It’s a sad day for Major League Baseball as legend and first-ballot Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson lost his battle with bone cancer and passed away at the age of 83. After devoting 60 years of his life to baseball, so much can (and should) be said about Robinson’s impact on the game as a player and as a manager.
Entering the MLB, with the Cincinnati Reds, not quite ten years after the great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Frank still suffered the segregation, racist taunts and death threats that Jackie endured. However, Frank was able to face this bigotry from a better position than Jackie, in 1947.
Thomas Boswell, of the Washington Post, calls Frank Robinson the “Proudest, orneriest, most competitive man in baseball.” Boswell contends that Frank was “the next step after Jackie Robinson. Because (Jackie) had laid the groundwork (Frank) didn’t have to turn the other cheek.” Frank could be himself in ways that were never an option to Jackie. This was another small step on the long road of social progress. It is also an important reminder that without forward momentum, we are at risk of stumbling further back.
Robinson played nine seasons with the Cincinnati Reds. During his rookie season, Robinson tied the record (at the time) for home runs by a rookie (38) and received the honor as the Rookie of the Year for the 1956 season. He was named the National League MVP while with the Reds in 1961. Robinson would win the MVP award again in 1966 with the Baltimore Orioles. Still, 53 years later, Robinson remains the only player to receive the award in both the American and National league.
The moment that would forever cement Frank Robinson’s place in American history, as well as Major League Baseball history, took place on April 8, 1975. At the opening game of the 1975 season in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Frank Robinson debuted as Major League Baseball’s first African-American manager. In what would go down as one of the most memorable moments in Cleveland sports history, Robinson turned his first at-bat as the Tribe’s player-manager into a shot-heard -around the world blasting a line drive over the left field fence for a home run. The crowd of nearly 57,000 erupted. If all of Frank’s awards and impressive playing years hadn’t done it, at that moment, he punched his ticket to Cooperstown.
Robinson would eventually retire from playing and move on, serving as manager to the San Francisco Giants (1981–1984) Baltimore Orioles (1988–1991) and Montreal Expos / Washington Nationals (2002–2006). In later years, Robinson served the league in various capacities including honorary American League President.
On a personal level, I find it stunning that this particular barrier broke in my lifetime. I triple checked the date the Cleveland Indians named Robinson manager, October 3, 1974. I believe that I may have taken it for granted that a cultural milestone of this importance should have happened decades earlier.
There is something poignant about the man who broke the managing color barrier passing away during Black History Month. It seems to put an exclamation point on both events; as if one compels us to look closer at the other.
Thank you, Frank Robinson, for your inspiration, for your love of the game of baseball, and for boldly making your mark in a world where you were reviled for something as superficial as the color of your skin.