I don’t believe that, in baseball’s century and a half of history, anyone has had a more distinguished overall career than Frank Robinson. Not if you consider his accomplishments as a player (MVP in both leagues, triple crown winner, sixth on the all-time home run list), manager (1,000 plus wins, manager of the year in 1989), and pioneer (baseball’s first African-American manager).
Robinson’s on-the-field career probably will come to a close tomorrow, when the season ends for the Washington Nationals, who have announced that the 71 year-old legend will not manage the team next year. So this is a good time to reflect on Robinson’s accomplishments and place in baseball history.
Robinson broke into the Major Leagues in 1956, my first year as a baseball fan, with a bang. He won rookie-of-the-year honors and set the rookie record for home runs. Robinson quickly established himself as a major star, but was undervalued due to the shadow cast by Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente (Robinson actually was better, but less charismatic, than the great Clemente).
Robinson emerged from that shadow when Cincinnati traded him to Baltimore in 1966, and he immediately outshined the top American League stars of the day — Al Kaline, Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and teammate Brooks Robinson. Baseball has been played better than Robinson played it in Baltimore, but not by anyone I was able to watch on something like a regular basis. He was particularly dominant in games I happened to see in person, most notably when he hit back-to-back grandslams against the Washington Senators in 1970.
Robinson was a stunning player to witness. Not in the spectacular way that a young Mays was; more perhaps in the way Joe DiMaggio must have been — always making the right play, consistently delivering in the clutch, and providing the leadership for a championship quality team. Except that, whereas DiMaggio played with understated elegance, Robinson played with elegant ferocity.
In 1975, Robinson became baseball’s first black manager. He will end his managerial career having won less than 48 percent of his games. But this unimpressive record must be judged in light of the cards he was dealt — nothing but mediocre or dysfunctional franchises. In three of his four managerial stints, his team improved in his first year. The exception was the 1988 Baltimore Orioles, a terrible club that he took over during a lengthy season-starting losing streak. The next year, the Orioles improved by 33 games and nearly won the AL East. In fact, all of Robinson’s teams improved in his second year except the Montreal Expos who won the same number of games (83, an improvement of 16 games from the year before he became their manager).
Recently, though, the word has been that Robinson is a lousy manager who manages by hunch in a “scientific” era. In a poll of players, something like 20 percent called him the worst manager in baseball. Despite being a Nationals fan, I’m not able to agree or disagree. In my opinion, you have to watch or listen to the majority of a team’s game to assess with reliability its manager. Not because you need anything close to that large a sample of managerial moves, but because you need to know the team that well to judge key moves.
I observe perhaps two dozen of the team’s games from start to finish. Thus, I can only assess Robinson’s performance in a highly imperfect way — by measuring the club’s win total against what might be expected based on my view of its talent. By that measure, Robbie fares ok. In two years in Washington, the Nats have won more than 150 games. You would be hard-pressed to persuade me that this represents under-achievement. And one thing seems clear — despite being out of contention for months, the Nationals never quit on Frank. Just ask the Philadelphia Phillies.
Robinson was hoping to return to the dugout next season, but new ownership wants to go in a new direction, and I don’t fault it. Though very disappointed, Robinson thus far has handled the situation with dignity and class — the same way he’s handled most everything else that’s been thrown his way for the past 51 years.