ESPN.com - CLASSIC - SportsCentury biography of Frank Robinson

 Monday, July 31
Frank Robinson
 
 By Nick Acocella
Special to ESPN.com

Frank Robinson had a way of repeating his feats: he is the only player to win a Most Valuable Player award in both the National and American Leagues and the only African-American to manage in each circuit. His duplication of deeds as well as his breaking of the racial barrier as a dugout boss has sometimes obscured his prodigious slugging and his no-holds-barred style of play.

Robinson began rewriting the record book his rookie year with Cincinnati in 1956, when he tied Wally Berger's freshman mark for homers with 38 and led the National League with 122 runs to win Rookie of the Year. In his 10 seasons with the Reds, he slipped below 29 homers only once and paced the league in slugging percentage in three consecutive seasons (1960-62).

He won his National League MVP in 1961 while leading the Reds to their first pennant since 1940. But his individual performance was even better in 1962, when he topped his MVP season in almost every category (.342 to .323 in batting, .624 to .611 in slugging, 51 doubles to 32, 39 homers to 37, 136 RBI to 124, and a league-leading 134 runs to 117).

After being traded to Baltimore in 1966, Robinson had his best season, copping a Triple Crown - with a .316 average, 49 homers and 122 RBI - while also leading the American League in slugging percentage (.637) and runs (122). His banner season not only won him the AL MVP, but also helped the Orioles to their first pennant.

Topping off that extraordinary year, he also was World Series MVP. He batted .286 and hit two homers, one of them a blast that defeated Don Drysdale 1-0 in Game Four, as the Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers. Although he never again matched his 1966 numbers, the right-handed slugger was a central figure in three more Baltimore pennants (1969-71).

Afterwards, he figured as the central figure in several headline-making trades, as he traveled from the Dodgers to the Angels to the Indians. Along the way, he established several marks for players jumping back and forth between leagues. Among other accomplishments, he was the first to hit 200 homers in each league and the first to hit All-Star Game homers for both sides.

When he retired in 1976, Robinson had 586 homers (fourth on the all-time list). His lifetime average was .294 and he knocked in 1,829 runs.

For all his power numbers, teammates and opponents alike often recall Robinson as much for his take-no-prisoners approach to the game as for his slugging. He was as apt to make a difference in a game by taking out a middle infielder at second base to ruin a double play as he was to homer.

As early as 1961, Philadelphia Phillies manager Gene Mauch fined pitchers for throwing at Robinson, because such tactics only made him more aggressive. Several American League managers later said they did the same thing.

"Pitchers did me a favor when they knocked me down," Robinson said. "It made me more determined. I wouldn't let that pitcher get me out. They say you can't hit if you're on your back. But I didn't hit on my back. I got up."

Becoming a manger did little to curb Robinson's competitiveness. He badgered general managers to make the trades he wanted. He lamented a manager's lack of leverage with modern players. And he compared his players' skills to his own.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, he included in his acceptance speech the observation that "I don't see anyone playing in the major leagues today who combines both the talent and the intensity that I had."

He was born on Aug. 31, 1935, in Beaumont, Tex. His mother moved the family to Northern California when he was four, and Robinson grew up in Oakland.

After starring at McClymonds High School, Robinson was drafted by Cincinnati and signed for a $3,500 bonus in 1953. Three years later, he was starring in the majors. His 38 homers contributed to the Reds' then-record 221 as the club jumped 16 games to finish third, only two games behind first-place Brooklyn. In 1957, he batted .322 with 29 homers.

An arm injury limited Robinson's output in 1958 (.269 average but 31 homers) and forced him to first base in 1959 and part of 1960, but these were the least of his problems. In response to several death threats, Robinson began carrying a gun and, in 1961 he was arrested for waving it threateningly at a restaurant employee who refused to serve him.

In one of the most lopsided and least popular trades in history, Reds general manager Bill DeWitt dealt Robinson to the Orioles after the 1965 season, even though the leftfielder had clouted 33 homers, knocked in 113 runs, scored 109 and batted .296. DeWitt's assessment that Robinson was "an old 30" did as little to convince Reds fans of the wisdom in the deal as the performance of players - pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson - the Reds received in return.

Described by The Sporting News as "a Grade-A Negro" upon coming to Baltimore, Robinson was not yet a civil rights activist. When asked to join the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, he declined unless the organization would promise not to ask him to make public appearances while he remained active as a player. His attitude changed only after he was confronted by Baltimore's segregated housing and a lack of support from the team in overcoming the bigotry of the city's real-estate business.

Within a few years, he was one of the most outspoken players in the majors on a variety of racially charged issues, among them a lack of enthusiasm for rebuking white pitchers for throwing at black hitters.

Traded to the Dodgers after in December 1971, Robinson hit only .251 with 19 homers before being dealt down the freeway to the Angels in November 1972. He responded with his 11th - and final - 30-homer season in 1973.

But more important, by then he was managing in the winter leagues and making it known that he would like to be the first black manager. Robinson was traded to the Cleveland Indians in September 1974 and after the season he was named player-manager. He added drama to his debut by putting himself in the lineup as designated hitter on opening day 1975 and slamming a homer in his first at-bat to propel Gaylord Perry to victory.

The irony of the heroics was that Perry, born in North Carolina, had questioned Robinson's managerial credentials. By the middle of June, Perry and his brother Jim, who had joined Gaylord in his dubiousness about the new dugout boss, were pitching for other franchises.

Fired during the 1977 season, Robinson spent several years as a coach and a minor league manager before San Francisco hired him in 1981. He brought the Giants home third in the second half of the split season and in 1982.

Fired again in August 1984 after one too many bouts with Tom Haller over the general manager's reluctance to make the trades the manager felt necessary, Robinson returned to coaching with the Orioles. Then in 1987 he was promoted to the front office in the wake of Al Campanis' infamous remark about blacks' lack of "the necessities" to hold down responsible positions in baseball.

Against his stated preference, Robinson replaced manager Cal Ripken Sr., in April 1988, after six games of what would grow into a 21-game losing streak. In 1989, he turned the team around as it finished second. Two years later, he returned to the front office, staying there through the 1995 season. He is currently major league baseball's vice-president of on-field operations, in charge of discipline.


 



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Frank Robinson