Memories of Robinson’s greatness vivid long after career ended

Frank Robinson was a rare individual.

It’s not just because of the skills he displayed on the baseball diamond, though he was one of the best hitters of all time.

Robinson had 586 homers and a .294 lifetime batting average over a career that stretched 21 seasons.

But he was more than that.

Robinson — who died Friday at 83 — retired as a player four years before I was born. But growing up a baseball fan in a house of baseball fans, the name “Frank Robinson” was a name that meant something.

Robinson meant something to my father. My dad grew up in southern Ohio as a huge Reds fan. In 1956, when my dad was 9, Robinson debuted with Cincinnati.

The outfielder was a phenomenon. He hit 38 homers in his first season and won Rookie of the Year. He scored a National League high 122 runs and finished seventh in the MVP voting.

And that season was no fluke. In his 10 seasons with the Reds, Robinson made six All-Star teams. He hit 324 homers and drove in more than 1,000 runs.

He also played in the only World Series game my father ever attended. That was Game 5 of the 1961 Fall Classic against the Yankees at Crosley Field.

In later years, my father would tell me stories about Robinson. My dad always has said Roberto Clemente was the best player he’d ever seen. But there was a certain degree of reverence when he would talk about Robinson.

And there was anger, too.

Anger because Dec. 9, 1965, the Reds dealt Robinson to the Orioles for starting pitcher Milt Pappas, reliever Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.

Time has erased the latter two names from the deal. In fact, for at least four decades, my father occasionally still would bring up Pappas’ name with a touch of scorn.

But Bill DeWitt wasn’t spared either.

You see, DeWitt didn’t just deal Robinson, but he gave a reason.

Robinson was an “old 30” years old.

“And Frank Robinson was the type of guy,” my dad would tell me time and time again, “who when you insulted him, he was better.”

Robinson’s first season with the Orioles was one of the best seasons anyone has ever had. He won the triple crown, leading the American League in homers (49), batting average (.316) and RBIs (122). Only two players have won the triple crown in the 53 seasons since.

He also led the league in runs scored, on-base percentage and sacrifice flies, because, why not? The Orioles won the World Series that year. Robinson led the Orioles to three more Fall Classics, winning again in 1970.

Robinson was gone from the Reds, but returned to Ohio in 1974 when the Indians traded for him. He was 38 and his career was in decline. But the Indians not only kept him, but they hired him as player-manager in 1975.

Robinson’s hiring was monumental in baseball and in America. He was the first black manager in MLB history. And he debuted as a player-manager at Cleveland Stadium against the Yankees April 8 of that year.

My mother, a long-suffering (even then) Indians fan was in attendance.

Robinson was the designated hitter, and in his first at-bat, faced pitcher Doc Medich.

Years later, in Terry Pluto’s book “The Curse of Rocky Colavito,” Robinson recalled the at-bat, and said he thought Medich was trying to show him up, on his big day.

Again, Robinson used this as motivation, clubbing a home run. It sent the crowd of more than 56,000 into pandemonium, and perhaps even distracted it from the hideous all-red uniforms the team was wearing.

Robinson lasted parts of three seasons as Indians manager. His overall record was 186-189, which — considering what a joke the Indians were in the 1970s — wasn’t that bad.

But my mother remained fond of Robinson. She usually is fond of everyone who used to play or coach for the team, so long as the player or coach in question doesn’t badmouth Cleveland.

She still hasn’t forgiven John Lowenstein.

In the 1980s, when I was still in grade school, my parents loved different teams.

My mom loved the Indians, while my dad preferred the Reds.

But they both respected and revered Frank Robinson — something I found out when I went to see the Indians and Orioles play in April 1988 at the old stadium.

Robinson had just been named manager of the Orioles. Rather than being the class of the American League, as they were when Robinson played for them, the ’88 Orioles were in the midst of one of the worst stretches in sports history, losing the first 22 games of the season.

It was during this streak that my family took in the game. Late in the contest, Robinson came out to argue a call. Some of the fans around me started cat calling Robinson, and I figured — loyal 7-year old Indians fan that I was — that I’d join in.

“Hey, Frank,” I started.

“Hey!,” my dad snapped. “Cut that out. He used to be a Red.”

“And an Indian, too,” my mom followed.

I was brought — for one of the few times in my life — to silence.

Maybe that was the power of Robinson’s skills — he brought two fans of different teams to a single cause:

Shutting me up.

Robinson also managed with the Giants, and oversaw the Expos in their final seasons in Montreal, and their first seasons as the Washington Nationals.

He’s in the Hall of Fame, and his No. 20 has been retired by the Orioles, Reds and Indians.

I’m not sure if there’s another player in sports — save Jackie Robinson, whose number was retired by MLB — who can make that claim. He also has statues built at all three of those teams’ stadiums.

Some players leave marks.

Some leave memories.

But others, like Robinson, leave emotions.

That’s how great he was.

Zach Baker is the sports editor for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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