It’s always the same when you lose a legend. The memory bank overflows, but you don’t know exactly how or where to start.
That certainly is the case with Frank Robinson, one of the greatest players in baseball history and almost certainly the best to ever play for the Orioles. Robinson passed away Feb. 7 at the age of 83. He did a lot of great things during the six years he played in Baltimore, and I was fortunate enough to see many of them, but I’ve never had a problem knowing where to start. And, in fact, in some ways it haunts me to this day.
It goes back to a few days before the much-heralded trade that brought Robinson to Baltimore, when I had access to just enough information to be dangerous — and the best story I was never able to write. It was the first weekend of December in 1965, right after a farewell party for Lee MacPhail, who was leaving to become president of the American League and turning over the Orioles’ general manager’s job to Harry Dalton.
Walter Youse, the Orioles’ highly respected scout and trusted member of the incoming GM’s inner circle, later to become known as the Dalton Gang, confided a blockbuster deal that would change the face of the franchise was in the final stages, awaiting only the formality of an announcement. No names were mentioned, only that they would be major on both sides — just enough info to possibly start a Twitter storm today, but little more than a frustrating tease in a different era.
The trade, of course, was the proposition from the Cincinnati Reds — a six-player deal that basically featured Robinson for Milt Pappas — that MacPhail presented to Dalton while famously saying, “Here’s your first decision.” It was completed Dec. 9, the biggest splash of that year’s winter meetings.
Labeled “an old 30” at the time of the trade, Robinson came to Baltimore with a chip on his shoulder and it never came off. He came with much uncertainty because Baltimore wasn’t considered a particularly hospitable city for black players, and the edge with which he played the game was also evident in his social dealings.
The fact that a white player with the same name was already entrenched as the Orioles’ reigning but not yet nationally acclaimed superstar added a little spice to the dynamics. But Brooks and Frank Robinson quickly became an entry on the field, in the clubhouse — and the middle of the lineup, where they almost immediately became the most productive duo in the game.
In his first at-bat as an Oriole, Opening Day in Boston, Frank was hit by a pitch and Brooks followed with a home run, setting a pattern that stayed in place all year. They won 12 of their first 13, Robinson became the only player to hit a home run out of Memorial Stadium en route to winning the Triple Crown and the Orioles never looked back. In the first inning of the first game of the 1966 World Series sweep of the Dodgers, Frank and Brooks hit back-to-back home runs.
I can’t say that I ever got close to Frank Robinson during his early years in Baltimore, but I did get to know him more during the five years I worked in the front office of the Baltimore Bullets. He was a fan of all sports, but a real basketball junkie who played on the same high school team as Bill Russell (and I can attest those two had a lot in common, as their careers attest).
Whenever he was in town, if the Bullets were home, Robinson was there. He would want to talk hoops while I wanted to hear some diamond chatter. I think we developed a solid relationship that lasted a long time, thanks at least in part to the hoops time.
Robinson’s exploits, not only in Baltimore but throughout his 21-year career, are well-documented. He was an All-Star 14 times and the only player in history to win MVP honors in both leagues. His 586 homers were fourth most in history at the time he retired. But he was a product of the era that also produced Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, so he often gets lost in the shuffle when the discussion turns to all-time greats. He is often referred to as the most underrated of the game’s truly great players, but make no mistake: he ranks with the best who ever played the game.
Still, though I never heard him say as much, I believe Robinson’s proudest accomplishment was becoming the first African-American manager in baseball history. He would go on to manage four teams in the big leagues — the Indians, Giants, Orioles and Expos-Nationals. It was the effort he made on this journey that says all you need to know about Robinson’s thirst for excellence.
It is generally overlooked in his resume, but Robinson not only managed five years in Puerto Rico — he did it while he was still in the prime of his playing career. It effectively laid the groundwork for his managing career while still playing, an unheard of precedent for an American player.
Robinson didn’t get the Santurce job by accident. That had been Earl Weaver’s winter gig while managing in the minor leagues. When the Orioles made Weaver their big league manager, he had to give it up (though not before bargaining for more money). Weaver had hardly settled into his manager’s chair with the Orioles before Robinson came into his office and asked for a recommendation for the job in Puerto Rico.
Robinson was planning the next stage of his career, and he would go on to win two championships in Puerto Rico. He would also go on to hit 183 more home runs in the big leagues after taking his first winter league job. He basically was working around the clock — and around the calendar.
And that’s not all.
After what most people considered a successful two-year managing stint in Cleveland, Robinson got fired after a 26-31 start in 1977. The next year Weaver brought Robinson back to Baltimore by creating an opening on his coaching staff. But when Ken Boyer, who was managing the Orioles’ Triple-A team in Rochester, got the call to take the job with the St. Louis Cardinals, Robinson didn’t hesitate when offered the option to take the minor league job.
I don’t know how many major league managers have gone back to the minor leagues to further their managing education, but Robinson is the only one I know who took that route.
He’s the only person in Orioles history to work for the organization as a player, coach, manager and front office executive — and if anybody else has done that with one organization it has escaped my memory, which is on overload while trying to sum up this remarkable career, which also includes extensive time as an executive for MLB.
As a player, Frank Robinson could pretty much do it all. If I had to pick one aspect of his game that best typified his style, I would say it was the way he ran the bases. And the journey he took to become a manager is what tells you all you need to know about his dedication.
He played and managed with a chip on his shoulder and an edge to his game. In the process, he left enough memories that you almost don’t know where to start.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
Issue 251: February 2019