No story about the good old days of the Orioles franchise can be told without Frank Robinson, whose acquisition before the 1966 season powered the O’s to immediate prominence and the franchise’s first championship. The news that he has passed away at his California home at age 83 makes this a sad day for Baltimore sports.
Baltimore isn’t the only city that gets to claim a piece of his greatness. He spent ten years with the Reds before ever coming here, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1956 and the NL MVP in 1961. Robinson’s eventual 1966 AL MVP with the O’s gave him the distinction of winning one in both leagues.
The whole baseball world has felt the impact of Robinson’s career, first for 21 years as a player and eventually as the first African-American manager in MLB when he closed out his career as a player-manager for the Indians. He also managed in San Francisco and Montreal, moving with the Expos to Washington for the first couple of years, in addition to a managing stint back in Baltimore that saw him manage much of the dismal 1988 season as well as the bounce-back 1989 “Why Not?” Orioles.
The six years that Robinson played with the Orioles generated batting stats that are almost unbelievable to look back on now. Starting with that ‘66 MVP campaign, when he batted .316/.410/.637 and smashed 49 home runs, Robinson went on to post these totals as an Oriole: .300/.401/.543. The .401 OBP and .543 slugging percentage from his O’s career remain at the top of the franchise leaderboard, and they might always stay there.
What blows my mind the most is thinking about how, starting with Robinson’s arrival in 1966 and on through he was traded after 1971, the team won two World Series championships and played in two more World Series that they lost. The Orioles have not even played one World Series game since I have been alive.
If you’re my age or younger, the only things you know about Robinson are what you heard from your Orioles fan parents. I never met him and yet like every one of the Orioles greats I’ve been on a first name basis with him my whole life: Frank, to go along with Brooks, Eddie, Jim, and Cal. And Earl, of course, who managed them all. Frank was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a player in 1982 and even his time as a manager was when I was young enough to not be too aware of the O’s.
My dad swears he was there the day that Robinson hit the home run that left Memorial Stadium. Maybe he was - that May 8, 1966 was a Sunday, so he wouldn’t have had school. Jim Palmer pitched a complete game in the first game of a doubleheader, and in the nightcap, Robinson went 3-3 including his 541-foot stadium-exiting home run off of Luis Tiant, who, if you were wondering, had started his 1966 season with three straight complete game shutouts before that homer.
Can you even imagine a ball going 541 feet at Oriole Park at Camden Yards? I cannot. Dad saw it, though. That’s the number one Robinson story, but of course not the only one. I always heard plenty about the Kangaroo Court, among other Robinson theatrics.
These things were simply facts of life by the time I was born. There is no more questioning the statement “Frank Robinson was an Orioles legend” than there is assailing the proposition that the moon orbits Earth. It’s a constant of every night sky, as Robinson is a constant from the great old days of the Orioles.
My Frank Robinson memory comes from long after his playing and even managing days were over. On April 28, 2012, the Orioles unveiled the statue of Robinson that now stands in Legends Plaza at Camden Yards. This was the first of the statues that was put up that year, since Robinson was the first of the O’s Hall of Famers, chronologically.
Before that Saturday night game, Robinson spoke to the crowd, and as he was wrapping up, he said something about how he thought Buck Showalter had something special with that year’s team. It was only April; after the Orioles beat the Athletics that night, 10-1, their record was 13-8. I wrote it off at the time as just something nice that he was supposed to say, but as the 2012 Orioles went on to do what they did, it was like he had blessed them that night. Of course they were good! Frank Robinson said so, and wouldn’t he know?
If you have a favorite memory of Frank, please feel free to share in the comments.