Frank Robinson, Hall of Fame Slugger and First Black Manager, Dies at 83
Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame outfielder who hit 586 home runs and became a racial pioneer as the first black manager in the major leagues, nearly three decades after Jackie Robinson broke modern baseball’s color barrier playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 83.
Major League Baseball announced the death but did not specify the cause. The Baltimore Sun recently reported that Robinson was in the late stages of a long illness.
Playing for 21 seasons, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, Robinson was the only winner of the Most Valuable Player Award in both the National and American Leagues.
He was an intense and often intimidating presence, leaning over the plate from his right-handed stance, daring pitchers to hit him (which they did, 198 times), then retaliating with long drives, “pounding pitchers with fine impartiality,” as the baseball writer Roger Kahn once wrote. He broke up double plays with fearsome slides.
As a player, Robinson insisted that teammates match his own will to win. As a manager, he had little patience with lack of hustle.
Robinson won baseball’s batting triple crown in 1966, hitting 49 home runs, driving in 122 runs and batting .316 in his first season with the Orioles and helping the team capture a World Series championship for the first time in franchise history.
He batted at least .300 in nine different seasons, had 2,943 career hits, drove in 1,812 runs and played on five pennant-winning teams. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first time on the ballot.
Robinson made his debut as the majors’ first black manager with the Cleveland Indians on April 8, 1975, 28 years after Jackie Robinson (no relation) first took the field with the Dodgers. Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow, threw out the ceremonial first ball.
Frank Robinson, who was still an active player, punctuated the historic occasion by hitting a home run in his first at-bat, as the designated hitter, leading the Indians to a 5-3 victory over the Yankees.
He managed for all or parts of 16 seasons, with the Indians (1975-77), the San Francisco Giants (1981-84), the Orioles (1988-91), the Montreal Expos (2002-04) and their successor franchise, the Washington Nationals (2005-06). He never managed a pennant winner, but the Baseball Writers Association of America named him the American League manager of the year in 1989, when his Orioles finished second in the East Division, two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays.
“He had great, great baseball instincts and tremendous physical attributes that allowed him to do everything right on a ball field,” the former Orioles manager Earl Weaver wrote in his memoir, “It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts” (1982).
As Weaver put it: “He never griped and he was always willing to counsel any younger players who sought his advice. At times I know he counseled a few who didn’t seek him out when he heard them complaining. ‘That’s enough!’ he’d holler. ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ ”
The Orioles’ Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer told Baseball Digest in 2006 that Robinson’s arrival in Baltimore via a trade with Cincinnati had kindled the franchise’s resurgence. “If Frank saw something, Frank was going to say something,” Palmer said. “When he came over here, he was the leader. He was the guy. He made us all better.”
Another of the Orioles’ leading pitchers of that time, Dave McNally, was quoted in John Eisenberg’s oral history of the team, “From 33rdStreet to Camden Yards” (2000): “As good as Frank was, it was how hard he played that really made an impact. The intensity the man had was really incredible.”
Frank Robinson was born on Aug. 31, 1935, in Beaumont, Tex., and grew up in Oakland, Calif., the youngest of 10 children. He played baseball at McClymonds High School in Oakland, where he was a basketball teammate of Bill Russell’s. He signed with the Reds’ organization in 1953 and made his major league debut as Cincinnati’s left fielder three years later.
Robinson went on to hit 37 homers, drive in 124 runs and bat .323 for the Reds’ 1961 pennant-winners, and he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player that year. He remained a formidable figure at the plate for Cincinnati through the mid-’60s.
Robinson described his approach at bat in his memoir “Extra Innings” (1988), written with Berry Stainback.
“I was as aggressive at the plate as I was on the basepaths and in the outfield,” he wrote. “I stood as close to the plate as I could and stuck my head out over it so that I could get the best possible view of the ball when it left the pitcher’s hand and so that I could protect the outside corner. If pitchers jammed me, my wrists were quick enough to get around on the pitch.”
In what became one of baseball’s most one-sided deals, the Reds traded Robinson to the Orioles after the 1965 season. Cincinnati received pitcher Milt Pappas and two other players, none destined to make much impact. Bill DeWitt, the Reds’ general manager, was quoted as saying that Robinson was “an old 30,” suggesting that he was past his prime.
But Robinson was named M.V.P. for the American League and M.V.P. for the World Series in 1966, when the Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers with a lineup also including Boog Powell at first base, Davey Johnson at second and the future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson at third.
The Orioles also had a superb pitching staff led by McNally, Palmer, Wally Bunker and Steve Barber. Robinson hit two home runs in that Series, both off Don Drysdale, the first in Game 1 and the second in the Series-clinching Game 4, a 1-0 Baltimore victory.
In his six seasons with the Orioles, he helped lead the team to four pennants and two World Series championships.
On June 26, 1970, Robinson hit two consecutive grand slams for the Orioles against the second Washington Senators franchise at RFK Stadium.
Before managing the Indians, Robinson had been the first African-American manager of an integrated professional team outside organized baseball’s structure — Santurce of the Puerto Rican winter league. He held the post for several seasons, beginning in 1968-69, to gain experience toward becoming a major league manager.
“The black players thought I was getting on them more than the white players,” The New York Times quoted him as saying while he was in that post. “But it was always said in a joking way.”
Robinson was traded by the Orioles to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1971 season and later played with the California Angels and briefly with the Indians. After being named manager, he continued to play as a designated hitter.
When the Indians announced in October 1974 that Robinson would become their manager, a milestone event in baseball’s race relations, he received a congratulatory telegram from President Gerald R. Ford.
“I don’t think I was hired because I was black,” Robinson said. “I hope not. I think I’ve been hired because of my ability.”
He added, “The only wish I could have is that Jackie Robinson could be here today to see this happen.”
Jackie Robinson had urged the hiring of a black manager in the majors when he threw out the ceremonial first ball at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. He died later that October at age 53.
When Frank Robinson lined up with his team in front of the Indians’ dugout at their 1975 season opener before a crowd of 56,204 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, he received a resounding ovation.
“One hundred thousand fans could not have been louder,” he recalled in his memoir. “It was the biggest ovation I ever received, and it almost brought tears to my eyes. After all the years of waiting to become a big league manager — ignored because so many team owners felt that fans would not accept a black manager — I was on the job and people were loudly pleased.”
The Indians had been a losing team for years, and Robinson’s ball clubs finished fourth in the American League East in 1975 and 1976. After a 26-31 start in 1977, he was fired.
Reporters asked if he thought race had anything to do with his dismissal. “If race was a factor,” he told Mr. Kahn for a column in The Times, “I’m not aware of it. I never heard a serious remark about race. I never heard secondhand of anyone making a remark. I have no bitterness about Cleveland. I did the best I could.”
When Robinson returned to the managing ranks with the 1981 Giants, the path he pioneered had been followed by two others. Larry Doby, who became the first black player in the American League with the 1947 Indians, was named manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1978. Maury Wills, best known for starring with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was named the Seattle Mariners’ manager in 1980.
After finding modest success managing the Giants and the Orioles, Robinson twice had winning records with an Expos franchise that had been taken over by Major League Baseball and allowed only a relatively meager payroll. After managing the Washington Nationals for two seasons, Robinson held administrative posts in the baseball commissioner’s office under Bud Selig and later Rob Manfred.
President George W. Bush presented Robinson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, at a White House ceremony in 2005, citing him for “extraordinary achievements as a baseball player and manager and for setting a lasting example of character in athletics.”
The Orioles, Reds and Indians have erected statues of Robinson at their stadiums.
Robinson’s wife was Barbara Ann Cole. They had a son, Frank Kevin, and a daughter, Nichelle. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
Robinson entered the Hall of Fame together with Hank Aaron, baseball’s home run king at the time. Rachel Robinson attended the ceremony, and she was asked about her husband’s legacy in leading the way for the game’s first generation of great black players.
“Jackie would not want to upstage them,” she said. “But they represent the epitome of what Jackie wanted: excellence.”