Here’s the latest from Joe Guzzardi, a regular contributor. Every Saturday, Joe offers “Double the fun,” recounting a memorable doubleheader.
In 2007, the Washington Nationals offered Frank Robinson, its former manager, a special day during a May 20th game against his old team the Baltimore Orioles.
Robinson refused. After all the Nats, who claimed that Robinson “retired,” had pushed him out the door in 2006 in favor of Manny Acta.
Said Robinson: “I don’t feel like this organization has extended an open arms welcome to me even though they said they want to honor me. It doesn’t make me feel like it would be pleasant to have me around for a day.”
That’s Frank Robinson for you. He’s never been one to sugar coat things!
Although Robinson’s talents in his early days as a Cincinnati Reds put him in the same category as his widely admired peers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, he had few baseball friends.
Even his teammates couldn’t warm up to him. When the Los Angeles Dodgers traded Don Newcombe to the Reds, the big pitcher said: “I try to get along with all the guys but, even though he’s my teammate, I can’t take Robinson. That guy is out there trying to maim people.””
Around the National League where Robinson was quick with his fists and his spikes, he was known as “the black Ty Cobb,” a player who would do anything to beat you.
Robinson summed his hard-nosed philosophy up this way: “Baseball isn’t a popularity contest. Some players are afraid of losing friends. Not me. I’m not out there to win friends. Just ball games, and I’ll do that any way that I can.”
In 1956, Robinson got off to a torrid start on his Hall of Fame career. Robinson hit 38 home runs, batted .290, led the National League with 122 runs scored, drove in 83 runs, was named to the All-Star team and was the Rookie of the Year. He also led the league in being hit by pitched balls, 20, on his way to a career total of 198 that places him eighth on the all time list.
Robinson’s 38 homers were the first among his career 586. He hit his historic 500th playing for the Baltimore Orioles during a 1971 double header against the Detroit Tigers.
How Robinson became an Oriole is a chapter from the “Worst Baseball Trades in History” book. On December 9, 1965 the Reds swapped Robinson for Orioles’ pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. In his six seasons as an Orioles, Robinson hit .300 with 179 homers and 545 RBIs. For their new teams, Pappas went 30-29, 4.04 ERA (three seasons); Baldschun, 1-5, 5.25 (two seasons) and Simpson, .246, 5 homers and 20 RBIs (two seasons).
To appease irate fans, Reds’ general manager Bill De Witt called his slugger “an old 30” But that was far from the case as Robinson proved six years later.
On September 13th, the Tigers faced off in a double dip against Baltimore. Although the two teams finished in first and second place, the Orioles had all but formally wrapped up the pennant by that Monday afternoon.
In game one, Dave McNally (18-4) faced Mike Kilkenny (4-4); game two, Pat Dobson (17-7) versus Joe Niekro (6-7). Robinson went two for four in the first game with three RBIs, all of which were accounted for in the first inning on his 499th home run. The Orioles won 9-1.
In the nightcap, won by Detroit 10-5, Robinson hit number 500 in the bottom of the ninth.
After Robinson retired as an active player, he became baseball’s first black manager (Cleveland Indians) and piloted the San Francisco Giants, Orioles as well as the Nats.
The consensus among baseball experts is that Robinson, the manager, was not nearly as effective as Robinson the player. In 2005 and 2006 polls conducted by Sports Illustrated among 450 MLB players, Robinson was twice selected the worst manager in baseball.
But it is not as a manager that fans remember Robinson. Among his many on the field achievements are his Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues (with the Reds in 1961 and the Orioles in 1966 when he won the Triple Crown), Robinson ended up 57 hits shy of the 3,000-hit club but with, in addition to his 538 homers, a .294 batting average, .389 on-base percentage, .537 slugging and .926 OPS.
Last week, I saw Robinson at the U.S. Tennis Open, taking in the matches and looking very good for a 75-year-old. Interviewed by fawning Baltimore native Pam Shriver who called Robinson her “childhood hero,” Robinson was gracious.
Of course, he wasn’t wearing cleats.
Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research, as well as the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org