Frank Robinson, who died Thursday at 83, is being remembered as the man who led the Orioles to their first World Series title and Major League Baseball’s first black manager. He’s also being remembered for how hard he played the game he loved.
“He was a tough character,” longtime Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor said. “He was a hard-nosed ballplayer and well-respected, well-feared when he was playing…He was old-school baseball, that’s for sure.”
McGregor played for Robinson when he was the Orioles’ manager. He remembers that in 1979, when the Orioles won their first pennant since 1971, Robinson, then a coach, was able to seize small advantages to help the team.
“He was unbelievable in how he could get pitchers to tip their pitches,” McGregor said. “By the third inning, he would know every pitch the guy was throwing up there…Tough manager, but he was good.”
Tommy John faced Robinson when he played for the Chicago White Sox and was his teammate in 1972, when both played for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Frank was a friend,” John said. “He was an enemy starting out, having to pitch against him when he was having his great years with Baltimore. I tried to get smart one time and trick pitched him and tried to come inside. They said, ‘You’ve got to come inside.’ I pounded him inside, and he hit the ball, and I thought it was going to go out of the old Memorial Stadium.
“Then we got to be teammates with the Dodgers, and he was fun to play with. He played the game, no nonsense, he didn’t ask for anything, give anything. He was a good person.”
Hall of Famer Jim Palmer tweeted: “Another sad day in Birdland with the passing of Frank Robinson. Played the game tough, hard but fair. Made all of us better players, and winners. My condolences to his family. RIP#20.”
Brooks Robinson expressed his fondness for his teammate in a statement:
“Today is a very sad day because I lost not only my teammate, but also a very dear friend. I loved Frank and got to know him so much better after we both retired. I spoke to him a few days ago and he sounded good. He wanted to be home. I let him know that Connie and I were pulling for him, and that he, Barbara, and Nichelle were in our prayers. As a player, I put Frank in a class with Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Mickey Mantle. He was the best player I ever played with. When he came here in 1966, he put us over the top. He was a great man and he will be deeply missed.”
The Angelos family also expressed their appreciation in a statement:
“Frank Robinson was not only one of the greatest players in Orioles history, but was also one of the premier players in the history of baseball. Fans will forever remember Frank for his 1966 season in which he won the Triple Crown and was named MVP during a year that brought Baltimore its first World Series championship. His World Series MVP performance capped off one of the greatest individual seasons in baseball history. An Orioles Legend and a Baseball Hall of Famer, Frank brought us so many wonderful memories, including two championships, during his time in Baltimore.”
When Buck Showalter became Orioles manager in 2010, he tried to build relationships with the greats from the team’s past, and he was glad that Robinson was receptive.
“He treated me like I played on all those great clubs,” Showalter said. “He always made his way into my office and sat down and talked baseball. He loved the Orioles. He just liked sitting around talking the game. He was such a fierce competitor.
“I had the great fortune of sitting in the office with Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. I put Frank Robinson in that category,” Showalter said.
In spring training 2014, a young Orioles minor leaguer named Josh Hart was clueless about Robinson’s place in the game’s history. Showalter assigned him to write a report about Robinson.
“It just kind of hit me. Josh Hart should know who Frank Robinson is,” Showalter said. “A lot of people talk about Frank Robinson. They talk about Larry Doby. You’ve got to mention Frank in that group. Anybody you talk to about Frank Robinson, there was such a respect for him. He carried himself with such confidence. He saw through BS so quickly.”
Showalter brought Robinson to spring training to talk with the team, and one player in particular tuned in.
“I remember looking at the player’s faces, especially Adam Jones when he’d have an opportunity to talk in the locker room,” Showalter said. “I didn’t let many things put us off schedule in spring training, but Frank wanting to go 10 or 12 minutes over what we had allotted was OK.
“Adam got it. His talking was so simple, but so right on point. He didn’t demand respect. He earned it.”
Hall of Famer Joe Morgan issued the following statement through the Baseball Hall of Fame:
“Frank Robinson was not only a great player, but he was a great manager, as well. Frank and Sparky Anderson are the two best managers I had, and I consider it a tremendous honor to have played for the first African-American manager. Frank and I became close friends when I played for him. That lasting friendship extended all the way to today, and we stayed in close contact through his illness. I’m extremely saddened with his passing, and my thoughts are with his wife, Barbara, and his daughter Nichelle at this time.”
In 1975, Robinson was in his first season as a player-manager with the Cleveland Indians, and he brought a 20 year-old pitcher to the big leagues who later became a Hall of Famer.
“I was such a kid. I was clueless,” Dennis Eckersley recalled. “My first spring training, and you meet somebody like Frank. He was so good to me right away, just very patient with me…he took a liking to me and he brought me to the big leagues, and I don’t think a lot of people wanted me to be there. He must have seen something in me. Ultimately, it was great for me because he gave me the opportunity.”
“But more than that, he was still playing. He was a player-manager. He was so competitive. He had a chip on his shoulder, and this was a guy 20 years into the big leagues. That was great for me to see. Not that I had to learn how to get a chip. That’s something I remember…his way of playing, his intensity, day-in and day-out.”
Robinson’s last managerial job was with the Washington Nationals, and in late 2005, Ryan Zimmerman made his major league debut.
“I still remember being so nervous to walk into his office and introduce myself,” Zimmerman said in a statement issued by the Nationals. “He was a living legend and I was a 20-year-old kid right out of college. I can honestly say that meeting was the last time I ever felt that way around him. From that day on, he took care of me and treated me like a son. He was hard on me and at times I wondered why. I’m positive my career was shaped by the way he treated me and pushed me to be a professional. He taught me so many lessons about baseball and life that I will keep with me and pass along to teammates, friends and even my two daughters.
Claire Smith, who is the first African-American woman to win the most prestigious honor for baseball writers, the Spink Award, has a special admiration for Robinson. Smith remembers watching Robinson’s first game with the Indians as player-manager in 1975.
“He made the name Robinson extend past Jackie,” Smith said. “It was almost as if he took the baton, knowing that the next barrier to be broken was that of manager.
“He never shied away from it. He never hid his ambitions to manage a major league team. He was bright. He was a brilliant baseball mind.”
When other baseball players and managers treated Smith with disdain because she was different, Robinson did not.
“Frank didn’t make me jump through hoops to prove again and again and again I somehow had to pass a litmus test to show him each and every time that I should be allowed to do my job,” Smith said.
Robinson would always educate his listeners about baseball.
“Every time I spoke with Frank, I walked away knowing something or having an insight that I had not carried into the conversation,” Smith said.
Robinson was fourth on the all-time home run list for many years, trailing only Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Today, his 586 home runs place him 10th.
“He gets forgotten, how great a player he was,” Eckersley said. “People forget how good he was. He was one of the greatest players that ever played.”