I lost my favorite Oriole and my favorite player with the death of Frank Robinson on Thursday. Today, I wanted to share an essay I wrote last May about the impact Frank had on me when he came to Baltimore in 1966. RIP, No. 20.
It was a sunny afternoon in early October, the kind that connects the fading of summer with the emergence of fall and its bold colors. I was about to make a bold prediction, with my dad as a witness. We had stopped at a diner after going to the grocery store, and I was seated on a stool next to a man who loved to talk baseball. The year was 1966, and the Orioles were about to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series — the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, the Dodgers no one thought could lose.
No one except, perhaps, those blinded by the light of their loyalty. Baseball was an equalizer for me when it came to talking with adults. I studied it more closely than I did my subjects in school. And that year I bonded with the Orioles because of the trade that changed the perception and direction of the team — Milt Pappas for Frank Robinson. Until then, I loved the game more than the Orioles. I appreciated the power and athleticism of Mickey Mantle; the grace and dominance of Bob Gibson; the elegance and brilliance of Koufax. I was drawn more to the stars, and one was coming to Baltimore.
I remember Frank’s first at-bat in spring training when he ripped a double, a sign of things to come. He had a powerful upper body and forearms that were almost disproportionate to his thin legs. He was one of the National League’s most feared hitters, but the Cincinnati Reds considered him an “old” 30 when they traded him for Pappas. He was the missing piece to a team that had another great Robinson, Brooks, and a lot of talent but needed the leadership and confidence that Frank brought.
He turned the trade into motivation, leading the Orioles to 97 wins while capturing the Triple Crown with a .316 batting average, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs. He was the American League’s Most Valuable Player; a superstar who hit a home run on the pitch that followed one that had knocked him down; had fallen into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium to prevent an 11th-inning home run and preserve a 6-5 victory; and intimidated middle infielders with his hard slides into second base. He added to his legend by becoming the only player to ever hit a home run completely out of Memorial Stadium.
Now, it was the eve of the World Series, and I was sitting in a diner, talking about the World Series with the man next to me. There was nothing I didn’t think Frank, Brooks, Boog and their strong supporting cast couldn’t do. The man sitting next to me, who was also an Orioles fan, thought more analytically. He started with Koufax, who won 27 games that season and struck out 317. Then there was Drysdale and third starter Claude Osteen, not to mention a pedigree the Orioles lacked; the Dodgers were one of baseball’s best franchises and defending champions.
I told the man the Orioles would win. And then, for some reason, I added: they would win in four straight. We made a gentlemen’s bet — I would buy him a coffee, and he would buy me a hot chocolate.
I was a sophomore at Milford Mill High School, and I ran home after the final bell on Wednesday, October 5th, arriving just in time to see Frank and Brooks hit back-to-back home runs off Drysdale in the top of the first inning. The Dodgers scored a couple to chase Dave McNally, but Moe Drabowsky struck out 11 in 6 2/3 innings in a 5-2 Game 1 victory. So far, so good.
However, it was Koufax against 20-year-old Jim Palmer on Thursday, a matchup that highly favored the Dodgers and had me scrambling to stay connected because of an untimely dentist appointment. I remember sitting in the dentist’s chair when Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis made three errors in the same inning, undermining Koufax, who lost, 6-0. I don’t recall what the dentist did that day, but there was no pain.
On Saturday, the Series shifted from Los Angeles to Baltimore, but the momentum didn’t change. Wally Bunker, bothered by a sore arm throughout the season, pitched a second consecutive shutout, Paul Blair hit a home run, and the Orioles won, 1-0. I couldn’t wait until Sunday’s game.
Except my dad said we were going to his mom’s for Sunday afternoon dinner, a family tradition competing with possible history. It reminded me of the game in which Frank took a Luis Tiant pitch out of Memorial Stadium, which I was fortunate to hear on the radio while sneaking away from a family cookout. Sunday demanded similar evasive action, because I wasn’t going to miss Game 4. And I didn’t, getting permission to stay tuned to the game instead of joining the family for the meal.
It was a rematch of McNally vs. Drysdale, and both pitchers atoned for their first start. The separation was a fourth-inning home run by Frank that led to a second straight 1-0 triumph and a third straight shutout. The iconic image is of Brooks jumping to a height he never imagined as McNally and catcher Andy Etchebarren rush toward him in celebration.
The celebration at grandmom’s house was more subdued, but I was bursting with joy, and a little pride. The Sun headline on Monday said, “Would You Believe It? Four Straight!”
It was a turning point for the Orioles and Dodgers. Baltimore was baseball’s best team in 1969, ’70 and ’71, winning more than 100 games and reaching the World Series all three seasons. It won in 1970 and again in 1983, its last title. Etchebarren became a footnote in history. He was the last player Koufax faced before retiring after the 1966 season because of an arthritic elbow. It took years for the Dodgers to recover.
It took me until the following Friday to collect on my bet. The hot chocolate tasted sweet. It was a lucky bet on my part, one made with my heart instead of my head. But that childlike belief led to a joy that has never been recaptured by another team. I have Frank Robinson to thank for that, and the 1966 Baltimore Orioles.
Editor’s Note: I wasn’t alone in my appreciation for Frank. Still, his death seemed personal, like that of a relative with whom you had a special bond. I remembered meeting him in a fast-food restaurant on Liberty Road, when we were the only customers on a weekday afternoon. I was a senior in high school and wanted to keep cool, but my admiration was evident when I introduced myself. He was kind and gracious. My sports hero didn’t disappoint.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] and [email protected] for consideration.