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Remembering Frank Robinson, a Trailblazing Baseball Titan

The Hall of Famer and Baltimore icon, who died Thursday at 83, is in elite company for his on-field achievements alone. His impact on the game as MLB’s first black manager and a staunch civil rights advocate fostered a legacy that few in the sport can match.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hall of Fame outfielder and manager Frank Robinson died in Los Angeles on Thursday at the age of 83. He won two World Series, played in three more, won the Triple Crown in 1966, and became the first and so far only player to win an MVP award in both leagues. Perhaps most importantly, he was the first black manager in the big leagues, and left an indelible imprint on the game as a player, coach, and executive.

Robinson, in addition to being one of the greatest hitters of all time, was a titanic figure in the sport. Bill James once wrote that Jackie Robinson’s cultural and historical impact were so immense that they overshadowed his on-field accomplishments, causing him to be strangely underrated as a player. To a certain extent, this is true of Frank Robinson as well—during more than 60 years in the sport, Robinson had a hand in an astonishing number of important moments in baseball history.

Robinson, the youngest of 10 children, was born in Texas in 1935 before he and his mother moved to the Bay Area when he was a young child. Robinson was a multisport star at McClymonds High School in Oakland, where he played basketball with Bill Russell and baseball with Curt Flood and Vada Pinson, before signing with the Reds in 1953.

Robinson was part of the first generation of African American players to be developed entirely within the Major League Baseball pipeline, rather than coming up through the Negro Leagues as his contemporaries Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays did. Robinson rose through the minors quickly, and by age 20 was the National League’s Rookie of the Year, hitting .290/.379/.558 with 38 home runs, tying Wally Berger’s rookie record, a mark that’s since been beaten only by Mark McGwire, Aaron Judge, and Cody Bellinger.

Five years later, in 1961, Robinson won the first of his two MVP awards, hitting .323/.404/.611 with 22 stolen bases in 25 attempts; that same year he and Pinson, his old teammate from American Legion and high school ball, led the Reds to their first pennant in 21 years, though they lost a five-game World Series to the Yankees. The next year, Robinson posted a career-high 8.7 bWAR, and the Reds improved by five games, to 98-64, but the Dodgers and Giants tied for the NL lead with 101 wins, forcing a one-game playoff that handed San Francisco the pennant.

Over the next three years Robinson’s Reds posted winning records, but failed to claim another pennant, and in December 1965, Cincinnati GM and owner Bill DeWitt traded Robinson, whom he described as “not a young 30,” to the Orioles for a three-player package headlined by pitcher Milt Pappas. The trade figured in the obituaries of both DeWitt and Pappas, and became one of the definitive lopsided deals in baseball history.

Former Orioles teammates Boog Powell and Jim Palmer credited Robinson with changing the team’s culture upon his arrival in Baltimore. “Frank took us from being a good team in 1965 to being a great team in 1966,” Palmer told The Baltimore Sun.

In his first season with the Orioles, Robinson won his second MVP award. He also won the Triple Crown by leading the American League in batting average (.316), home runs (49, a career high), and RBIs (122). Robinson also led the AL in runs scored (122), OBP (.410), slugging percentage (.637), total bases (367), and OPS+ (198). The Orioles won 97 games and the second pennant in franchise history, their first since moving to Baltimore from St. Louis in 1954. In the World Series, the underdog Orioles swept the Dodgers for their first World Series title since the club was founded in 1901.

Though Robinson played more than half of his career games with the Reds, he’s most remembered as an Oriole, as Baltimore enjoyed near-dynastic success in Robinson’s six seasons with the club: four pennants, including three in a row from 1969 to 1971, and two World Series victories, including over Robinson’s former team, the Reds, in 1970. When Robinson went into the Hall of Fame in 1982, he had an Orioles logo on his plaque. When Robinson took his last at-bat in 1976, he was fourth all time in home runs (586), and he ranked 19th in career OPS+ and 14th among position players in wins above replacement from 1901 to his retirement.

Robinson bounced around in the later years of his career, getting traded from Baltimore to the Dodgers, where he played one season, and then from the Dodgers to the Angels to Cleveland, where in 1975 he was named player-manager, becoming the sport’s first black manager. (Nine years earlier, Robinson’s high school basketball teammate, Russell, became the first black head coach in any major American sport.)

At Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, in his final public appearance before his death, Jackie Robinson famously implored Major League Baseball to end its managerial color line, and when Frank Robinson did that two and a half years later, Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, was in the stands for his first game, which Cleveland won thanks in part to a first-inning home run by Robinson himself.

Robinson lasted three years as Cleveland’s manager, and in 1981 he became the first black manager in the National League when he took over the San Francisco Giants. His record as a manager was mixed—in 16 seasons he never made the playoffs—and he had a losing record overall with each of the four clubs he managed. Robinson, an outspoken and hard-nosed player, brought the same approach to his time as a manager, which turned off some players—Gaylord Perry’s feud with Robinson in Cleveland is the most famous example. Nevertheless, Robinson won the AL Manager of the Year award in 1989 with the Orioles after improving Baltimore’s record from 54-107 to 87-75, and earned praise for leading the Expos to winning records in 2002 and 2003, while the franchise was under league ownership and at its absolute rock bottom.

In between managerial gigs, Robinson worked in the Orioles’ front office—the Angelos family’s statement on Robinson’s death notes that he’s the only person to serve as a player, coach, manager, and front-office executive for the club—and served multiple stints as an executive for Major League Baseball, most notably as the league’s vice president for on-field operations from 1999 to 2002.

Because of the length of his career and the variety of roles he filled, Robinson appeared in countless important moments in baseball history. In addition to being a Hall of Fame player and trailblazing manager, Robinson became an advocate for civil rights as the face of the fight against housing segregation in Baltimore. In his biography, Extra Innings: The Grand Slam Response to Al Campanis’ Controversial Remarks About Blacks in Baseball, Robinson describes experiencing segregation fully for the first time as a minor leaguer in Utah and South Carolina. In his later years, Robinson became an elder statesman within the sport, revered and respected not just for his accomplishments but for his stature in its history.

Robinson’s life in baseball is its own multigenerational epic. He broke into the big leagues as MLB was still adjusting to integration and recovering from World War II; he led the NL in runs as a rookie hitting in front of Ted Kluszewski, one of the biggest stars of the immediate postwar years, and playing alongside Joe Nuxhall, who was most famous for making his MLB debut as a 15-year-old during the war. Robinson ended his tenure in Cincinnati just as Pete Rose and Tony Perez were breaking in. Robinson built up the Orioles alongside fellow Hall of Famers Palmer and Brooks Robinson, and was a key player in the early career of manager Earl Weaver, who went on to become one of the iconic figures in late-20th-century baseball himself. Robinson ended his career playing with the young Nolan Ryan in California and the young Dennis Eckersley in Cleveland, and managed not just Hall of Famers like Eckersley, Cal Ripken Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero, but also Bartolo Colón and Ryan Zimmerman, who are still active today. Robinson was one of the last players to score a run off Sandy Koufax, in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, and the last manager of the Montreal Expos and the first manager of the Washington Nationals. His uniform number, 20, has been retired by three different teams; apart from Jackie Robinson, whose no. 42 is out of circulation leaguewide, Nolan Ryan is the only other person to have been so honored.

Robinson’s on-field achievements alone would be enough to put him in select company in baseball history, but even among Hall of Fame players, very few left such a big impact on so many facets of the game. Robinson’s influence on the sport is so immense that even after his death, he’ll still be very tangibly present.