We have reached the Orioles legends part of our Top 50 countdown. These players are immortalized both with statues at Camden Yards and plaques in Cooperstown. The #5 player on the list is different from the top four because he only played six seasons in Baltimore. But he packed a career’s worth of production into that time. Frank Robinson is not only one of the greatest Orioles of all time, but also one of the greatest hitters in Major League Baseball history.
Robinson played for the Orioles from 1966-1971 and batted .300 (4th in club history, min. 2000 PAs), hit 179 home runs (10th) and drove in 545 (14th). Both his on-base (.401) and slugging percentages (.543) are the best all-time among Orioles. Only seven Orioles accumulated more than Robinson’s 36.5 offensive WAR.
Looking at his entire 21-year career is even more impressive. Robinson’s staggering career WAR of 107.2 ranks 24th in MLB history. He swatted 586 home runs, drove in 1,812, compiled 5,373 total bases, and had 1,186 extra base hits during his career, all of which rank in the top 21 all-time. His career slash line was .294/.389/.537. Simply put, he remains one of the top sluggers baseball has ever seen. The two-time MVP (the only player to win the award in both leagues) and 14-time All-Star was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1982.
Robinson was signed by the Cincinnati Reds shortly after graduating high school in 1953. The outfielder worked his way through the minors and debuted in the major leagues in 1956. It didn’t take long for Robinson to establish himself as a formidable hitter at the highest level. His .290/.379/.558 slash line, 38 home runs, 83 RBI, and 122 runs scored earned him the National Rookie of the Year Award and an All-Star appearance. The rookie was also 7th in the N.L. MVP race.
Robinson didn’t slow down after his rookie season and went on to play ten seasons for Cincinnati. He was their franchise player and will go down as one of the greatest hitters to play for the Reds in their prestigious and lengthy history.
Following a 1965 season where Robinson hit 33 homers and drove in 113 runs, Reds owner Bill DeWitt thought he was “a fading talent increasingly hobbled by leg injuries” and “an old 30.” Cincinnati shipped Robinson to the Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson in what is considered one of the most lopsided trades in professional sports history. It was a transaction that altered the course of Baltimore’s franchise.
The O’s new outfielder joined a team that won at least 94 games three times in the previous six seasons, but had no playoff appearances. They needed a veteran slugger and clubhouse leader and Frank Robinson could not have been a better fit. It is hard to imagine what more he could have done in 1966. He slashed .316/.410/.637, swatted 49 home runs, drove in and scored 122 runs, and accumulated 367 total bases; all of which lead the American League. He won the Triple Crown and MVP award in what will go down as one of the finest offensive seasons in Orioles history.
While Robinson’s first season in Baltimore was his best, his production remained at an elite level. Despite battling an injury in 1967, he hit 30 home runs and recorded an OPS of .979. 1968 was his only season in Baltimore where he was not an All-Star, but he rebounded with a 32 home run, 100 RBI campaign in 1969. He played only 132 and 133 games respectively in 1970 and 1971 but averaged 26 home runs, 88 RBI, and 85 runs scored. A big milestone came in September of 1971, when Robinson hit his 500th career home run.
Robinson’s offensive production was obviously a boost to the Orioles during his time in Baltimore. But perhaps his leadership qualities and competitive edge were even more important. Jim Palmer said, “He made us all believe that the Orioles were going to be a great franchise.” Whether it was giving advice to young teammates, sliding hard into second base, or keeping the club loose and accountable through the Kangaroo Court, Robinson brought a winning culture to Baltimore when he arrived at Spring Training in 1966.
The talented Orioles clubs that couldn’t quite clinch a playoff berth in the years prior to Robinson’s arrival suddenly won the franchise’s first World Series in 1966. Robinson won two World Series championships and four pennants during his six years in Baltimore. And given that the 1969 Orioles are one of the best baseball teams ever to not win a World Series, he could have easily won a third ring. There are lot of factors that go into a team figuring out how to win. But many Orioles during this era pointed to one common factor: the arrival of Frank Robinson.
Despite this success and helping lead the Orioles to a pennant in 1971, the business side of baseball also existed fifty years ago. The slugger was 36 years old, being paid a large salary, and the Orioles had the young and highly touted Don Baylor ready to take over. Baltimore traded Robinson to the Dodgers for Doyle Alexander, Bob O’Brien, Sergio Robles, and Royle Stillman. He played five more seasons for the Dodgers, Angels, and Indians before retiring after the 1976 season.
Robinson’s career in baseball did not end after his playing days. He was a player-manager in Cleveland in 1975 and 1976, making him the first African-American manager in the major leagues. Robinson managed a total of 16 years and compiled a record of 1,065-1,176. He managed the Orioles from 1988-1991 and was named Manager of the Year during the 1989 “Why Not” season.
In addition to his work in uniform, he spent time in the Orioles front office before and after his stint managing in Baltimore. He also worked for Major League Baseball in several high-level capacities. There are not many people who can say they did as much within the game of baseball as Frank Robinson.
Some of Robinson’s most important contributions came as a civil rights activist. He experienced discrimination and prejudice first-hand in the minor leagues and in Baltimore’s segregated housing. He used his platform to become one of the most outspoken baseball players of the day about issues of racial equality.
Robinson’s relationship with the Orioles grew cold over the years, but Buck Showalter made a point of reconnecting with Orioles greats. He took part in the 2012 unveiling of statues at Camden Yards and addressed the team during Spring Training in 2014. Robinson passed away in February 2019.
If Robinson had spent more of his career as a Oriole, he may be higher on this list. But his six seasons in Baltimore left a permanent mark on the franchise and is such a large part of his legacy that he is wearing an O’s cap on his plaque in Cooperstown.