There have been a handful of players in every team sport whose impact and influence extend beyond the athletic world and into society at large. Frank Robinson was one of those, someone much more than just a great baseball player. He was a fierce competitor and also someone who devoted his life to the sport and tried to help it eradicate some of its ills and correct past injustices.
Robinson, who died last week at 83, enjoyed an exceptional 21 year career as a player. He remains the only player in the sport’s history who has won Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues. He was voted the National League’s MVP in 1961 while with the Cincinnati Reds. That season he hit .323 with 37 home runs and 124 runs batted in. Yet amazingly only four years later, after the 1965 season ended, the Reds decided that he was somehow past his prime and traded him to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Milt Pappas and two other forgettable players.
His first season in Baltimore was one for the ages. Robinson won the Triple Crown, leading the Orioles to the American League title and then a World Series crown that saw them sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers. Robinson was voted both regular season and World Series MVP.
He played six years with the Orioles, during which they won four American League championships and two World Series. But after being traded and playing with two other teams, he was named a player/manager in 1974 for the Cleveland Indians. He became MLB’s first Black manager. Robinson would eventually manage four other teams. But after finishing a lengthy tenure in that vein, he joined the Commissioner’s office.
Robinson would work for both Bud Selig and Rob Manfred, holding various administrative positions. Throughout that time he was also an unnamed and unofficial ambassador for MLB, trying to convince gifted Black multisport athletes to choose baseball rather than football and basketball for professional careers in athletics. Sadly, his efforts to lure more Blacks into the sport were mixed at best.
Robinson earned other honors outside baseball. The greatest was when he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2005. In addition, the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians all erected statues in his honor at their home ball parks. When Robinson retired as an active player he was fourth on the all-time home run list with 586. He’s currently 10th. Robinson was also a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, but wasn’t a unanimous choice due to the silly prohibition at the time that no player had ever been voted unanimously into the Hall so some writers would deliberately leave off their ballot someone who was a lock to keep that ridiculous tradition alive. Fortunately it ended this season with Mariano Rivera.
However perhaps the one negative involving Frank Robinson’s legacy concerns MLB’s current state of affairs and Black managers. Robinson became the first only two years after Jackie Robinson had urged the sport to break its color barrier at the managerial level when throwing out the first ball for Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. Robinson died later that October at 53 and never got the chance to see Frank Robinson manage.
Flash forward to 2019 and MLB has one Black manager. That’s not the kind of progress either Jackie or Frank Robinson would admire. For all the tributes that they paid Frank Robinson last week, the best way they could honor his legacy would be to correct that sorry record