Frank Robinson’s legacy includes history on the field and in the dugout

Written by: Craig Muder

For more than 50 years, Frank Robinson changed the face of baseball.

And whether that change was statistical, managerial or social, Robinson approached the challenge with a burning desire to never settle for second best.

Robinson, a Hall of Famer since 1982 and the first Black manager in big league history, died Thursday, Feb. 7, at the age of 83. He leaves behind a trailblazer’s legacy – and a playing career matched by few in the game’s history.

“Frank will be forever remembered for his enormous impact on our game as an extraordinary player, a gifted manager, and a deeply committed member of the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame,” said Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “He brought great character, integrity, and sportsmanship to each of these roles. We are truly saddened by this loss and share our deepest sympathy with his family.”

Robinson was born Aug. 31, 1935, in Beaumont, Texas, and grew up in Oakland, Calif., where he was a high school basketball teammate of future NBA great Bill Russell. But it was on the baseball diamond where Robinson’s future lay.

As a 20-year-old Cincinnati Reds rookie in 1956, Robinson set the baseball world on fire by tying a then-rookie record with 38 home runs, a National League-best 122 runs scored and 83 RBI en route to Rookie of the Year honors. Over the next four seasons, Robinson developed into one of the game’s best all-around players, winning a Gold Glove Award in left field in 1958 and averaging almost 32 home runs a season.

In 1961, Robinson led the Reds to their first NL pennant in 21 years, winning National League Most Valuable Player honors while hitting 37 home runs, driving in 124 runs and hitting .323. The next season, he was even better – belting 39 home runs and setting career-bests with 136 RBI, 134 runs scored and a .342 average.

But following the 1965 season – a year in which he hit .296 with 33 homers and 113 RBI – the Reds’ management team dealt Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson.

The trade changed the path of the Orioles’ franchise. Robinson led the Birds to their first World Championship by winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award while leading the league in home runs (49), RBI (122) and batting average (.316) to capture the AL’s first Triple Crown in a decade.

He is the only player to win MVP awards in both leagues.

“It’s always a thrill to put on a major league uniform for the first time and to hit that first major league home run,” Robinson said. “I guess, though, if I had to pick one thing that has given me the greatest thrill, it would be the entire 1966 season.”

Robinson led the Orioles back to the World Series in 1969, 1970 and 1971 – helping Baltimore capture another Fall Classic title in 1970. He was traded to the Dodgers following the 1971 season, then returned to the American League in 1973 – hitting 30 home runs and driving in 97 runs for the California Angels.

Late in the 1974 season – a year that saw him selected to his 14th-and-final All-Star Game – Robinson was traded to the Cleveland Indians. The next year, the Indians named Robinson as their manager – the first time an African American was placed in charge of a big league club.

Robinson led the Indians to a 79-80 record in 1975 – a three-and-a-half game improvement from the year before. Serving as a player/manager, Robinson homered on Opening Day in 1975 and continued to play through the 1976 season.

In 1976, Robinson skippered the Indians to an 81-78 record, Cleveland’s first winning season in eight years. But after a slow start in 1977, the Indians let Robinson go. With his reputation established, however, Robinson quickly found managerial jobs with the Giants (1981-84), Orioles (1988-91) and the Expos/Nationals (2002-06).

In 1989 in Baltimore, Robinson won the American League’s Manager of the Year Award.

“Frank Robinson was not only a great player, but he was a great manager, as well," said Hall of Famer and Hall of Fame Vice Chairman Joe Morgan. "Frank and Sparky Anderson are the two best managers I had, and I consider it a tremendous honor to have played for the first African-American manager. Frank and I became close friends when I played for him. That lasting friendship extended all the way to today, and we stayed in close contact through his illness. I’m extremely saddened with his passing, and my thoughts are with his wife, Barbara, and his daughter Nichelle at this time.”

In total, Robinson managed 16 seasons, posting a record of 1,065-1,176 in the dugout – good for a .475 winning percentage. On the field, Robinson played 21 seasons, hitting 586 home runs (fourth on the all-time list at the time of his retirement), scoring 1,829 runs, collecting 1,812 RBI and totaling 2,943 hits. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 in his first year of eligibility, and was named to the Museum’s Board of Directors in 1998. “Frank Robinson was an intense competitor who built his prolific 21-year career, and earned a place in American history, on the strength of guts, determination and a staunch constitution,” said Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “He's the only player in history to win MVPs in both leagues and his 586 lifetime home runs ranked fourth most when he retired, behind Aaron, Ruth and Mays. He elevated the game by becoming Baseball's first Black manager in 1975, and earned his rightful place in Cooperstown in 1982.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum