On the day that the late Frank Robinson became the first African-American to manage a major league game — April 8, 1975, Opening Day of the first of the two seasons Robinson served as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians — he initially chose not to put himself in the lineup. But Phil Seghi, the general manager of the Indians, implored Robinson to play that day, maintaining, “Frank, this is your day.”
So Robinson changed his mind and wrote his own name in at the No. 2 spot in the batting order. In his first at-bat that day, in front of 56,715 at Cleveland Stadium, he fell behind in the count, 0-2, to the Yankees’ Doc Medich.
“Then he throws me this bastard slider just off the outside part of the plate,” Robinson said. “I thought, ‘This SOB is trying to strike me out on three pitches … on my day! He’s trying to embarrass me … on my day. No one does that to me.'”
On the next pitch, Robinson hit a home run to left-center field.
That was the essence of Frank Robinson, as ferocious a competitor as ever played the game. No one played harder than Frank Robinson; no one valued winning more than Frank Robinson.
After he was traded from Cincinnati to the Orioles in 1966, he won the Triple Crown, the MVP and the World Series in the same season. And his new teammate in Baltimore, Brooks Robinson, said, “Frank taught us all how to win.”
With that 1966 season, Frank Robinson became the first — and remains the only — player to win the MVP in both leagues. He also finished third in the MVP voting twice, fourth twice and in the top 10 a total of 10 times. He made 13 All-Star teams. He won National League Rookie of the Year in 1956, hitting .290 with 38 home runs at age 20 for the Reds. And while he never led his league in a Triple Crown category other than in 1966 when he managed it in all three, he led his league in slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ four times, including three years in a row (1960-62). And he led his league in runs scored three times, in being hit by pitches seven times and in intentional walks four times.
When Robinson retired after the 1976 season, his 586 home runs trailed only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Robinson is one of only eight players in history to accumulate at least 2,900 hits and 500 home runs; another 14 home runs and 57 hits would have placed him with Aaron, Mays and Alex Rodriguez as the only players in history with 600 home runs and 3,000 hits.
Robinson is one of the most underrated superstar players ever to play the game.
His competitiveness and talent began to blossom at McClymonds High School in Oakland, California, where he played on the basketball team with the great Bill Russell. Robinson made it to the baseball big leagues in 1956, having experienced racism in the minor leagues that, at times, fueled both his anger and his will to win. Robinson said, in retirement, “We learned that the best way to get back at them was to beat them on the field. That’s what Jackie [Robinson] taught us.”
Robinson became one of the game’s best players and most confident hitters, a man fiercely proud of his accomplishments. I once asked him about the year he hit 50 doubles, and Robinson half-jokingly snapped back, “51 doubles.”
I asked him once how well he’d hit Juan Marichal, and he said, “Oh, I hit him well.”
He said the same about Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, and just about any pitcher you mentioned. No pitcher was going to beat Frank Robinson; he wasn’t going to allow it. And if one of them hit him — he was hit by a pitch 198 times — or knocked him down, Robinson just dusted himself off, got back in the box and hit the ball hard somewhere. He always seemed to play his best when he was angry. And nothing angered him more than the Reds trading him to Baltimore after the 1965 season for pitcher Milt Pappas and two others, claiming that Robinson was “an old 31.”
“Old?” Robinson once told me. “I wasn’t old. I was just coming into my prime as a player.”
Once, in an old-timers’ game in Texas in 1987, Robinson, age 51, was facing the massive Jim Bibby, who had been out of the major leagues for only a few years and was still throwing hard. He knocked Robinson down with the first pitch. Robinson dusted himself off, got back in the box and hit a ringing line drive over the fence in left-center for a home run … in an old-timers’ game! Afterward, I asked Robinson how many home runs he could hit if he was given a month to get in shape and then got 500 at-bats as the Orioles’ designated hitter.
“Thirty!” he said, defiantly.
“Frank,” I said, “you’re 51 years old!”
“Thirty-five!” he said, angrily.
Robinson took that competitiveness into the dugout as a manager. He managed mostly lousy teams in Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore, Montreal and Washington, but went 1,065-1,176 (.475) in his career. Buddy Bell, one of his players in Cleveland, once said that Robinson “was the best judge of talent that I’ve ever seen.” In 1989, Robinson guided the Orioles, who had lost 107 games the previous season, to 87 wins, and nearly won the AL East with a bunch of young players. He was named AL Manager of the Year that season.
I will remember him as a manager more for the 1988 season, though. That year, he replaced Cal Ripken Sr. after only six games, all losses. Under Robinson, the Orioles lost their next 15 games, too, to run their record to 0-21 — by far the most consecutive losses to open a season in major league history. After consecutive loss No. 20, a heartbreaker on the road to the Twins, Robinson took the beat writers out to dinner after the game. I asked him if he’d received any calls of support from anyone of interest during the historically bad start.
“Yeah,” he said. “The president called me today.”
Robinson was a kidder. “Seriously,” I said. “Has anyone interesting called you?”
He repeated, “The president.”
I challenged him again, and finally he yelled at me over dinner, “Damn it, I just told you twice. The president of the United States called me today.”
“What did the president say?” I asked.
“He said, ‘Frank, I know what you’re going through,'” Robinson said. “And I said, ‘Mr. President, you have no idea what I’m going through.'”
Frank Robinson went through plenty in his career, from racism to a controversial trade to being the first African-American manager in history, and later to becoming one of the highest-ranking African-American executives in Major League Baseball as a special assistant to commissioner Bud Selig. But nothing captured him better than that Opening Day in 1975, when Robinson became the first African-American manager ever and then went deep … on his day.
No one tried to embarrass Frank Robinson and got away with it. No one.