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Black History Month: Frank Robinson

Jerry Crasnick   02-26-2019

Frank Robinson hit 586 home runs, made 12 All-Star teams and became the first and only player to capture MVP awards in both leagues during a 21-year run with the Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles and three other major-league clubs.

His contributions to the game in the dugout and the front office were an impressive complement to his on-field achievements. Nearly 50 years after his big-league debut as Birdie Tebbetts' starting left fielder in Cincinnati, Robinson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush during a 2005 ceremony at the White House. His honorary citation praised him for his “extraordinary achievements as a baseball player and manager and for setting a lasting example of character in athletics.''

The full extent of Robinson's impact came into clearer view on Feb. 7, 2019, when he died of bone cancer at age 83. The news elicited an outpouring of testimonials from former teammates, opponents, managers and others who felt his impact during his time in the game.

“Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies,'' Hank Aaron said in memoriam. “We were friends. Frank was a hard-nosed baseball player who did things on the field that people said could never be done. I'm so glad I had the chance to know him all of those years. Baseball will miss a tremendous human being.''

Robinson was born in Beaumont, Texas, before moving to the California with his mother and nine siblings as a youth. He was raised in West Oakland and pursued his love of sports in the same competitive landscape that produced NBA great Bill Russell and future big leaguers Willie Stargell, Joe Morgan, Vada Pinson and Curt Flood.

Robinson played in segregated environments in Utah and South Carolina in the minor leagues before cracking the Opening Day lineup in Cincinnati in 1956. He quickly made his mark with his talent and a fierce competitive streak. Robinson was in his comfort zone stepping in the batter's box with the game on the line, and he was perfectly content to crowd the plate and live with the often painful ramifications. He was hit-by-pitch 198 times in his career -- ninth most in MLB history.

Robinson's signature season came in 1966, when he hit .316 with 49 homers and 122 RBIs to capture the Triple Crown and lead the Orioles to an American League pennant. He slugged .857 and hit two home runs in Baltimore's four-game sweep of Los Angeles in the World Series.

In 1975, he broke the game's managerial color barrier when the Cleveland Indians named him player-manager. Robinson went on to manage 2,241 games with four clubs, and he won the American League Manager of the Year award in 1989 for leading Baltimore to an 87-75 record following a 54-101 mark the previous season.

Five years after his retirement as a player, Robinson made it to Cooperstown on the first ballot with 89.2 percent of the vote. He later worked in numerous capacities for Major League Baseball's central office and was named Honorary President of the American League in 2015.

“All of us working in Major League Baseball today owe a debt of gratitude to Frank,'' Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, said in a statement that was read at Robinson's funeral. “He became a role model and a trail blazer over more than 60 years as a player, manager and executive, and he will be remembered as a shining example of what can be achieved through talent, perseverance and a commitment to excellence.''