The man who is credited with teaching the Orioles how to win is being mourned today throughout the baseball industry.
The words hit especially close to home in Baltimore. The pain digs especially deep.
Hall of Famer Frank Robinson has passed away after a lengthy battle with bone cancer. He was 83.
Updates on the severity of Robinson’s condition began to circulate at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, including how he was in hospice care in Southern California, and the news remained dire at FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center. Another baseball legend was leaving us.
The Orioles won their first World Series in 1966, coinciding with Robinson’s arrival in a trade with the Reds that ranks among the most lopsided in the sport’s history. Robinson, described by Cincinnati owner/general manager Bill DeWitt as “not a young 30,” was exchanged for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.
The words, twisted in the retelling to “an old 30,” would come back to haunt DeWitt.
A dynasty was born under Robinson’s leadership, with the Orioles appearing in three straight World Series from 1969-71 and winning again in 1970. Robinson won the Triple Crown in ‘66 with a .316 average, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs and was chosen as the American League’s Most Valuable Player, the same award he earned on the National League side in ‘61.
“He made us all believe that the Orioles were going to be a great franchise,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer.
“Frank was a dynamic guy in the sense that he played the game the right way, but he played it really hard. I mean, you were a middle infielder, he was not going to kick you or trip you or hook you. He was going to slide into second base. They all knew that. And if you hovered around the base trying to turn a double play, well, that’s your problem. He was an intimidating guy.
“As far as a teammate, he wasn’t afraid to give advice. Brooks (Robinson) was more laidback. He was the nicest guy in the world. Frank had an edge to him, but it was done in a very constructive way. And I think it was because there was such a mutual respect. And Frank wasn’t into idle chatter. That wasn’t Frank Robinson’s game.
“He was a rock because of his ability and his demeanor.”
Robinson was a 14-time All-Star who hit 586 home runs in 21 major league seasons, six of those years spent with the Orioles before he was traded to the Dodgers in December 1971. He was the first African-American manager in both leagues. He guided the 1989 “Why Not?” Orioles to one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history, worst to almost first, and later worked in their front office. And he became the first manager in Nationals history upon the franchise’s relocation from Montreal.
Robinson’s mark on the game is indelible.
“He could hit any pitch you threw over the wall. He hit the ball as far to right-center field as he did to left field,” Palmer said.
“I saw him when the Twins came in. Dean Chance throws Frank two of the most nasty sliders down and away and Frank hit it with one hand over the bullpen. The grand slams he hit in RFK to right-center and left-center into the upper deck. Everybody hits mistakes, but you could pitch him up and in and he’d hit the ball to left-center field just with his hands.
“In spring training in ‘66, I threw five scoreless innings and Frank hits a home run over the scoreboard and the clock in right-center field in Miami Stadium into the wind and we win 2-0, and he helped me make the ballclub. He didn’t have the greatest arm in right field, but he prided himself on good positioning. Not the greatest speed, but he certainly had great instincts. He knew when to go from first to third. The ability to get a great jump. He was just a complete player.”
The Angelos family issued the following statement upon Robinson’s death:
“Frank Robinson was not only one of the greatest players in Orioles history, but was also one of the premier players in the history of baseball. Fans will forever remember Frank for his 1966 season in which he won the Triple Crown and was named MVP during a year that brought Baltimore its first World Series championship. His World Series MVP performance capped off one of the greatest individual seasons in baseball history. An Orioles Legend and a Baseball Hall of Famer, Frank brought us so many wonderful memories, including two championships, during his time in Baltimore.
“As the first African-American manager in major league history, Frank was a proponent of civil rights causes on and off the field, including policies that paved the way for minorities to have increased access to executive and management positions in baseball. His leadership in the front office and as manager of the Orioles was highlighted by being named the American League Manager of the Year in 1989. To this day, Frank remains the only person in Orioles history to serve as a player, coach, manager and front office executive.
“Frank’s contributions to the Orioles and his work as an ambassador for Major League Baseball will never be forgotten. This is a difficult day for our entire organization and for our many fans. We extend our condolences to his wife, Barbara, his daughter, Nichelle, his entire family and his many friends across our game.”
The longest of Robinson’s 586 home runs was launched on May 8, 1966, a 541-footer off the Indians’ Luis Tiant that left Memorial Stadium.
Robinson, who replaced Cal Ripken Sr. as Orioles manager only six games into the 1988 season and was fired in May 1991, had been working as a senior advisor to baseball commissioner Rob Manfred.
“It’s a sad day for me,” said former Orioles pitcher and current MASN analyst Dave Johnson, who made his first major league start in 1989 with Robinson as manager.
“Frank was one of my heroes. I remember as a kid, having his 500 home run poster on my closet door. When I got a chance to come up with the Orioles and play for my hometown team, Frank gave me a chance to pitch in the rotation. I was glad I was able to some extent, make a contribution. Frank showed a lot of confidence in me. I think he rooted for me. At least that’s the impression I got. When he got fired during the ‘91 season, that was my demise as well.”
Palmer is the only surviving member of the 1971 rotation that produced four 20-game winners, including Dave McNally, Mike Cueller and Pat Dobson. Shortstop Mark Belanger died in 1998, catcher Elrod Hendricks in 2005. Manager Earl Weaver and center fielder Paul Blair passed away in 2013.
That’s just a partial list and, sadly, it’s going to keep growing. Time marches on and doesn’t care who’s in its path.
The memories are lasting, but the losses always hurt. No matter their ages. And particularly for fans who grew up rooting for them.
Manfred issued the following statement today:
“Frank Robinson’s résumé in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations. He was one of the greatest players in the history of our game, but that was just the beginning of a multifaceted baseball career. Known for his fierce competitive will, Frank made history as the first MVP of both the National and American leagues, earned the 1966 AL Triple Crown and World Series MVP honors, and was a centerpiece of two world championship Baltimore Orioles teams.
“With the Cleveland Indians in 1975, Frank turned Jackie Robinson’s hopes into a reality when he became the first African-American manager in baseball history. He represented four franchises as a manager, most recently when Baseball returned to Washington, D.C., with the Nationals in 2005. Since 2000, Frank held a variety of positions with the commissioner’s office, overseeing on-field discipline and other areas of baseball operations before transitioning to a senior role in baseball development and youth-focused initiatives. Most recently, he served as a special advisor to me as well as honorary American League president. In 2005, Frank was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, for ‘setting a lasting example of character in athletics.’
“We are deeply saddened by this loss of our friend, colleague and legend, who worked in our game for more than 60 years. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Frank’s wife Barbara, daughter Nichelle, their entire family and the countless fans who admired this great figure of our national pastime.”
The Robinson family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, contributions in Frank’s memory can be made to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., or the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.