Frank Robinson managed among us not so long ago, in 2005 and 2006, skippering the Washington Nationals upon their transfer from Montreal. As Mets fans, we mostly rolled our eyes at or rooted against Robinson when he poked his head out of the RFK or Shea dugout. He was the opposing manager trying to beat the Mets. We couldn’t have that. Almost without exception we roll our eyes at and root against every manager who tries to beat the Mets.
Yet simmering underneath the surface as the Expos morphed into their new identity was an inescapable constant: this was Frank Robinson. It didn’t matter who he was managing or what he was doing. This was Frank Robinson. It bears repeating. Amid average, run-of-the-mill baseball games between the Mets and the Nationals, one of the people in the middle of everything — holding a lineup card, making a pitching change, having a word with an umpire — was Frank Robinson.
Do you realize how incredible that was? How incredible that is? Frank Robinson was in baseball his entire adult life, yet Frank Robinson was no ordinary baseball lifer. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with being an ordinary baseball lifer. As baseball fans we memorize more about ordinary baseball lifers’ careers than they probably do themselves. Being hired to manage a major league team is the pinnacle of professional achievement for the vast majority of ordinary baseball lifers.
In 2005 and 2006, it was just something else Frank Robinson was doing. We were compelled to treat the sight of him making moves as ordinary. Just another manager in just another season.
If you were a baseball fan born in the second half of the twentieth century, you learned the name Frank Robinson quickly and you weren’t likely to forget it. He was a towering figure from his beginnings in the game, an enormous figure throughout his tenure in the game. The game cannot be thoroughly explained from 1956 onward without Frank Robinson’s name coming up repeatedly.
He was National League Rookie of the Year for the Cincinnati Redlegs when, as Terry Cashman would so elegantly put it in “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke),” there was one Robby going out, one coming in. Frank debuted in Jackie’s last season, too much of the nation and its pastime still mired in the repugnant attitudes of institutionalized racism. Jackie’s story of fighting back (and not necessarily being able to fight as much as he would have preferred) is rightly celebrated to this day. The stories of black players whose careers followed in his wake encountering the same insidious obstacles sometimes get overlooked. Steve Jacobson, the former Newsday columnist, examined their trials in Carrying Jackie’s Torch: The Players Who Integrated Baseball — and America. As Jacobson noted, Frank’s excelling on the field might have earned him plaudits, like winning the MVP as he led the Reds to a first-place finish in 1961, but it cut him only so much slack in the town where he starred.
“They clinched the pennant in Chicago,” Jacobson wrote, “and Cincinnati was dancing in the streets when the Reds got off their plane and headed to a downtown club for a team party. Robinson and [Vada] Pinson got out of their taxi at the club as they went to the door, the owner intercepted them. They couldn’t come in. Negroes weren’t welcome. It was 1961 in Cincinnati.”
Frank lasted ten years as a Red (garnering MVP votes in nine of them), taking him to age thirty, which is hard to forget in baseball lore because Cincinnati general manager Bill DeWitt decided, in terms so quotable that they are invoked regularly to this day, that Robinson was an old thirty. The right fielder had just belted 33 home runs, drove in 113 runs, scored 109 runs and batted .296, but OK, sure. DeWitt traded Robinson to Baltimore for pitcher Milt Pappas. It’s worth pointing out that Pappas had been a fine pitcher and would continue to be quite reliable for several seasons beyond 1965, finishing his career with more than 200 wins.
Yet it still goes down as one of the most lopsided trades of all time because Frank Robinson, at 31, put up a season for the ages, young or old: 49 home runs, 122 runs batted in, 122 runs scored, .316 average, all of it leading the American League to earn him the triple crown and vaulting the Orioles to their first-ever pennant and world championship. Frank became the first to win the MVP in each league, a feat that hasn’t been matched yet. Think about how superstars nowadays move fairly frequently between the National and American, which they didn’t do then, and consider that what Robinson did in 1961 and 1966 remains a singular standard for individual performance.
Consider also that Baltimore in 1966 wasn’t so far removed from Cincinnati in 1961. The future Hall of Famer who was transforming the local ballclub into a nearly unparalleled powerhouse met resistance when he tried moving his family into an otherwise white neighborhood. In defying DeWitt’s assessment of his abilities, Robinson had already proven age wasn’t the most accurate of gauges. Meanwhile, America had passed its 190th birthday, yet it surely had a lot of maturing left to do.
The two-time MVP wouldn’t be stopped. In concert with another Robinson, third baseman Brooks, Frank led the Orioles to three more pennants, with each league champion totaling more than 100 wins. It is not hyperbole to say Frank Robinson led those clubs. He did it with his style of play (manager Hank Bauer observed that once his teammates saw Frank slide hard into second during Spring Training, “pretty soon they’re all doing it”) and he did it with the kind of clubhouse presence that couldn’t be quantified. One of the legends of the Baltimore Orioles you learned if you were growing up in the midst of their AL dynasty was that of the kangaroo court, the Honorable Judge Frank Robinson presiding, a mop atop his head to make certain all who had business before him knew he meant business.
It was both as silly as it sounds yet serious enough to matter. Kangaroo court convened only after wins so every Oriole was in a good mood. Mistakes were brought before the bench with the intent to assure they wouldn’t happen again. A player could be fined for missing a sign or not getting a runner over or not paying attention. The team served as jury, Frank keeping the mood light. Fines were levied. Lessons were learned. Games were won.
Oh, how they were won. When the leagues split themselves into divisions, the Orioles took out a lease on the Eastern Division penthouse, going all but unchallenged in their native habitat in 1969, 1970 and 1971, winning those first three flags by 19, 15 and 12 games, respectively. The American League Championship Series — we just called them “the playoffs” back then — was similarly easy pickin’s, with the O’s sweeping three from the Twins twice and the A’s once, evoking their four-game dusting of the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series. In the middle, the Orioles overwhelmed the burgeoning Big Red Machine in five games to take the world championship in 1970 (and deny the team that cast off Robinson). They fell short in 1971, losing the seventh game to the Pirates after Robinson, forever sliding hard, practically willed Baltimore a win in the tenth inning of Game Six. Frank had walked with one out, took third on a single to center and scored on a sacrifice fly to center.
Not that simple exactly. As F. Robby himself recounted in John Eisenberg’s From 33rd Street to Camden Yards: An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles, “Both of my Achilles tendons were hurting, really aching. My hamstring was bugging me, too.” He booked his own trip from first to third: “I hit second and I said, ‘I’m gone.’ I didn’t need a coach.” His headfirst slide beat Vic Davalillo’s throw. “Then Brooks came up and hit a 250-foot fly ball. Billy Hunter’s standing there and says ‘Go!’ and I said, ‘What?’ I took off.” This throw from Davalillo was slowed just enough by a bounce off the mound to allow Frank to slide in under Manny Sanguillen’s tag, a tableau captured the following spring when Topps released its World Series cards .
The 1971 World Series is remembered primarily as Roberto Clemente’s showcase, sparking the Pirates to their championship from every angle, and that’s a legitimate portrayal, but I can still see Frank Robinson winning Game Six with that slide. It was celebrated that Saturday afternoon because it was what we were regularly told Frank Robinson did as a matter of course. Frank Robinson led the Orioles. Frank Robinson played all out. Frank Robinson won.
Maybe all he didn’t do was read his most current scouting reports. Whatever Robinson knew about the New York Mets from his time concurrent with theirs in the National League between 1962 and 1965 was woefully out of date by October of 1969. Frank and his teammates had a date with the Mets in the upcoming World Series. After 109 wins and a dismissal of Minnesota in the first ALCS, maybe they thought all they needed to learn was what time to show up and take four more games.
“Under the frank regime of [Earl] Weaver,” George Vecsey wrote in Joy in Mudville, “the Orioles were casual enough to admit they didn’t know much about the Mets. They didn’t know who played third base, for example.” The Judge also wasn’t shy about showing how little he’d studied the Mets’ depth chart.
“Bring on Ron Gaspar!” Frank Robinson dared the NL champs in the victorious ALCS clubhouse.
Young Merv Rettenmund dared correct his elder: “Rod, stupid!”
Duly noted, Robinson more or less said. What he actually said was, “Bring on Rod Stupid!”
The prevailing Oriole attitude didn’t begin to look dumb until Game Two, when one of those anonymous Mets third basemen, Ed Charles, scored what turned out to be the winning run in the top of the ninth inning at Memorial Stadium to tie the Series. Ignorance exploded in Baltimore’s collective face when Rod Gaspar — that’s who — scored the winning run in the bottom of the tenth of Game Four at Shea to push the Mets toward the heretofore ungraspable. As for Game Five, Frank Robinson homered but got no satisfaction. He was sure he was hit by a pitch later, but home plate umpire Lou DiMuro overruled him. Cleon Jones, on the other hand (or polished shoe), got an HBP call, came around on Donn Clendenon’s subsequent home run and the Mets were on their way to their fourth straight victory and a world championship. Though the Mets had won 100 games and featured a couple of pitchers named Seaver and Koosman, it was considered an upset…which is what the Orioles remained decades later in Eisenberg’s book.
“We were better,” Frank maintained, “but what did that matter?”
After the 1971 World Series, Robinson was 36 and the Orioles decided they had to clear space for an up-and-coming outfielder named Don Baylor. They traded Frank back to the National League, to the Dodgers. One year later, the Dodgers traded him down the Santa Ana Freeway to the Angels (along with, among others, promising youngster Bobby Valentine), where a sinecure of sorts awaited him. The American League was instituting a new quasi-position called the designated hitter. It was perfect for a slugger whose legs couldn’t tolerate the outfield any longer. In 1973, the season he turned 38, Angels DH Frank Robinson blasted 30 homers and knocked in 97 runs.
Late the year after that, Frank was sent from California to Cleveland, setting the stage for history baseball had been waiting too long for. After the 1974 season ended, the Indians announced their manager for 1975 — their player-manager — would be Frank Robinson. There hadn’t been an African-American manager in the majors to that point. Jackie Robinson died two years earlier expressing as his last public desire that there be one soon. It didn’t happen in time for Jackie to experience it. Based on everything but regrettable precedent, it was destined to happen for Frank. He’d managed in Puerto Rico winter after winter. Reggie Jackson was one of his charges and attributed his growth as a player to Robinson’s guidance. Of course Frank Robinson would manage in the major leagues. He’d be the precedent.
It was a big story. Barriers being broken usually are. Player-managers are, too. Frank reluctantly wrote himself into his first Opening Day lineup in Cleveland. He homered. The Tribe beat the Yankees. In his first two seasons as manager, Robinson molded a perfectly competent Indians team. That was an accomplishment on the shores of Lake Erie. He finished playing in 1976, completing his career with 586 home runs, 2,943 base hits and a passel of other Cooperstown-worthy numbers the BBWAA would validate on his first ballot. Frank managed until Indians ownership let him go partway through the 1977 season. All managers, whatever their background, are hired to be fired.
Frank was hired anew in 1981 by the Giants. San Francisco hadn’t been going anywhere for a while, but in 1982, Frank drove them on a late-season surge that nearly stole the NL West out from under the Braves. It didn’t quite happen, but they knocked out the Dodgers on the final weekend, which is nearly as delightful for a Giants fan to dwell on. A four-season stretch in San Fran ended amid a disappointing 1984. After a stint coaching for the Brewers, Robinson gravitated back to Baltimore, eventually elevated to his third managerial post in 1988. It wasn’t an ideal situation. These weren’t the dynastic Orioles of Frank’s extensive prime. These O’s were 0-6 and cost an organizational icon, Cal Ripken, Sr., his job.
First thing Robinson’s Orioles did for him was lose their next fifteen games, burying them at 0-21. A player as dedicated to winning as any whoever lived — he didn’t want teammates chatting up opponents around the batting cage when they were supposed to be focused on thrashing him a couple of hours later — absorbed most of a 107-loss season. Then, a year later, twenty years after the Mets redefined “Miracle,” Frank Robinson’s Orioles executed nearly as dramatic a turnaround. The 1989 O’s battled the Blue Jays down to the wire before ceding the American League East. This dose of Oriole magic earned Frank AL Manager of the Year honors.
Two years later, he was fired. It was the third time, each time with a season in progress, a team told him they had to make a change. This is a fate that befalls baseball lifers, no matter that they are in the Hall of Fame, no matter that they were the performance peers of Aaron, Mays and Clemente. Roberto died young, not only too soon in general but too soon to manage. Hank and Willie either didn’t get those opportunities or didn’t fully pursue them. Frank, an immortal not only as a player but as a leader when he played, got treated like any other manager who didn’t finish in first place.
Robinson seemed to have left dugouts behind for good when he joined MLB as its vice president of on-field operations in the late 1990s. The kangaroo court judge was now given greater jurisdiction over player behavior. He had worked as an assistant GM for the Orioles after managing and then oversaw the Arizona Fall League and other projects in the Commissioner’s office. He was qualified to be a VP. He was qualified to be Commissioner.
The incumbent in that role, Bud Selig, had let the Montreal Expos wither on his watch. The team became a ward of its competitors, the worst kind of fraternization. With Major League Baseball running the show, MLB turned to one of its executives to take on the thankless task of managing a franchise that was about to float somewhere between relocation and dissolution.
Frank Robinson was a manager again in 2002, first time since 1991. With nobody expecting them to go anywhere but away, Robinson guided the Expos deep into the NL Wild Card race in ’02 and ’03. He posted winning records in consecutive seasons in Montreal, something that hadn’t been done since the Expos were run like a big league operation in 1993 and 1994. Robinson stayed with the ’Spos to the end, which came at Shea on October 3, 2004. When MLB finally gave up Montreal’s ghost and transferred it to Washington, DC, they asked Frank to continue doing what he did.
For a half-season, he did it magnificently. The Washington Nationals, still seeking full-time ownership, took the District by storm in 2005, on pace to win a 1969 Metslike 100 games at the halfway point of their inaugural season. Reality caught up to the Nats come high summer; the second half was a mirror image of the first — 50-31 to 31-50 — but Frank brought his orphans home at .500. As with the Indians, the Giants, the Orioles and the Expos a team managed by Frank Robinson exceeded expectations.
He’d have one more season running the team. Nobody would interrupt his tenure this time. He’d get all of 2006, but no more. New ownership took over midway in the Nats’ second season and, as the campaign wound down, Frank was informed he wouldn’t be invited back for 2007. The job was still thankless.
But the Nats did give him a farewell, not something every baseball lifer gets. It came on the last day of the 2006 season, October 1, in a ceremony preceding Game 162 at RFK Stadium. The NL East champion Mets happened to be the opponent, so I happened to be watching . It’s stayed with me to this day. On Thursday, when Frank Robinson died at 83 , I found it on YouTube and watched it again. I’d advise you to do the same .
Watching Robinson say goodbye more than a dozen years ago on that Sunday afternoon was and is breathtaking. The player who made his name in places that were now only memories — Crosley Field, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds — found himself reflecting on more than a half-century in baseball. “It’s a great game,” he told the Washington crowd. “And it’s getting better all the time.” He wasn’t there to tell you baseball was better when he played. Frank was by no means an old 71.
Parochially, I was impressed because of what this avatar of the big, bad 1969 Orioles who hadn’t thought it necessary to know the names Garrett, Charles or Gaspar did next. I’d always held a bit of a grudge  that Frank Robinson had tried to beat the Mets on the biggest stage when I was six years old. How dare he? I saw him at an offseason banquet thirty years later and was conflicted. On one hand, that was Frank Robinson, who if he had never ascended to the managerial chair still would have been an outsize historical figure in his sport. On the other hand, he was someone who took the 1969 Mets too lightly, which I grudgingly continued to consider bad form.
Well, he never did care for fraternization. Yet by 2006, moments from his last game in uniform, he could look past his ancient antipathy for how the Mets beat him and his team. The graciousness he was about to display was overwhelming.
“I would really like to take the time to congratulate the New York Mets organization for winning the Eastern Division championship,” Frank said, eliciting a hearty cap tip from his opposite number, Willie Randolph, and applause from the visitors’ dugout. He acknowledged Randolph, Omar Minaya (previously his GM in Montreal) and the rest of the Mets.
“Great season, guys.”
Great gesture, too. It would be returned once Frank was done speaking — which he wasn’t yet. He thanked the “great baseball city” that had been barren for 33 years for opening its heart to this team of transplants. He praised the effort from everybody associated with the Nationals, singling out the equipment managers and trainers as well as the players. He emphasized that though this was a goodbye, “I’m not retiring,” and sure enough he’d return to MLB’s offices, eventually serving as executive vice president of Baseball Development between 2012 and 2015 and as a senior adviser to the next Commissioner thereafter.
“I have had my time as far as managing,” Frank said, which lent an air of sadness to the sunny day. Robinson didn’t want to leave the stadium feeling blue, however, so he closed on an upbeat note: “I don’t have any regrets for anything that happened to me in this game.” He ticked off a couple of the questions he said he tended to receive about having “come up a little bit short” of 3,000 hits and 600 homers, but underscored his theme: “I have no regrets…no regrets…no regrets about this game. All I tried to do was make this game a little better, because that’s what I do, and respect this game, and always will.”
After giving Washington one final blessing as a worthy baseball town, he copped to having to do something harder than anything he’d done before: “And that’s to say goodbye.”
Upon conclusion of his remarks, Robinson was saluted from the stands by Nationals fans and immediately surrounded on the field, though not by Nats, but by Mets. Randolph, his coaches, his players, everybody in orange, blue, black and gray streamed toward the manager whose team they’d strive directly to defeat one final time. The Mets were going to the playoffs. They could be generous of spirit. They recognized the moment and its protagonist. They understood this towering, enormous figure was one of their own and then some. Everybody’s a baseball lifer while they’re living a baseball life.
One hug for Frank after another ensued. Paul Lo Duca. Jose Valentin. David Wright. Shawn Green. Michael Tucker. The relievers jogged in from the bullpen to take part. Then his own players added their props, swallowing him in a home plate circle and cheering their manager as if he himself were a walkoff hit. Game recognized game.
What a game Frank Robinson gave us.