Flashback: Frank Robinson and the Orioles’ transformation into a contender

There’s no way around it: Frank Robinson’s arrival via trade in December 1965 transformed the Orioles, pushing a club on the precipice of contention into the postseason - immediately. Considered an old 30 and expendable by the Reds, Robinson flourished in Baltimore. He won the Triple Crown in 1966 - leading the American League with a .316 average, 49 homers and 122 RBIs - and sent the Orioles into the World Series, where they shockingly swept the vaunted Dodgers.

More accolades followed, as a new audience recognized the lanky right fielder as a heady power hitter, as capable of turning a game with his bat as he was at keeping a clubhouse loose with his antics as the judge of the O’s kangaroo court. More postseason appearances followed, too - the Birds made three straight appearances in the Fall Classic from 1969-71, winning it all in 1970 over the Reds, the club that kicked Robinson to the curb in exchange for Jack Baldschun, Milt Pappas and Dick Simpson. By the time the Orioles shipped him to the Dodgers in December 1971, Robinson had cemented his position in Baltimore’s rich sports history with five All-Star nods, an All-Star MVP in 1971 and a World Series MVP in 1966 - all as an Oriole.

It’s only natural that Robinson, who later managed the Orioles and worked in the front office, should be the first of the team’s six members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to have a statue unveiled in the new picnic area at Camden Yards. As Orioles legends go, few have made such an immediate impact. And the stogie that Robinson is puffing in this memorable photograph from the Orioles archives, circa mid-1960s, is the kind of scene that was played out often during his career in black and orange, where the good days certainly outnumbered the bad and celebratory cigars were commonplace.f-robby-cigar.jpg

I have a very personal connection to Robinson, who achieved a most memorable feat on Mother’s Day 1966, when I attended my first baseball game. In the first inning of the second game of that May 8, 1966 doubleheader, Robinson hit a home run out of Memorial Stadium, ripping a Luis Tiant pitch deep down the left field line and into the parking lot, much to the amazement of a partisan crowd that didn’t think such a feat possible. We stayed through the nightcap; it may have been a day to celebrate mom, but a kid’s first ballgame shouldn’t end prematurely. I didn’t discover until breakfast the next morning about the out-of-the-park experience, courtesy of dad’s retelling of a radio news item. Until the Orioles moved into Camden Yards from Memorial Stadium, a flag simply proclaiming “HERE” was raised at every home game on 33rd Street to mark the occasion. Robinson now owns the pennant.

While I was there, I couldn’t see the homer, only the curious looks on the faces as necks craned to see how far the blast traveled. My dad had purchased tickets in the upper deck on the third base side, but when we were hiking up the notoriously steep concrete steps to our destination, mom turned to him and shot him a steely glare that said, “I’m not sitting all the way up here.” We retreated to the concourse, where we waited while dad exchanged the ducats for seats in the lower reserved section just beyond third base - under cover from the beating sun, but preventing me from tracking the flight of that longball off Robinson’s bat.

Robinson was noted for many things as an Oriole - clutch hitting, the ability to turn adversity into success and an undeniable passion to win. And winning was something he did frequently as an Oriole. But hitting .300 with 179 homers and 545 RBIs over six seasons will translate into victories. His No. 20 was retired in 1972 and Robinson, now 76, was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1982, the first modern Oriole to gain baseball immortality. And no one that watched him in Memorial Stadium could say he didn’t earn the honor.

When his bronze likeness in the new picnic area is unveiled Saturday night (the ceremony is slated to begin at 5:15 p.m., but the Orioles are urging fans to arrive early because a large walk-up crowd is expected), recollections of Robinson’s impact will flood through the collective memories of O’s fans. I’ve shared my best memory of Robinson. What’s yours?

Photos used in the Flashback feature come from the Orioles’ photo archives. From time to time this season, we’ll take a look back at interesting people, places and events in Baltimore baseball history through the camera lenses that captured them and lend a historical perspective to what’s shown.

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