This is the second part of my tribute to Frank Robinson, my personal favorite baseball player who died of bone cancer this past February 7th. In remembering him, I will always think about 1966. That year, I got the opportunity to see him play in person. And more importantly, after being defined as “past his prime” and traded, Frank Robinson had the best year of his career.
The Baltimore Orioles did not have a strong history with African-American players since coming into the American League in 1954 when a group of Baltimore investors bought the failing St. Louis Browns franchise and moved it to the city by Chesapeake Bay. The team followed the American League’s slow pace of racial integration in the 1950s. Despite building a strong minor league system, the Orioles’ had not developed an African-American star player. Joe Durham and Jehosie Heard, in 1954, were the first African-Americans to play for the Orioles; both having only brief non-impactful careers. Two former Negro League players had solid seasons with the Orioles in the late 1950s. Pitcher Connie Johnson won 14 games in 1957 and first baseman Bob Boyd hit .300 three consecutive seasons (1956 – 1958). In the early 1960s outfielder Sam Bowens had one good season, 1964, hitting 22 home runs in 139 games. But despite that history, after finishing 3rd the previous two seasons, Baltimore Orioles’ management believed acquiring Frank Robinson could put them over the top in 1966. He hit a double his first At Bat in spring training starting a magical season that would prove them correct.
On May 27th that year, while sitting in the upper deck bleachers far down the right field line at the Kansas City Athletics’ Municipal Stadium, I cheerfully saw Frank Robinson take his right field position; I saw the strut. In his first At Bat, he crowded the plate just as I had seen him do on TV; challenging the pitcher. In the 4th inning he got hit by the pitch, one of the 198 times of his career. The next game I attended when the Orioles came to town Robinson went hitless, but the talk of him winning the Triple Crown had begun. Each day I looked at the newspaper baseball box scores to check his progress. Robinson finished ahead of 4-time American League home run champion Harmon Killebrew 49 to 39. He finished ahead of Tony Oliva, who had won the American League batting title the last two seasons, .316 to .307. With also leading the League with 122 RBI, Robinson won the Triple Crown.
My high school drafting teacher brought a TV to watch the World Series. From my front row drafting desk I saw Frank Robinson’s 1st inning two run home run off Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Don Drysdale that set the tone for the Orioles’ four games sweeping of the Series. He hit another home run off Drysdale to win Game Four. Named American League Most Valuable Player in 1966, Robinson is the only one to receive MVP honors in both leagues, winning it while with Cincinnati in 1961. During Robinson’s time in Baltimore, the Orioles also won American League pennants in 1969 – 71 and were World Series champions in 1970.
Frank Robinson’s autobiography is called “My Life is Baseball” (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 1975). That title reflects a true picture of his relationship with the game. Near the end of his playing career in 1974, he became the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball. The Cleveland Indians were the first of four teams in Robinson’s 16 year career as a manager, 1,065 wins and 1,176 losses. He had the reputation as having a “hard-nosed”, “old school” approach at managing, although he did mellow in the in the way he handled players as he got older. I remember Robinson’s competitive spirit on display when seeing the Indians play the Kansas City Royals in 1975. Throughout the National Anthem, Robinson jawed back and forth with the home plate umpire while they both looked up at the flag. He had his critics, but also gained the highest respect and esteem in the Major League Baseball community for his overall accomplishments in the sport. During his career, Frank Robinson served as a batting coach, an outfield coach, a consultant for club owners, and held positions in the Office of Major League Baseball.
I will miss my favorite baseball player. Playing on my high school’s first baseball team the spring of 1967 and throughout the amateur summer leagues, I chose # 20 as my uniform number. I still have his 1959, 1960, 1964 Topps baseball cards (lost 1965s) and also the Post Cereal Frank Robinson cards for 1961 – 63. I still have memories of that 1966 season. Also, I still have that vision of my first seeing of him circling the bases after that home run in the 1959 All-Star Game. Frank Robinson had the run, that strut, I will never forget.
From 1959 – 1962 there were two Major League All-Star Games played with most of the revenue from the second going for players’ pension fund. During the telecast of the second All-Star Game in 1959, played on August 3 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, I saw Frank Robinson for the first time. I had only heard about him when my father and older brothers talked about African-American baseball players. However; three days before my 8th birthday, I got my first real look at #20 that afternoon on our RCA black & white TV screen. The 83 years old former outfielder and manager died this past February 7th. I know this post will get lost in the thousands of verbal and written tributes to him and his accomplishments in baseball. But I have to write it. I took the death of Frank Robinson, my favorite all-time baseball player, # 20, personally. In remembering him, the following thoughts come to my mind.
First, I will remember Frank Robinson as the first African-American star Major League baseball player that did not get his start in Negro League baseball. Signed out of McClymonds High School in Oakland, California by the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1953, he faced the existing racial discrimination in professional baseball in the 1950s; in the minor leagues (SALLY League 1955) and in spring training (Tampa, Florida). Before national sportswriters voted Robinson National League Rookie of the Year in 1956 when he hit .293 with 38 home runs, the previous African-American winners were all former Negro League players: Jackie Robinson (1947), Don Newcombe (1949), Sam Jethroe (1950), Willie Mays (1951), Joe Black (1952), and Jim Gilliam (1953). In 1961 Frank Robinson won National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors (.323 BA, 37 HRs, 124 RBI, 22 SB) leading Cincinnati to win the National League pennant. The African- American MVP Award winners up until that time were all former Negro League players: Jackie Robinson (1949), Roy Campanella (1951, 1953, 1955), Willie Mays (1954), Henry Aaron (1957), and Ernie Banks (1958, 1959). Frank Robinson followed the path in the 1950s set by Jackie Robinson and other former Negro League players to have a Hall of Fame (1982 inductee) baseball career.
Secondly, I will always remember how Frank Robinson ran. During that second 1959 Major League All-Star Game, Robinson hit a 5th inning home run off Early Wynn. The way he circled the bases in his sleeveless Cincinnati Redlegs (they were not called the Reds back in 1959) uniform wearing a red short-sleeved jersey underneath, got my attention. To me, Robinson had a distinctive running style; straight-backed, stiff-legged, pumping his arms up and down at his hips. It seemed like a confident strut or pimp, a reflection of his highly competitive aggressive approach to playing baseball, and it stuck in my mind about him. I still have an image of other stars from that era; Mickey Mantle swinging his bat with all his body’s physical strength, Willie Mays running from under his cap, Henry Aaron playing with such ease and grace he hardly seem to break a sweat, and Ernie Banks’ smiling “let’s play two” joy about the game. But Frank Robinson, to me, had the run; the strut.
Then I will always remember Frank Robinson’s best season, 1966. Cincinnati’s trade of him to the Baltimore Orioles on December 9, 1965 turned the American League on its head. The team rosters of that 1959 All-Star Game when I first saw him reflected the slower pace of racial diversity in the junior circuit at that time. The American League All-Star team had three African-American or dark-skinned Latino ball players as compared to nine for the National League. It had been twelve years since Jackie Robinson erased the color line in 1947, but two American League clubs had just become integrated; the Detroit Tigers with Ozzie Virgil in 1958 and the Boston Red Sox with Pumpsie Green in 1959. In 1963, Elston Howard of the New York Yankees, a product of Negro League baseball, became the first African-American to receive MVP honors in the American League. In ten years with Cincinnati, Robinson hit 324 home runs while averaging 100 RBIs and a .301 batting average. However General Manager Bill Dewitt, believing him past his prime and calling him “an old 30 years of age with an old body”, in what would turn out to be one of the worst trades in baseball history sent Frank Robinson to the American League.
My tribute to the late Frank Robinson will continue in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
All images used for this post were taken from internet web sites