#5 - Frank Robinson, OF (1966-1971)
Frank Robinson comes in at #5 on the list of the Top 40 Orioles of All Time, but make no mistake: he was the best baseball player to ever put on an Orioles uniform. Hands down. Where he sits in baseball history is up for debate, but he is reasonably one of the top 25 players in MLB history.
When the Orioles traded for Frank Robinson in the winter of 1965, he was already a bonafide superstar. He had been Rookie of the Year, won an MVP, and had been to five All Star Games in his ten seasons with the Reds. From 1960-1962 he led the National League in slugging three straight years, and from 1961-1964 he lead the league in intentional walks.
There is not much I can say about Frank Robinson that you all don't already know. When he arrived in Baltimore, he came to a team that was good, but not good enough to get to the playoffs. He's credited with giving them the boost they needed to win their first World Series.
His first season was his finest in an Orioles uniform. He won the Triple Crown with the most home runs, runs batted in, and the highest batting average in the league. For good measure he also led the league in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, and sacrifice fly. All that contributed to his cool 8.2 WAR that season. And he was just as great in the World Series against the Dodgers, where he took home the series MVP by going 4-for-14 with two home runs, a triple, three walks, four runs scored and three RBI.
By many accounts, Frank Robinson was one of the toughest, most intense players to play the game. If he was knocked down by a pitch, that made him more determined to hit one out, and he took out his aggression on the basepaths with vicious slides in the middle infield. Robinson led the league in getting hit by pitches seven times in his career, and it was revealed at one point that multiple managers charged their pitchers a fine if they hit Robinson on account of how Robinson took it out on the other team when he was.
There is little doubt that part of Robinson's hardness on the field was as a result of the racism he faced throughout his career. He played in the minors in the south where he was harassed regularly, and while playing in Cincinnati he received multiple death threats. Things didn't get better for him when he came to Baltimore, as he found it difficult to even find a place to live when he was traded. He was a superstar baseball player!
A number of years ago I was gifted the book After Jackie. It's the story of black baseball players after the color barrier was broken, and the things that they went through in the careers. One chapter was dedicated to Frank Robinson, and in it he told a story about how he visited Baltimore with the Reds in 1958 for an exhibition game, but it got rained out so he decided to go to a movie. When he got to the ticket window they refused to sell him a ticket because it was a whites-only theater. He was in shock. Seven years later he was traded to the Orioles and he didn't want to go. He thought, "I've got to move to Baltimore, and I'm not going to be able to go to the movies."
I'm not as tough as Frank Robinson, so that chapter left me crying. I'm getting upset recalling it right now. That was the last chapter I read in the book. He went on to be a star in Baltimore and become a beloved member of the Orioles. He is revered in this town these days, and that's the way he was treated.
After moving to Baltimore and not being able to rent a house in a good neighborhood because of the color of his skin, Frank Robinson became active in the civil rights movement. He made it his business to shed light on the discrimination and bigotry he faced, including on the field. But the discrimination he was subject to didn't affect him negatively on the field; if anything, it fueled him.
In six seasons with the Orioles, Robinson hit .300/.401/.543 (OPS+ 169) with 179 home runs, 143 doubles, and 460 walks. His wOBA was .415, wRC+ 168. He never once had an OPS+ of less than 151. He helped lead the Orioles to four World Series in six years.
Traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1971 season, Frank Robinson went on to play five more seasons with the Dodgers, Angels, and Indians. In 1975 the Indians named him player-manager, making him the first African-American manager in the history of baseball.
He was back with the Orioles in a front-office position in the mid-1980s, and in 1988 replaced Cal Ripken Sr. as manager. He managed the Orioles through that terrible season and the awesome 1989. He lasted 37 games into 1991 before being replaced.
In the recent past, Frank Robinson has been absent from the Orioles family, which is sad. But he returned in April 2012 as his statue was revealed, and in his speech to the crowd he prophetically spoke of a time in the near future when the young talent on the Orioles would come together and be very good. Just a few weeks ago, he made an appearance at spring training to talk to the current Orioles. He wore an orange polo shirt that he joked had been in retirement until a few years ago.
When the Orioles created their team Hall of Fame in 1977, Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson were inducted together as the first two members. In 1982, the first year he was eligible, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with 89.2% of the vote. Despite ten great years with the Reds, he went into Cooperstown in an Orioles cap. He is one of the greatest players in baseball history and the 5th greatest Oriole of all time.
Additional sources: SABR Baseball Biography Project, FanGraphs, Baseball Reference