Frank Robinson joins the 500 home run club

Written by: Alex Coffey

On the morning of Sept. 14, 1971, thousands of Boston Globe newspaper subscribers – along with many other readers across the country – awoke to their morning paper with headlines that read “F. Robinson belts 499th O’s win, 9-1.” But the night before, 406 miles away in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, a couple hundred diehard Orioles fans had already seen that headline become obsolete.

A few minutes before midnight, as the future Hall of Famer launched his second home run of the day three rows deep into the left-field stands, Frank Robinson became just the 11th player in baseball history to join the 500-home run club. The timing and circumstances of his historic night translated into less publicity than his predecessors had received.

“He hit No. 499 in Game 1 [of our doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers] before 13,000 fans,” said manager Earl Weaver to the media. “He hit No. 500 before perhaps 800 spectators who hung in until almost midnight.”

New York Times columnist Arthur Daley proclaimed that “his timing hardly could have been worse,” and therefore it “missed most of the morning editions.”

But Robinson, who had achieved another benchmark of 2,500 hits just months before his 500th roundtripper, never paid much attention to the publicity surrounding his achievements. He was more focused on his production on the field.

“I hit 499 off Mike Kilkenny in the first inning of the opener,” Robinson told the New York Times. “Between games I suddenly began thinking of 500 for the first time and I kept wanting it more and more. But I wasn’t getting close to it in a lopsided second game that we were losing badly. I flied out to center at the start of the eighth and figured I was through batting. So did most of what was left of the crowd. They waited to see if I’d get 500 and, when I didn’t, most of them headed home.”

Frank Robinson spent six seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982 with an Orioles logo on his plaque cap. (Harold Kreissler/National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

By the time the ninth inning rolled around, the odds of Robinson getting to the plate weren’t good. The Orioles were down 10-2, and a Paul Blair popfly to second, followed by a Merv Rettenmund fly ball to center, meant that Baltimore was hanging onto their final out.

“I was the fifth hitter and two men went out,” Robinson said. “But Curt Motton doubled off Fred Scherman and Boog Powell singled through the shortstop hole of an over-shifted infield. Much to my surprise, I was at bat again. Then I connected with a Scherman pitch. I knew immediately that it would be a hit, maybe a single or maybe a double. But I didn’t think the ball would do what it actually did do, ride all the way into the stands for a home run. It was not one of my best, but I file no complaint. It was 500.”

Remembered as a fierce competitor with a strong work ethic, Robinson would finish his career with an Most Valuable Player Award in each league, the 1966 Triple Crown, 2,943 hits and 586 home runs.

Although Baltimore's Memorial Stadium was mostly empty at the end of a long day that featured a doubleheader, Frank Robinson made history on Sept. 13, 1971 by hitting his 500th home run. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“A seminarian in the left-field stands caught the historic ball and kindly returned it to Frank,” Weaver said. “He hadn’t saved many balls over the years, though he did have one autographed by Stan Musial.

"‘Maybe I kept that one because I always thought Musial was the greatest player I’d seen’ Frank told me,” Weaver continued. “But if I had my choice between a young Stan Musial and a young Frank Robinson, I’d have to go with Frank.”

Alex Coffey is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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