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Robinson, Frank (1935—)

Robinson, Frank (1935—)

In the Cleveland Indians' first win of the 1975 season, the new manager Frank Robinson achieved the distinction of entering his own name in the lineup and hitting a home run. A standout ballplayer for over two decades, Robinson was perhaps just as well known for being major league baseball's first black manager. As the only major leaguer to have won the Most Valuable Player Award in each league (1961 and 1966), Robinson was one of those rare players to combine power, an excellent batting average, base-stealing ability, and solid defense. When he retired in 1976 with 586 home runs, only three other men had ever hit more. Although his managerial career was somewhat less successful, his style nevertheless reflected the same kind of intensity he had brought to the game as a player.

Robinson was signed by the Cincinnati Reds out of McClymond's High in Oakland in 1953. Three years later he began his major league baseball career as an unknown 20-year-old outfielder, but by season's end he had established himself as a star, tying the rookie record of 38 home runs. In 1947 another Robinson—Jackie—had paved the way for the first generation of black ballplayers that included Roy Campanella and Larry Doby. Thus, when Frank Robinson began his professional baseball career (the same year Jackie played his final season), black men had been playing major league baseball for less than a decade. Spanning the years 1956 to 1976, his career paralleled that of a remarkable second generation of black players who broke a number of "unbreakable" records, including those set by Willie Mays (1951-73), Hank Aaron (1954-76), Ernie Banks (1953-71), and Bob Gibson (1959-75).

In his ten years in Cincinnati, Robinson was an annual All-Star who struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers with his bat and played the game aggressively in the field and on the basepaths. In 1961 he led the Reds to their first pennant in 21 years, while winning the National League MVP award with a.323 batting average and 37 home runs. His follow-up season was equally spectacular, as Robinson achieved new career highs in runs (134), hits (208), doubles (51), home runs (39), runs batted in (136), and batting average (.342). By 1965, however, the Reds' front office judged Robinson to be an "old thirty" and after the season traded him to the Baltimore Orioles. This trade proved to be a boon for the Orioles (and a bust for the Reds), as Robinson led the Orioles to their first world championship in 1966. That year Robinson won baseball's triple crown by leading the American League in home runs (49), runs batted in (122) and batting average (.316), while picking up his second MVP award.

The Orioles went on to win another three American League pennants (1969-1971) and a second World Series title (1971) during Robinson's six seasons in Baltimore. Although the team's biggest strength was pitching, he shared the bulk of the offensive load with third baseman Brooks Robinson and first baseman Boog Powell. Back in the National League with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972, Robinson appeared to be slowing down. However, when he was traded to the California Angels, his career was extended by the American League's adoption of the designated hitter rule in 1973, which allowed older players like Robinson to hit while not having to play the field.

As his playing career wound down with the Cleveland Indians in the mid-1970s, Robinson was hired as the team's manager, becoming the first black manager to be hired in major league baseball. Midway through the 1977 season, a year after hanging up his spikes as an active player, Robinson became the first black major league manager to be fired as well. He experienced modest success at the helm of the San Francisco Giants from 1981-1984, but failed to lead his team to a playoff berth. Perhaps his most painful year as a manager was 1988, when he was hired by the Baltimore Orioles after the team had lost its first six games. Unfortunately for Robinson and for Orioles' fans, the team continued its losing streak, setting the league record with 23 losses in a row on their way to a last-place finish. This was followed by a considerably more successful season, in which the Orioles finished only two games behind the division winners, resulting in the American League Manager of the Year award for Robinson in 1989.

Robinson continued to manage the Orioles until 1991, but like many former stars who have tried their hand at managing, with a record of 680 wins against 751 losses, he never achieved anything like the success he enjoyed as a player. During his years as a major league manager and front office employee, Robinson was outspoken about racial issues in baseball, calling attention to the underrepresentation of blacks in baseball's management positions. In 1982, Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

—Kevin O'Connor

Further Reading:

Robinson, Frank. Extra Innings. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1988.

——. My Life in Baseball. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1975.

Robinson, Frank, and Dave Anderson. Frank: The First Year. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1976.

Thorn, Jim, and Pete Palmer, editors. Total Baseball. New York, Warner, 1989.

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