Frank Robinson, Hall of Fame slugger and first black baseball manager, dies at 83
Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame outfielder who hit 586 home runs and became a racial pioneer as the first black manager in the major leagues, nearly three decades after Jackie Robinson broke modern baseball’s color barrier playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, died Thursday at his home in Southern California. He was 83.
Major League Baseball reported the death but did not say specify the cause. The Baltimore Sun recently reported that Mr. Robinson was in the late stages of a long illness.
Playing for 21 seasons, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles, Mr. Robinson was the only winner of the Most Valuable Player Award in both the National and American Leagues.
He was an intense and often intimidating presence, leaning over the plate from his right-handed stance, daring pitchers to hit him (which they did, 198 times), then retaliating with long drives, “pounding pitchers with fine impartiality,” as baseball writer Roger Kahn once wrote. He broke up double plays with fearsome slides.
As a player, Mr. Robinson insisted that teammates match his own will to win. As a manager, he had little patience with lack of hustle.
Mr. Robinson won baseball’s batting triple crown in 1966, hitting 49 home runs, driving in 122 runs, and batting .316 in his first season with the Orioles and helping the team capture a World Series championship for the first time in franchise history.
He batted at least .300 in nine different seasons, had 2,943 career hits, drove in 1,812 runs, and played on five pennant-winning teams. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first time on the ballot.
Mr. Robinson made his debut as the majors’ first black manager with the Cleveland Indians on April 8, 1975, 28 years after Jackie Robinson (no relation) first took the field with the Dodgers. Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow, threw out the ceremonial first ball.
Frank Robinson, who was still an active player, punctuated the historic occasion by hitting a home run in his first at-bat, as the designated hitter, leading the Indians to a 5-3 victory over the Yankees.
He managed for all or parts of 16 seasons, with the Indians (1975-77), the San Francisco Giants (1981-84), the Orioles (1988-91), the Montreal Expos (2002-4), and their successor franchise, the Washington Nationals (2005-6). He never managed a pennant winner, but the Baseball Writers Association of America named him the American League manager of the year in 1989, when his Orioles finished second in the East Division, two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays.
Orioles’ Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer told Baseball Digest in 2006 that Mr. Robinson’s arrival in Baltimore via a trade with Cincinnati had kindled the franchise’s resurgence.
“If Frank saw something, Frank was going to say something,” he said. “When he came over here, he was the leader. He was the guy. He made us all better.”
Another of the Orioles’ leading pitchers of that time, Dave McNally, was quoted in John Eisenberg’s oral history of the team, “From 33rd Street to Camden Yards” (2000): “As good as Frank was, it was how hard he played that really made an impact. The intensity the man had was really incredible.”
Frank Robinson was born Aug. 31, 1935, in Beaumont, Texas, and grew up in Oakland, Calif., the youngest of 10 children. He played baseball at McClymonds High School in Oakland, where he was also a basketball teammate of Bill Russell’s. He signed with the Reds organization in 1953 and made his major league debut as Cincinnati’s left fielder three years later.
In that season he hit 38 home runs in a lineup laden with power hitters like Ted Kluszewski, Wally Post, and Gus Bell, and was named Rookie of the Year.
Mr. Robinson went on to hit 37 homers, drive in 124 runs, and bat .323 for the Reds’ 1961 pennant-winners, and he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player that year. He remained a formidable figure at the plate for Cincinnati through the mid-’60s.
In what became one of baseball’s most one-sided deals, the Reds traded Mr. Robinson to the Orioles after the 1965 season.
Cincinnati received pitcher Milt Pappas and two other players, none destined to make much impact. Bill DeWitt, the Reds’ general manager, was quoted as saying that Mr. Robinson was “an old 30,” suggesting that he was past his prime.
But Mr. Robinson was named MVP for the American League and MVP for the World Series in 1966, when the Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers with a lineup also including Boog Powell at first base, Davey Johnson at second, and future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson at third.
The Orioles also had a superb pitching staff led by McNally, Palmer, Wally Bunker, and Steve Barber. Mr. Robinson hit two home runs in that Series, both off Don Drysdale, the first in Game 1 and the fourth in the Series-clinching Game 4, a 1-0 Baltimore victory.
In his six seasons with the Orioles, he helped lead the team to four pennants and two World Series championships.
Mr. Robinson was traded by the Orioles to the Los Angeles Dodgers before the 1971 season and later played with the California Angels and briefly with the Indians. After being named manager, he continued to play as a designated hitter.
When the Indians announced in October 1974 that Mr. Robinson would become their manager, a milestone event in baseball’s race relations, he received a congratulatory telegram from President Gerald Ford.
“I don’t think I was hired because I was black,” Mr. Robinson said. “I hope not. I think I’ve been hired because of my ability.”
He added, “The only wish I could have is that Jackie Robinson could be here today to see this happen.”
Jackie Robinson had urged the hiring of a black manager in the majors when he threw out the ceremonial first ball at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. He died later that October at age 53.
When Frank Robinson lined up with his team in front of the Indians’ dugout at their 1975 season opener before a crowd of 56,204 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, he received a resounding ovation.
“One hundred thousand fans could not have been louder,” he recalled in his memoir. “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.”
The Indians had been a losing team for years, and Mr. Robinson’s ballclubs finished fourth in the American League East in 1975 and 1976. After a 26-31 start in 1977, he was fired.
Reporters asked if he thought race had anything to do with his dismissal. “If race was a factor,” he told Kahn for a column in The Times, “I’m not aware of it. I never heard a serious remark about race. I never heard secondhand of anyone making a remark. I have no bitterness about Cleveland. I did the best I could.”
When Mr. Robinson returned to the managing ranks with the 1981 Giants, the path he pioneered had been followed by two others. Larry Doby, who became the first black player in the American League with the 1948 Indians, was named manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1978. Maury Wills, best known for starring with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was named the Seattle Mariners’ manager in 1980.
Mr. Robinson’s wife was Barbara Ann Cole. They had a son, Frank Kevin, and a daughter, Nichelle. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Robinson entered the Hall of Fame together with Hank Aaron, baseball’s home-run king at the time. Rachel Robinson attended the ceremony, and she was asked about her husband’s legacy in leading the way for the game’s first generation of great black players.
“Jackie would not want to upstage them,” she said. “But they represent the epitome of what Jackie wanted: excellence.”