The great Frank Robinson died last week. He was 83. A Hall of Famer and the only man to win MVP in both leagues, he was one of the sport’s great hitters and fiercest personalities. Robinson was also the first black manager in Major League Baseball, a feat he might have held in higher regard than any other.
Robinson’s offensive exploits are so vast that listing them all seems silly, but for fun let’s do it anyway. For his career, he slashed .294/.389/.537 for a whopping 154 OPS+ and 107.3 career bWAR. That, my friends, is a hell of a baseball player. His career numbers leap off the screen, but his performance gets even more impressive when we remember how pitcher-tilted the sport was in the ’60s, Robinson’s heyday.
You know about 1968, the fabled “Year of the Pitcher”, right? In 1968, the league’s ERA was 2.98. 2.98! That number hasn’t crept below 3 since. So what happened? Well, to be fair, the league was stacked with aces, but the mound was also a full five inches taller.
“I remember 1968, it felt like every pitcher was right on top of you that year,” Hawk Harrelson said told ESPN.com’s Tim Kurkjian in 2011. “It felt like they weren’t 60 feet, 6 inches away. It felt like they were 40 feet away.”
The height was lowered for the 1969 season and the tide receded almost immediately. The ’68 season sapped Robinson of his home run power, but he still got on base at a .390 clip, and one season later with the playing field quite literally more level, he doubled his home run total from the year prior. Even a ridiculous mound couldn’t stop Frank Robinson.
From 1959 to 1973, Robinson produced an OPS+ of 160. Remember folks, an OPS+ of 100 is average. Also, in a testament to his skill, Robinson struck out just 18 more times than he walked in those 2,129 games. He was by no means just a power hitter.
Robinson’s reputation spoke for itself. He hunched over the plate to occupy the inside corner and to have a better look at the pitcher’s release point. He happily broke up double plays with aggressive slides that in today’s game would lead to days of silly coverage. He was awesome.
Reds fans, you might want to look away for this next part.
We must discuss the trade. Claiming that Robinson was slowing down (the actual verbiage used is debated), Cincinnati Reds GM Bill DeWitt traded the great Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for three guys who are decidedly not the great Frank Robinson. In fairness, Milt Pappas had a nice career (although he disappointed in Cincy). The thing is, Robinson wasn’t exactly collapsing. He had just hit 33 home runs and whipped up a 151 OPS+ in 1965, his final season as a Red.
It bears mentioning that Robinson was not always the easiest guy to deal with. He had some arrests and threatened to quit baseball in 1963, for example, which was kind of the only way players could assert leverage at the time. Still, it would be unfair to suggest DeWitt had no reasons for the move, but ultimately it was a disaster. If you Google “worst baseball trades” you’ll see this, the ill-fated Jeff Bagwell and of course the Babe Ruth deals all listed prominently.
Part of why it went so poorly for the Reds speaks to Robinson’s personality. One can look at his career record and see the trade lit a spark in him. If DeWitt was right and Robinson was nearing the end of his peak, the trade pushed him to an additional six or seven years of dominance. His first year as an Oriole is an all-time great season. He burned down the American League, man: .316/.410/.637, 49 home runs, 198 OPS+, won MVP. He did basically the same thing in 1967, too.
Robinson spent his last two seasons as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians. His hiring as manager was a huge moment in baseball race relations, so much so that the sitting president, Gerald Ford, sent a telegram congratulating Robinson.
But to understand just what this meant to him, we have to listen to what Robinson wrote in his memoir about Opening Day in 1975.
“One hundred thousand fans could not have been louder,” he said. “It was the biggest ovation I ever received, and it almost brought tears to my eyes. After all the years of waiting to become a big league manager — ignored because so many team owners felt that fans would not accept a black manager — I was on the job and people were loudly pleased.”
Rest in peace, Frank.