It’s no knock on Frank Robinson, who passed away last week at the age of 83, to note that from a San Francisco perspective he probably hurt the Giants a lot more as a player from 1956 to 1965 then he ever helped them as the team’s manager from 1981 to 1984. Sure, he was a pretty good manager. He was a great, great baseball player. And, to paraphrase Muddy Waters, he was a man—spelled M-A-N. There’s never been anyone else quite like him.
In just about any other era, Frank Robinson would have been hands-down regarded as the best of his generation at his position. But it was his lot to play right field alongside three other magnificent Hall of Famers—Henry Aaron, Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente—all of whom were active at the same time at the same position. Inevitably, at times Frank Robinson, great as he was, may have gotten lost in the mix during his nine years in Cincinnati. Even today, his career totals are phenomenal, but they are also short of Henry Aaron’s. What sets Frank Robinson apart from everyone else are two things—his epochal MVP and world championship season in 1966 after one if the most controversial trades of all time, and his pioneering career as the first black man to manage a major league baseball team.
Frank Robinson is still the only player in history to win the MVP award in both leagues. That he followed the big trade by leading his new team to their first world championship while winning that MVP award and the Triple Crown— well, that’s never been done by anybody else. Baltimore won 316 games in three seasons from 1969 through 1971, and so for a few years there Frank Robinson, a towering presence, an on-field leader of that great team, was not only respected by everyone in the game, but right in the middle of any discussion regarding baseball’s best player.
Then came Aaron again, beginning his heroic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record in earnest in 1969, and ultimately taking the spotlight back. While the two were similar ballplayers in many respects, they were different in others. Aaron was quietly intimidating, studious, focused. In Cincinnati “Robby” had a fearsome reputation at the plate and on the basepaths; he was a challenging, intimidating opponent, standing in against “brushback” pitchers—his battles with Don Drysdale, whom he hit like a “cousin” despite frequent spills in the dirt, are legendary—and barreling into bases like the second coming of Ty Cobb. Due to this he lost some time to injury while with the Reds, and that may have led the team’s management to conclude he’d have a shortened career, and hence the trade that changed everything.
His hiring as the Cleveland Indians’ manager in 1975 was historic-- and, as he himself said at the time, so was his firing in 1977. Any hint of tokenism was banished at that moment; he was subject to the same merciless expectations as any other manager. And then, so too with his second hiring, by the Giants three years later. If baseball teams in general have been known, and often criticized, for regularly hiring “retread” managers, Frank Robinson’s re-hiring sent a pointed message across every ballpark in the land. As a black man fully aware of his situation in a country that had, until recently, embraced legal racial segregation, the lesson could not be more plain, or blunt: don’t look at my color, look at my achievements—and my failures—as you would any other manager.
There was a Miller Lite television commercial from the late 1970s featuring Frank and his longtime teammate Brooks Robinson, the “bookends,” if you will, of one of the greatest baseball teams ever assembled. Since retired, the two took turns making the usual pitch for the product; then Brooks, commenting on how much he and Frank had in common, felt obliged to remind the audience that they were not, in fact, identical twins. “Naw,” Frank agreed, with a snort of laughter, “I’m at least two inches taller than he is!“
Would such a silly, yet thoroughly humanizing and, yes, brotherly example such as this be well-received in today’s hostile, race-obsessed climate? I think we all know the answer. What, exactly, has happened to us since the 1970s—for that matter, since the 2000s?
Robinson’s hiring as manager of the Giants was met with great fanfare locally. After two dismal seasons the team needed a jolt, and his fierce, demanding attitude provided it. The ballclub “broke even”— an improvement by itself-- during the strike season, then exceeded all expectations by launching themselves into a pennant race in 1982. Robinson told young players such as Chili Davis and Jeffrey Leonard and Al Holland and Fred Breining he believed in them, and he expected them to perform, and they did. He batted the erratic, error-prone Johnnie LeMaster, a career .222 hitter, leadoff-- not a brilliant tactical move at all, but a way of telling his starting shortstop he believed in him, too. He took a completely remade starting rotation—all four starting pitchers from 1981 were swapped out for new ones—and made it work, backed up by the game’s deepest bullpen. The Giants took on the perennial Dodgers and the rich, free-agent-fattened Braves, and played them dead even up until the final weekend.
It didn’t last. In 1983, Robinson may have felt he was being undercut by the front office; several players on whom he depended, such as Joe Morgan and Reggie Smith, were traded or released. Darrell Evans was moved off third base. LeMaster regressed back to unreliable form. Reports of alleged conflict between Robby and GM Tom Haller surfaced, and local newspapers, one hack sportswriter in particular, fanned the flames of discontent with cynical, leading, innuendo-based articles. It got ugly. His players knew Robinson was not the villain, and when he was fired a year or so later-- yep, just like any other manager whose team is on a downhill slide—several remained outspokenly loyal to him. Jeffrey Leonard adopted his number 20. In the aftermath it’s worth remembering that some of those young players Robinson believed in—Leonard, Davis, Bob Brenly—were key figures in the Giants’ 1986 resurgence and gave that team much of its confrontational, in-your-face spirit.
He went on to manage his beloved Orioles for four years, winning AL Manager of the Year for a dramatic if short-lived 1989 turnaround. At age 67 he took over the thankless job of managing the Montreal Expos in their final years. He got two winning seasons out of that team before moving with them to Washington and becoming the Nationals in 2005. A decade later his old friend Dusty Baker took the same job; by then nobody was looking at the color of a manager’s skin, just the number of games he won.
Frank Robinson, by the way, won 1065.