Frank Robinson, Hall of Famer and first Nats manager, dies

Frank Robinson, the talented and tenacious Hall of Fame outfielder who broke barriers as baseball’s first African-American manager and who led the Nationals through their first two seasons in Washington, has died. He was 83.

Robinson died this morning at his home in California, surrounded by family and friends, Major League Baseball announced. He had reportedly been in failing health in recent weeks.

After working for Major League Baseball in a variety of roles over the last decade, Robinson participated in All-Star Game festivities in D.C. in July but had not made any appearances at baseball events since.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Barbara, and his daughter, Nichelle.

“Frank Robinson’s resume in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement released by MLB. “He was one of the greatest players in the history of our game, but that was just the beginning of a multifaceted baseball career.”

Few icons in the sport’s history could match Robinson’s breadth of accomplishments on and off the field. The only man ever to win MVP awards in both the National and American leagues, he’s one of only five hitters to have won the Triple Crown in the last 75 years. A first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 1982, he won NL Rookie of the Year honors for the Reds in 1956, won two World Series titles with the Orioles and was MVP of the 1966 Fall Classic.

He retired in 1976 having hit 586 home runs, which at the time ranked fourth in major league history behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.

Robinson managed parts of 17 seasons for four organizations, the first African-American skipper in both the AL (with the Indians in 1975) and NL (with the Giants in 1981). He was named AL Manager of the Year in 1989 after leading the Orioles through a surprising pennant race and later spent five seasons mostly exceeding expectations as manager of the MLB-owned Expos franchise that relocated to Washington and became the Nationals.

He also was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

“The Lerner family and the entire Washington Nationals organization extend our deepest condolences to the family of Frank Robinson,” managing principal owner Mark Lerner said in a statement. “Frank was one of a kind. A trailblazer throughout his career, he was steadfast and courageous in his defense of justice and diversity in the game of baseball.

“In addition to his Hall of Fame playing career, Frank broke down barriers, was a leader and mentor. Not only did he lead our team in our early years, helping to establish our culture and develop young players, but he remained connected throughout the years with our organization. His contributions to our team helped set us on a path to success and his continued presence helped remind us why we love this game.

“He was an ambassador for both the Nationals and the game throughout the city, but was especially fond of sharing stories with children from a nearby elementary school about his time in the big leagues. More than all of this, he was a dear friend to our family and will always be remembered as being an important part of the Nationals family.”

The 2005 season in D.C. was among Robinson’s favorites, with a pieced-together roster storming out to the NL’s best record at the All-Star break and turning rickety RFK Stadium into a bouncing ballpark of joy for fans who waited 33 years for baseball to return to town. A second-half collapse resulted in an 81-81 record at season’s end, but the club continues to hold a special place in the hearts of those who experienced it firsthand.

“It was just like a magical thing that was happening for this ballclub,” Robinson said in 2015 when he was inducted into the Nationals Ring of Honor. “The only thing I regret is we were not able to finish. I would have loved to have finished it off for the fans here and the organization, and it didn’t happen, but I’m very proud of that team.”

Robinson’s inclusion in the Ring of Honor at Nationals Park represented something of a mending of fences between the ex-manager and the organization after the two sides endured a bitter parting following the 2006 season.

Robinson-First-Pitch-Nats-sidebar.jpgInitially hired by MLB when it owned the Expos, Robinson relocated with the franchise to Washington, but was left in limbo when the Lerner family purchased the team in 2006. After a disappointing 71-91 campaign that included several clashes with then-general manager Jim Bowden, he was informed during the season’s final week he would not be retained.

The Lerners offered Robinson an opportunity to be honored the following season when the Nationals played the Orioles, but the ever-stoic ex-outfielder declined, bitter he wasn’t given an opportunity to remain employed by the organization in some capacity.

Robinson still made occasional appearances at Nationals Park over the years in his capacity as an MLB executive, and he remained friendly with players and club officials who were part of his teams.

“He taught me a lot of things,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who made his Nats debut in September 2005 and is the lone player remaining in the organization who had Robinson for a manager. “He taught me how to be a professional, what you’re supposed to do day in and day out. He wasn’t hard on me, but one of the things I liked about him was he never let anything go. If he wanted to say something, good or bad, he got it out there. And I respected that.”

Though he never actually played for him, former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond felt so indebted to Robinson for mentoring him as a 19-year-old minor leaguer during spring training 2005 that seven years later he changed his uniform number from No. 6 to No. 20 to honor the skipper.

“He was the first one, really, to believe in me and guide me,” said Desmond, who wound up making the All-Star team for the first time that season.

Robinson’s two seasons in Washington were merely the coda to a remarkable career that began five decades earlier.

Born Aug. 31, 1935 in Beaumont, Texas, Frank Robinson Jr. grew up in Oakland, Calif., where at McClymonds High School he was a basketball teammate of Bill Russell and a baseball teammate of future big leaguers Vada Pinson and Curt Flood. Signed by the Reds in 1953 for $3,500, he spent only two and a half seasons in the minors before bursting onto the big league scene with a bang.

With a then rookie-record 38 homers and a league-leading 122 runs, Robinson was the unanimous choice as NL Rookie of the Year in 1956. He also finished seventh in league MVP voting.

A fearsome presence in the right-handed batter’s box, Robinson was way ahead of his time as an offensive player who could both hit for power (he averaged 32 homers each of his first 10 seasons) and show patience at the plate (he posted a .389 on-base percentage during that decade and on six occasions led the league in times hit by pitch). During his first MVP campaign of 1961, he totaled 37 homers and 124 RBIs and helped lead the Reds to their first World Series appearance in 21 years.

Robinson was coming off another dominant season in 1965 when he was traded to the Orioles for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun, plus outfielder Dick Simpson. Reds owner Bill DeWitt infamously referred to the veteran outfielder as “not a young 30” after making the deal, words that led to a decades-long rift between Robinson and the Cincinnati franchise and only motivated him to perform at a higher level in Baltimore.

Which he did with one of the finest all-around seasons in baseball history. Robinson won AL MVP honors in 1966, leading the league in runs, homers, RBIs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS and winning the Triple Crown. He then capped off the remarkable year with two homers off Hall of Famer Don Drysdale and MVP honors during the Orioles’ four-game World Series sweep of the defending champion Dodgers.

Robinson remained a consistent force during his six seasons in Baltimore, boasting a .300/.401/.543 slash line and again slugging two homers during the Orioles’ 1970 World Series victory over the Reds franchise that traded him away four years earlier.

Robinson finally saw his numbers begin to diminish in his late 30s, during which he played for the Dodgers, Angels and Indians. But another impactful career still awaited him: In 1975, the Indians named him player-manager. The first black skipper in big league history, he homered in his first at-bat.

After hitting just .224 in 36 games in 1976, Robinson retired as a player at age 41 but continued to manage the Indians through the first 57 games of the 1977 season. He spent the next three seasons as a coach for the Angels and Orioles but then got another chance to manage (and another opportunity to make history) in 1981.

Robinson spent four seasons as Giants manager, making him the first black skipper in the NL. Fired late in the 1984 season, he wound up returning the Orioles staff yet again and was put into the uncomfortable position of replacing Cal Ripken Sr. as manager following the team’s 0-6 start to the 1988 season.

Little did Robinson realize what he had just gotten himself into. The Orioles went 0-21, the longest season-opening losing streak in major league history, before finally winning a game. But only one year after a miserable 107-loss campaign, Robinson was named AL Manager of the Year after guiding the “Why Not?” Orioles to an 87-75 record and a pennant race through the final weekend of September.

Robinson continued to work in baseball for the next decade but figured his managerial days were done. Then MLB offered one more opportunity under most unusual circumstances: Only days before the start of spring training 2002, the league purchased the Expos from Jeffrey Loria, who in turn bought the Marlins from John Henry, who then bought the Red Sox. MLB intended to contract the Montreal franchise (along with the Minnesota Twins) but still needed a manager for that season. The league hired the 66-year-old Robinson.

“It was a career-type move,” he said on a warm February day in Jupiter, Fla., after donning the Expos uniform for the first time. “I don’t have too many career moves left at this age.”

What figured to be a short-term job turned into a five-year adventure that included two surprise pennant races in Montreal, a relocation to Washington and NL Manager of the Year votes in 2002, 2003 and 2005.

He never did lead a team to the postseason, and his career managerial record of 1,065-1,176 never turned any heads. But that was perhaps the only blemish during an otherwise remarkable baseball career.

Though he could hold a grudge the best of them, Robinson always found a way to make peace with his former employers. He wound up having his number retired by the Reds, Orioles and Indians and was inducted into all three franchises’ halls of fame.

And he made peace with the Nationals as well, visibly moved when he saw his name unveiled in the club’s Ring of Honor in 2015. Washington had been only one brief stop during Robinson’s lifelong baseball journey. But it was an important and memorable stop for one of the most accomplished men the game ever saw.

“It’s important to me, because it makes me feel ... wanted a little bit, appreciated,” he said that day. “I’ve always had a special place in my heart for this team.”

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