Frank Robinson combined power, grace in stellar career
In December 1965, Cincinnati Reds general manager Bill DeWitt traded Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Milt Pappas, Dick Simpson and Jack Baldschun. The thought, DeWitt admitted, was that the 1961 MVP Robinson was getting old, his body was breaking down and the Reds pitching staff needed to be bolstered.
“Robinson is not a young 30,” DeWitt said at the time. “If he had been 26, we might not have traded him.”
Decades later, the lopsided deal would become a Susan Sarandon punchline in the movie “Bull Durham,” but in the moment, it did little more than stand to tick the notoriously surly Robinson off.
“I can’t argue with DeWitt if he says he traded me to strengthen his ball club, but that comment about me being an old 30 is hitting below the belt,” Robinson told The Associated Press several months after the trade was completed. “It was uncalled for.
“It seems I suddenly got old last fall between the end of the season and Dec. 9. You can tell DeWitt this for me: I’ll play more ball games this year for Baltimore than any of the outfielders he’s got over there.”
Robinson wasn’t exactly right. He played 155 regular-season games that year, while Reds center fielder Vada Pinson played 156. But what Robinson did in those 155 games — earn MVP honors with the first Triple Crown season in 10 years — was more than enough.
A World Series MVP came next as Robinson hit two home runs in a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and to hear his old teammates tell it, they saw it all coming from the first day Robinson joined them in spring training.
“When we picked up Frank, he came into camp a little bit late and Hank Bauer was the manager and he said to Frank, ‘Do you want to bat?’” recalled Davey Johnson, who played with Robinson from 1966-71. “He said, ‘Sure,’ and went up against Dick Hall — we had a little intrasquad going — and hit a home run, and we all said, ‘Man, we’ve got something here.’”
The following season, Robinson seemed poised to match his Triple Crown output from the year before and was leading the league in batting, home runs and RBI until an injury suffered during a collision with White Sox second baseman Al Weis cost Robinson six weeks and left him with blurred vision.
Still, Robinson finished the year with a .311 average, 30 homers and 94 RBI — second, fourth and third in the AL, respectively — while Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski won a Triple Crown of his own.
“He was fun to watch, and he just knew how to play the game,” Johnson said. “I learned so much from him. I remember, when he was on the on deck circle, he’d say, ‘I see what the pitcher’s doing,’ and then he’d do it. He taught me a lot, and I can’t say enough about him. … When you win the Triple Crown, you lead by example, and that’s what he did.”
Over his final four seasons in Baltimore, Robinson continued to make DeWitt rue the day he traded him. Robinson led Baltimore to three more World Series appearances and one more win, in 1970 against Cincinnati after DeWitt sold the club.
Robinson retired after the 1976 season with 2,943 hits and 586 home runs, and in a time and place in our country’s history where black players were still being judged because of their race, the color of Robinson’s skin became irrelevant.
“He was just admired by all of us,” Johnson said. “He played with a chip on his shoulder, and he taught us that, and he taught us that you’re only as good as your next at-bat. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, only what you do now.
“He led by example and I never looked at him as not being the same as me. He was just a great player.”
Those lessons became part of Robinson’s mantra as a manager, too, starting in 1975, as the Cleveland Indians player-manager and the first black manager in baseball history, and in stints with the Giants, Orioles and during the Expos’ transition to the Nationals in the early 2000s. His record as a skipper was 1065-1176
“Sometimes when you’re a superstar and you become a manager, you have a hard time dealing with guys who have less ability, but I think he was just very demanding,” said Johnson, who won 1,372 games as a manager. “That’s the way he was as a player with his teammates, and that’s how he was as a manager … and he demanded as much of himself as he did his players.”
Robinson’s number would later be retired in Cincinnati and Baltimore, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982. He will go down as one of the finest hitters to play the game … and we might well have Bill DeWitt’s poor evaluation of an all-time great player to thank.
(February is Black History Month and FOXSports.com will feature athletes who made significant contributions on and off the field in their lives.)