The Unsung Excellence Of Frank Robinson
It was always curious to me as a kid as to why Frank Robinson was always introduced as a hall-of-famer, but no one seemed to ever talk about the man unless he made an appearance somewhere. And even then, it was, “Hall-of-Famer and only man to be voted most valuable player in both the American and National Leagues.”
And that was it. No context, no stories, nothing. Maybe, you’d get a mention he was Major League Baseball’s first African American manager. Maybe, because I’m on the West Coast and he played primarily for the Cincinatti Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, baseball folks out here didn’t see him play much. And, unlike Willie Mays, who gets trotted out by the Giants every chance they get, Robinson’s appearances on a national scale seemed few and far between.
It’s a shame, really. Because, from 1956 to 1971, he was one of the most consistently-great players in the game. Not just really good.
He broke in with Cincinatti as one of the first African American ballplayers and nearly won the MVP award with a .290, 38 home run, 122 runs-scored campaign. He led the league in runs and hit-by-pitch. He’d go on to hit .300 nine times, lead the league in slugging four times and on-base-plus-slugging four times.
His last year as a Red? .296, .386, .540 with 172 hits and 33 home runs. Unsung even then apparently, Cincinatti let him walk after nine top- top-20 MVP seasons.
He immediately made them regret the decision by, as an Oriole, winning the MVP in his first season.
Maybe his greatness was diminished by some average to mediocre final seasons in Los Angeles, California, and Cleveland. Hell, I was a Dodger fan growing up and had no idea he even played for the team.
His career as a manager wasn’t sparkling to be sure, but the teams really weren’t that great that he managed. You think Cleveland mid 70’s and Giants early 80’s, and it wasn’t like they turned into world-beaters after he left. I think a winning percentage of .475 maybe isn’t all that bad considering. He had two winning seasons with the Montreal Expos for crying out loud and that’s not easy to do. In fact, each team he managed had at least one season of .500 or better. Not great, maybe, but pretty decent, and good enough to win manager of the year with the ’89 Orioles.
And, he certainly helped persuade a generation of fans that African American managers were fully capable of leading winning teams. It’s almost laughable now to think that was a public argument just 40 years ago. He’s never received the full credit for that. Maybe he does now.
So, on the day we hear of his passing, I am left with a little extra sadness regarding a man who’s play on the field and class off of it should have received more praise.
Hat’s off to you, sir. Wish we’d appreciated you a little more while you were here.