Frank Robinson, RIP

1956 was my first year as a baseball fan. It was also Frank Robinson’s rookie year. He was Rookie of the Year.

Not only that, he belted 38 home runs, tying the record at the time for rookies. Even now, the only National League rookie to have hit more is Cody Belllinger, who hit 39 in 2017.

Robinson also led the league in being hit by pitches (20). He would never be hit that many times again in a single season, but would be the league leader four more times. He’s ninth all-time on that list, a tribute to his unyielding approach at the plate.

For the first ten years of his career, I was very rarely able to see Robinson play, even on television. I knew him mainly by the numbers on the back of his baseball cards. They told me that in the early to mid-1960s only Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were better non-pitchers. Roberto Clemente probably got more attention, but the numbers we relied on in those days favored Robinson.

So, I think, do the numbers we rely on now. For example, Robinson ranks 24th all time in wins-above-replacement-player (WAR). Clemente is 40th. Mays and Aaron are fifth and seventh, respectively.

In 1966, Cincinnati traded Robinson to Baltimore. Finally, I would get a chance to see Robinson play in person.

It was a mixed blessing. He was a joy to watch, but absolutely crushed the Washington Senators. In 1970, I saw Robinson hit two grand slams in one game against us.

If I judged players solely by what they did in games I saw in person, Robinson would easily be the best player I ever saw — better than Mays, Aaron, Williams, Mantle, and Bonds. Even after his time in Baltimore, when I was a law student in California, I saw Robinson, now playing for the Dodgers, destroy the San Francisco Giants.

Everyone who followed baseball closely in the 1960s and early 1970s probably has a favorite Frank Robinson moment. Some of them likely occurred in 1966, Robinson’s first year with the Orioles.

That season, Robinson was hands-down the best player in baseball. He won the Triple Crown with these numbers: .316 batting average, 49 home runs, 122 RBIs. He also led the league in the two hitting stats people care most about these days. His on-base percentage was .410; his slugging average was .637.

Naturally, Robinson won the American League MVP that year. This made him the first player to win the MVP award in both leagues. He had won it in the National League in 1961. Robinson still holds this distinction.

But my favorite Frank memory is from Game 6 of the 1971 World Series. The Orioles trailed the Pittsburgh Pirates 3 games to 2. It was win or go home for Robinson’s Birds.

The game turned into a pitchers’ duel. After nine innings the teams were tied 2-2.

With one out in the bottom of the tenth and the score still tied, Frank, who had been held hitless, drew a walk. Merv Rettenmund followed with a single to right. Who was the Pirates’ right-fielder? Roberto Clemente, possessor of that legendary throwing arm.

Robinson had to make a split second decision whether to challenge Clemente’s arm and try for third. If he made it, he might then score on an out. If not, he’d have killed the inning, in all likelihood.

Robinson challenged Clemente. Clemente made a great throw, but Robinson beat it, barely.

The next batter, Brooks Robinson, hit a fairly shallow fly ball to center, surely not deep enough to score on. But Vic Davalillo had entered the game in center field. Davilillo had a weak arm, so Frank took a chance.

Fortune favored the brave again. Robinson scored the winning run.

Robinson was the undisputed leader of Orioles teams that won four pennants and two World Series during a six year period. He was a natural candidate to become a manager, all the more so because he trained for the job by managing in Puerto Rico during winters. Everyone expected he would become baseball’s first black manager, it was just of matter of when and with which team.

The answers were 1975 with the Cleveland Indians.

Robinson turned out to be an average manager, in my estimation, but not your average manager. He seemed different — more intense, more demanding, more likely to ignore “the book” (and later the analytics) and rely on his gut.

He had two memorable seasons as a manager, both of which I got to witness from fairly close range. In 1989, he led an Orioles team that had won just 54 games the year before to 87 victories. Those Birds made a strong run at first place in their division, finishing just two games out of first place. Robinson was named American League Manager of the Year.

According to Thomas Boswell, at that time just two teams had ever improved by more games than the ’89 Orioles: the 1903 Giants and the 1946 Red Sox, who shouldn’t really count because they got Ted Williams and other stars back from World War II.

Robinson’s other piece of miracle working occurred in 2005 with the Washington Nationals. Those Nats, who had won only 67 games in 2004, were a rag-tag bunch that had just arrived from Montreal. The team had been under the seemingly negligent proprietorship of MLB.

Inspired, I assume, by Robinson, the 2005 Nats reached the halfway mark of the season in first place with a 50-31 record. The team fell back to earth after that, finishing at 81-81. Still, going .500 with that roster seemed like a remarkable accomplishment.

However, Robinson’s career record as a manager was below .500 (1061-1176). In 2006, the Nats went 71-91. This probably was about the record they deserved based on talent, but Robinson’s seat-of-the-pants managing seemed like an anachronism in the age of analytics.

The Nats let him go. It was probably the right call, but I was unhappy to see it. The Nats were destined to lose for the next few years. I would have preferred to lose with a legend whose entrance on the big stage 50 years earlier corresponded with my introduction to baseball.

It will be a very long time, I think, before another Frank Robinson graces baseball — a ferocious, in-your-face, five-tool superstar with that much passion, plus a relentless commitment to doing things the right way. Who in the game now resembles Frank? I can’t think of anyone. (Bryce Harper fails the “relentless commitment to doing things the right way” part.)

Robinson came along when baseball was still king and at the beginning of the modern civil rights era. A product of that time, Robinson was, on top of everything else, a pioneer. Even if another fiery, passionate five-tool superstar who’s committed to doing things the right way arrives, it won’t be the same.

It just won’t be.