Frank Robinson: A Life of Numbers and So Much More

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President George W. Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to baseball legend Frank Robinson in 2005, as Aretha Franklin and Paul Harvey look on. Photo by Paul Morse/White House.

The lives and deaths of athletes, especially baseball players, seem to be about numbers, stats, plaques and titles and records.

Baseball seems to love to remember itself and its legends in terms of numbers, an ever oscillating and growing bunch of numbers and data that change in rank yearly and daily, that increase in number with new ways to measure skills.

Numbers are in the daily stats of box scores. The line reads like some rough lines of Major League Baseball poetry telling a certain story: AB-R-H-RBI-HR-SO-W-WP-LP, and so on. It can reveal a game’s worth of success and failure. Nothing in it about the weather — or the time just spent standing around or on the edge of the dugout, warming up the reliever, the temperature, the bright light of the sun, the length of the grass or the noise of the crowd or any of that stuff, or the dust kicked up by a slide, the crunch of the ball hitting a catcher’s glove and so forth.

The years pile up the numbers or rearrange themselves. They’re one meaningful part of a player’s playing soul and tenure. They won’t tell you how Frank Robinson, for instance, felt when he hit his first major league home run, or how he felt when he hit what would be his last.

Frank Robinson — who died Feb. 7 in Los Angeles at the age of 83 of bone cancer — had a few numbers to his name.

Robinson, the Hall of Famer (on his first chance), the Baltimore Oriole hero who led the team to two World Series titles, the ex-Cincinnati Redleg, Los Angeles Dodger, California Angel and Cleveland Indian, and former manager of the Indians, the San Francisco Giants, the Baltimore Orioles, the Montreal Expos and, yes, the first manager of the Washington Nationals, had a few numbers to his name.

Robinson racked up impressive numbers and numbers of honors, if you were keeping track, and baseball fans keep track fanatically. Here are a few.

Lifetime: Batting average, .294; Hits, 2,943; Home Runs, 586; RBI’s (Runs Batted In), 1,812.  Between 1956 and 1974, 14 All Star Selections. World Series Champions with  Baltimore Orioles,  1966, 1970. National League Most Valuable Player, 1961; American League MVP, 1966. World Series MVP, 1966.  Triple Crown, 1966. National League Rookie of the  Year, 1956; Gold Glove Award, 1958. American League Manager of the Year (1989), Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame, Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame, Washington Nationals Ring of Honor. Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

The numbers are a little tantalizing. They seem to hint at a journey, almost nomadic, given that Robinson played for and managed several teams during the course of his MLB career, which spanned 1956 to 2006.

Robinson was born in 1935 in Beaumont, Texas, the youngest of ten children, born to Frank Robinson and Ruth Shaw. His parents divorced when he was an infant, and he was raised in Alameda, California,  and West Oakland, in the East Bay area of San Francisco. He went  to McClymonds High School in  West Oakland, where he played basketball on a team with Bill Russell, who would become perhaps the best and most dominating defensive player in National Basketball Association history, and with future baseball stars Vada Pinson and Curt Flood.

In baseball, Robinson was a kind a figure, both transitional and pioneering. He arrived after the electric breakthrough of Jackie Robinson as the first African American major league baseball player, part of a remarkable generation that soon included Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, Larry Doby, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Hank Aaron. The younger Robinson did his minor league apprenticeship after being signed by the Cincinnati Reds and played with the Ogden Reds, the Tulsa Oilers and the Columbia Reds.

In his rookie year, Robinson hit 38 home runs and tied the rookie record for such a feat in addition to being Named Rookie of the Year. He led the Reds to a National League title in 1961, when he also won his first Most Valuable Player Award. In following year, the line read .342 batting average, 39 homers, 51 doubles and 136 RBI’s.

In 1966, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles, which for the Reds was derided as one of their dumbest exchanges ever. Robinson had a triple crown title the very first year as an Oriole, became the only Oriole to hit a home run out of Memorial Stadium, measured at 541 feet, and he led the Orioles to two World Series titles. In his second year, the Orioles swept the Dodgers, winning the last game 1-0 on a home run by . . . well, you know.

There were more first and honors to come — most notably and proudly to him, becoming the first African American manager in the major leagues when he took over the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He also managed the Giants, the Orioles, where he was named Manager of the Year in 1989, after getting the Birds to 87-75 after the previous year’s record of 54-107. He also managed the Montreal Expos, which were taken to Washington and morphed into the Nationals. There, he won his 1,000th game and served as manager until 2006.

To top things off, President George W. Bush awarded Robinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

Yet the numbers — those accumulated, solid, good and honest numbers — don’t hint at the story exactly, neither do the man, nor the number of teams. There was a rock-hard insistence on consistency, no matter where you were. You can glimpse a little here and there. The words “tough,” “honest,” “hard playing” and “passionate” come up in praises from many of his peers. There’s a certain arrow-like style in his play — a directness in speed, hitting, running and contact. Robinson was not one to waste at bats or moments. You could tell it in the way he carried a bat, in a hard grip. His peers—Hank Aaron was in his Hall of Fame class—respected him deeply, and pitchers—with the possibility of the fearsome  Bob Gibson—often feared him.  One pitcher, asked how he would pitch to Robinson, replied, “Cautiously.”

Ryan Zimmerman, one of the original Washington Nationals said of Robinson, “He taught me so many things about baseball and life that I will keep with me and pass along to teammates.”  Pete Rose, his Redlegs teammate, said he was an aggressive, hard-nosed player — quite a compliment from an aggressive hard-nosed player. His Orioles teammate, the great third baseman Brooks Robinson, put him in a class with Mays, Aaron and Mantle.

In Hall of Fame material and the plaque in Cooperstown, New York, you see a smiling Robinson—that was the smile of a man who loved playing the game. In videos, you see the bat over his shoulder, the swing, chasing down a ball in play, running freely, the swing, and the crack of the bat hitting the ball: his contact seemed louder, sharper and swifter than most.

Among all the numbers of Frank Robinson’s baseball life, the most important is probably the simplest. That’s the number on the back of his uniform.

Twenty.  20.

As in “Now coming to the plate: Number 20, Frank Robinson.”

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