When Frank Robinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, even the famously competitive Robinson knew the Cooperstown headliner that day was fellow inductee Hank Aaron. Aaron had gained election with 406 of the 415 votes cast by baseball writers. Overshadowed again, Robinson received 370 votes.
“It seems like I’ve been chasing him for a long time,” Robinson noted that summer day. “It seems like I’ve always been one step behind or one year behind. When I broke in, all the talk was about Hank Aaron, and I must say we’ve had a long and friendly rivalry on the field.”
Baseball and America lost one of its great noble warriors Thursday with the passing of Robinson at age 83. Aaron may have hit more home runs, and fellow contemporaries Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente may have played the game with more crowd-pleasing panache. And Robinson may have fallen just outside the glamorous spotlights of 600 home runs (586), 3,000 hits (2,943) and a .300 lifetime batting average (.294).
But Frank Robinson—with no formal first name or middle name, even his very name was a statement of his forthrightness in and out of spikes—devoted himself to baseball heart and soul with a ferocious sense of purpose that sets him apart from all others.
Eight years ago, when he was asked about being in the company of Aaron, Mays and Clemente as ballplayers, Robinson replied, “Yeah, I’m with those guys. But I’m always mentioned fourth. That’s okay. Team goals were important to me.”
Relentlessly dutiful more than flamboyant, Robinson may be the most underrated great player in the game’s history. His was an extraordinary baseball life. He accomplished what otherwise sounds like several lifetimes of work for others: Rookie of the Year, MVP of the American League, National League, World Series and All-Star Game, Gold Glove winner, Triple Crown winner, Manager of the Year, special advisor to the commissioner, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and, most meaningfully, the first black manager in Major League Baseball.
When the Cleveland Indians hired Robinson on Oct. 3, 1974 to be their player-manager, President Ford sent a congratulatory telegram and in the press conference room were commissioner Bowie Kuhn, American League president Lee MacPhail and Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, who had passed away only two years earlier.
“If I have one wish that could be granted right now,” said Robinson, then 39, “this is it: that Jackie Robinson would be here to see this today.”
Frank Robinson was hired because he was a renowned team leader who also had served five years as a winter league manager in Puerto Rico.
“The only reason I am the first black manager in the major leagues,” he said at the news conference, “is that I happened to have been born black.”
The youngest of 10 children, Robinson was born in Beaumont, Texas, and, after his parents divorced when he was an infant, he was raised by his mother in Alameda and West Oakland, Calif. It was there on the fields and courts where Robinson honed the razor-sharp competitive spirit that would define him. It was a time when kids played ball until the light dimmed, when they could scrape and fight to settle arguments, and when baseball was king. “From the age of 6 or so on,” Robinson once wrote, “baseball was the most important thing in my life.”
That pilot light inside him never stopped burning hot. Watching Frank Robinson hit was like watching a freight train rumbling toward you with its horn blowing: an intoxicating combination of purpose and power. He stood as close to home plate as possible, and leaned his head over the plate, to better take away the outside pitch from the pitcher.
In doing so, however, he put himself in harm’s way every time he stepped in the batter’s box. To be leaning over the plate was to invite the pitcher to plant a fastball in his ribs or sail one past his head. Pitchers obliged with astonishing regularity, none of which ever moved Robinson off his mark.
Robinson was hit with a pitch 198 times in his career, an outlandish amount for such a great player. Nobody else hit that often ever had even 350 home runs. Aaron was hit only 32 times, Clemente 35 and Mays 44.
His iron will became even more apparent on the basepaths, where he quickly gained a reputation as one of the fiercest runners who took no quarter. Robinson at full steam was a middle infielder’s worst nightmare. He led the league in runs three times, and probably opening gashes and leaving bruises more than that.
Robinson himself provided the best summation of how he played baseball when he wrote, “I never relaxed on a ball field. I have always believed in going all out all the time.”
We cloak the fringe player in glory when he displays such work ethic characteristics, knighting him with adjectives such as “gritty” and “gamer.” Now take all those qualities and roll them into a superbly talented, all-time great middle-of-the-order hitter and you begin to understand the uniqueness of Robinson. With strong wrists and lightning-fast hands, Robinson hit 30 home runs or more 11 times. Only his breakthrough role as a manager kept him from even bigger career numbers.
“Even today I don’t regret it,” Robinson said in 2011. “If I hadn’t managed, I would have made it to 3,000 and 600, but that’s okay.”
He brought the same uncompromising spirit to managing. Two weeks into his first spring training, in 1975, his pitchers, led by Gaylord Perry, revolted against how he had them running “poles” every day—distance running back and forth in the outfield between the foul poles. It took an 80-minute meeting with Perry and GM Phil Seghi for Robinson to relent; they would run sprints instead.
In midseason, Robinson threatened to bench catcher John Ellis for the remainder of the year because of what Robinson determined was a selfish attitude. DH Rico Carty summed up both the players’ discomfort and Robinson’s intensity in one perfect complaint: “He wants us to play exactly like he used to.”
Lesser men might have viewed the Robinson standards as impossible ones. But we know that they were and are possible because Frank Robinson showed us. He gave everything he had to baseball. This is what baseball looks like when it is played not just at a high skill level but also with pride and passion.
Pioneer, Hall of Fame player, manager, executive … yes, Robinson excelled in multiple capacities like very few ever did. His greatest role, however, may have been as a role model in what it means to compete fully and relentlessly. In that vein, Frank Robinson forever is in nobody’s shadow.