseball. Bud Selig named him the vice president of baseball development in 2012, a position he held until Rob Manfred took over as commissioner in 2015.

With a new boss in town, Robinson could have called it a career. He wasn’t ready to leave the game, though, and accepted a role as one of Manfred’s senior advisers. He was also given the title of president of the American League.

He Didn’t Become A Player-Manager For The Money

frank robinson managing orioles
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Bettmann/Getty Images

To become the player-manager of the Cleveland Indians, Frank Robinson was given an extra $20,000. Clearly not in it for the money, he knew his place in baseball history and what accepting the job as the first African American manager ever meant.

In 2016, Robinson told Outside The Lines that taking the job was a way to, “Open the door and to let more African Americans have the opportunity to come through it.” The added pressure didn’t scare Robinson away.

He Never Agreed With All The Jackie Robinson Comparisons

frank robinson and jackie robinson
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Throughout his career, Frank Robinson was always compared to Jackie Robinson. If you asked him about it, he’d say the comparison was unwarranted. He believed that everything he accomplished could never come close to what Jackie did.

In his interview with Outside The Lines, he reiterated that being MLB’s first black manager, “was nothing compared to what Jackie did or what he went through.” Jackie Robinson, of course, broke the sport’s color barrier, making the careers of athletes like Frank Robinson possible in the first place.

His Death Shook The Baseball World

frank robinson remembered by hank aaron
STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP/Getty Images
STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP/Getty Images

The news of the passing of Frank Robinson in February 2019 shook the baseball world to its core. Just three years after being named Rob Manfred’s senior adviser, he lost a years-long battle with bone cancer.

Hank Aaron, another MLB legend said this on Twitter when he heard the news, “Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies. 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.”

His First Game As Player-Manager Was One For The Record Books

frank robinson player manager
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Frank Robsinon made his debut as a player manager on April 8, 1975. The historic day came 28 years after Jackie Robinson broke the sports’ color barrier. Jackie’s wife, Rachel, threw out the first pitch.

In his first at bat, Frank Robinson crushed a homerun, proving to the baseball world he still had plenty to give. The Cleveland Indians beat the New York Yankees 5-3, with Robinson as the designated hitter, the only appropriate decision for him to manage the lineup as well.

He Was Good To His Teammates

frank robinson respected teammate
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Robinson was a fiery competitor and loved getting physical, but he was also known as an extremely loyal and caring teammate. During his time with the Orioles, manager Earl Waver raved about just how supportive Robinson was.

In his memoir, Weaver wrote, “He never griped and he was always willing to counsel any younger players who sought his advice. At times I know he counseled a few who didn’t seek him out when he heard them complaining.”

He Made Teams Better

frank robinson played hard
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

When Frank Robinson was traded from the Reds to the Orioles, he was credited with turning the fortunes of Baltimore around. Teammates said he took charge of the team, “When he came over here, he was the leader. He was the guy. He made us all better.”

Robinson wasn’t afraid to speak his mind either, “If Frank saw something, Frank was going to say something.” Dave McNally, a pitcher for the Orioles said he believed that it was the intensity that he played with that made him such an amazing leader.

Robinson In His Own Words

frank robinson on his own style of play
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1988, Frank Robinson published his own memoir, titled Extra Innings. In the book, he examined himself, and explained in his own words what made him so successful, “I was as aggressive at the plate as I was on the basepaths and in the outfield.”

He also defended his physical style. He wrote he stood so close to homeplate so he could cover outside pitches, and “If pitchers jammed me, my wrists were quick enough to get around on the pitch.” For the most part he was right, although he did retire with 198 hit by pitches, placing him ninth all-time.