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Remembering the great Frank Robinson

February 7, 2019

Frank Robinson once slid into second base so hard that he left bloody spike marks on an infielder's ankle."Why, Frank?" the guy screamed."Go ask your pitcher," Robinson snapped.That pitcher had planted a fastball in Robinson's ribs, and Robinson had just settled the score. You're likely to hear lots of stories

Frank Robinson once slid into second base so hard that he left bloody spike marks on an infielder's ankle.
"Why, Frank?" the guy screamed.
"Go ask your pitcher," Robinson snapped.
That pitcher had planted a fastball in Robinson's ribs, and Robinson had just settled the score. You're likely to hear lots of stories like this one over the next few days as the baseball world mourns the passing of one of its greatest stars at age 83 on Thursday.

To those of a certain age, Robinson was the definition of greatness, leadership and toughness. Well into his 70s and 80s, he carried himself with the confidence and unmistakable gait of a great athlete.
Robinson had huge hands and forearms, and his power was evident in one of his handshakes. He moved slowly, slightly bent at the waist, much as he'd done during 21 years in the Major Leagues.
When Robinson entered a room, he owned it without saying a word. He simply had a presence. He could be charming and funny. He could also intimidate pretty much anyone.

"Baseball," Robinson once said, "is a beautiful game when it's played right."
And Robinson demanded it be played that certain way. He did that as a player and then during 16 seasons as a manager. Robinson's ultimate place in history will be that he was baseball's first African-American manager and an MVP Award winner in both leagues.
Numbers? Robinson had 'em. He hit 586 home runs, and when he retired in 1976, only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays had more. Robinson won the National League MVP Award in '61 for the Reds and the American League MVP Award in '66 for the Orioles.
Robinson also won the AL Triple Crown in 1966 and the NL Rookie of the Year Award for the Reds in '56. He was a 14-time All-Star, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in '82 with 89.2 percent of the vote.
Revisit Frank Robinson's Top 10 moments
As impressive as those numbers are, those who played with Robinson and knew him best remember him more for his fanatical will to win and how he expected, even demanded, others to care as much as he did.
Robinson's No. 20 was retired by three franchises: the Reds, Orioles and Indians. (Nolan Ryan is the only other player to have his number retired by three teams.) Robinson played just six seasons for the O's, but led the club to four AL pennants. You've probably heard a lot about the "Oriole way" and all the men -- most notably Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken Sr. -- who shaped it. Right there along side them was Robinson.

As a player, Robinson's kangaroo court sessions in Baltimore were terrifying, hilarious and instructive.
"If you made a mistake on the field, you were afraid to come back in the dugout, because you knew you had to face Frank," the late Elrod Hendricks, an Orioles catcher, once said. "That was worse than anything you'd hear from a manager. He just didn't tolerate mistakes, especially mental mistakes."
As a manager, Robinson's leadership of the 1989 O's and their 33-game improvement was one of the great managing jobs of the last half century. As Don Buford, a teammate in Baltimore and one of his closest friends put it, "When he spoke, you listened. He knew the game better than anyone. He understood why games are won and lost."
Loss of Robinson reverberates around MLB
Robinson understood attitude, too. Once, when he grounded out after the pitcher had thrown a pitch at his head, he round first base, and on his way back to the dugout, he threw a punch at the pitcher. Another time, with a game on the line, Robinson's wrist was so sore that he could not swing a bat. So he bunted for a single, stole second and scored on a single to shallow left.
Don Drysdale would knock him on his back. Robinson would get up, dust himself off and hit a ball off the wall. Yet he also believed in his sport's intrinsic beauty and artistry. He would marvel at the execution of a double play or the aligning of infielders as an outfielder lined up a throw.
Because Robinson was part of the first generation of African-American players that followed Jackie Robinson, for a portion of his career, he endured some of the same cruelties like not being allowed to eat in restaurants or stay in hotels of his white teammates.
As player/manager of the Indians in 1975, Frank Robinson noticed that scouting reports listed a player's race.
"Why is that important?" he asked a club executive.
"You're right, Frank," he was told. He found out later that race was removed before the reports were sent to his desk.

Frank Robinson understood the historic importance of being the first African-American manager, which happened three years after Jackie Robinson's death. But he believed social change happened too slowly in baseball. When reporters inevitably listed Joe Morgan as a candidate whenever there was an opening in the 1980s, he became livid.
"Joe does not want to manage," Frank Robinson said, "so why keep bringing his name up? He's not the only qualified African-American. That's insulting."

Robinson could also be warm and gracious, especially with kids. When he attempted to visit kids in hospitals, he more than once broke down and cut the visit short.
At an Orioles social event in the spring of 1988, Robinson watched as my 9-month-old daughter ignored my admonishment about misbehaving. He walked over, opened his arms and said, "Give her to me." She was charmed immediately as he sat down and whispered in her ear. Thirty-one years later, a photo of the two of them is a prized possession of mine.

When the O's dismissed Robinson as manager 37 games into the 1991 season, there was a small clubhouse gathering of team employees and others in the home clubhouse at Memorial Stadium. He was shaken and emotional at being fired, and at some point when it was his turn to speak, he broke down.
"It hasn't hit me yet," he said, "that when I get on the plane tonight, I won't be coming back here."

Robinson's life was a life well lived, all 83 years. His impact on the game over the last 66 years came as a player and manager, as an assistant general manager of the Orioles and an assistant to Commissioners Bud Selig and Rob Manfred.
Robinson grew up in Oakland, but he lived almost his entire adult life in Los Angeles. Owning a home in Southern California was one of the earliest goals he set for himself after a visit.
He said many times that he was appreciative of everything baseball had given him. Baseball was lucky, too, to have had Robinson for so long.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.