The passing of Hall of Famer and Orioles legend Frank Robinson last Thursday has brought an outpouring of fond memories from his teammates and colleagues throughout baseball. Robinson is remembered for his intensity, his leadership and, of course, his ability to be a difference-maker on the field. It’s no coincidence that the Orioles were a combined 199 games over .500 during his six years with the club, playing in four World Series and winning two.
Robinson played a key role in countless victories. I’ve attempted to narrow them down to his top 10 games, which is no easy task for a player who had so many great performances. This list doesn’t include his All-Star Game MVP in 1971, or his stretch in 1969 in which he had three walkoff hits in a 15-game span.
Those who were lucky enough to watch Robinson play surely remember plenty of other fantastic Frank performances that I’ve left off. But here are some highlights:
A successful Oriole debut (April 12, 1966)
Why not start at the beginning? The Orioles already had a good feeling that the acquisition of Robinson would spark the team, based on his prodigious power display during his first spring training with the club in 1966. That sensation grew even stronger once the official games began. On Opening Day in Boston, Robinson, batting third, was hit by a pitch in his first place appearance, and promptly scored on Brooks Robinson’s two-run homer. Later, Frank added a solo home run of his own en route to a 5-4, 13-inning victory. He homered in each of his first three games with the Orioles, immediately showcasing his tremendous impact on the lineup.
Memorial Stadium can’t contain him (May 8, 1966)
Speaking of tremendous impact, you may never see a harder-hit ball than the one Robinson sent flying into the stratosphere one memorable Sunday in Baltimore. The shot, which Robinson connected off Cleveland Indians right-hander Luis Tiant in the first inning, has become one of legend. The thunderous home run soared an estimated 450 to 465 feet in the air — becoming the first and only fair ball to sail entirely out of Memorial Stadium — and rolled into a parking lot, finally coming to rest 540 feet away from home plate.
Even Robinson didn’t believe he’d hit it out of the ballpark until Oriole fans gave him a standing ovation when we went out to his position in the top of the second. In honor of the achievement, the Orioles hoisted an orange flag, reading “Here,” at the spot his clout left the park.
A game-saving catch (June 21, 1966)
Although Robinson was best known for his hitting, he was no slouch with the glove, either. He demonstrated that with a spectacular, if controversial,defensive play to preserve a dramatic victory over the New York Yankees in the Bronx.
The Orioles carried a 7-5 lead (to which Robinson had contributed a sacrifice fly) into the bottom of the ninth before the Yankees rallied with two outs. A single and a walk brought up rookie left fielder Roy White, who’d homered earlier in the game.
Off Stu Miller, White crushed a fly to deep right field. Robinson tracked it all the way and made a leaping catch at the short Yankee Stadium wall, then went toppling into the seats. After a few seconds, Robinson collected himself and climbed back onto the field, ball safely in glove despite the prying hands of raucous Yankee fans.
First base umpire Hank Soar gave the out call, inciting an argument on the field with an incensed Ralph Houk, the Yankees’ manager. Robinson, away from the fray, celebrated his game-saving play with his teammates. Two months later, Robinson made another spectacular, home run-robbing catch in the same ballpark, this time in left field, when he robbed Clete Boyer of what would’ve been a game-tying blast in the 11th inning Aug. 11.
Excelling on the biggest stage (1966 World Series)
OK, technically, this was four games. I’m fudging the rules a bit by counting this as one entry. But Robinson, the World Series MVP, was a key contributor throughout the Fall Classic, starting with his first at-bat. Robinson’s two-run homer off fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale in the first inning of Game 1 gave the Orioles a quick lead — and proved the Orioles could go toe-to-toe with the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers. When Robinson homered, “I think everybody said, ‘Gee, we might have a chance to win this,'” said Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer on MLB Network last week.
Not only did the Orioles win, they swept. And Robinson, fittingly, supplied the decisive blow in Game 4. His fourth-inning solo homer, again off Drysdale, provided the game’s only run in Baltimore’s third straight shutout. The Orioles were World Series champions for the first time, and Robinson had been the integral piece that pushed them over the top.
Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat (May 7, 1970)
In a well-balanced Orioles’ lineup, no hitter was more menacing — especially in the clutch — than Robinson. “We had a lot of great players, but he was the one guy I wanted when the game was on the line,” Palmer said. “As good as Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell and all the other guys were, Frank was the guy you wanted at home plate.”
The reputation was well earned. Frank delivered eight walkoff hits for the Orioles, tied for second-most in team history, even though he ranked only 23rd in plate appearances. One of the most dramatic occurred in an early-season game against the Kansas City Royals in 1970. Robinson was the Orioles’ last hope, with the club trailing by two runs with two on and two out in the ninth. One swing later, it was all over. Robinson connected off former teammate Moe Drabowsky for an Earl Weaver special, a three-run home run, to seal an instant Orioles’ victory.
Twice as grand (June 26, 1970)
Robinson’s exploits weren’t restricted to the late innings. In a 12-2 laugher against the Washington Senators, Robinson did major damage in the fifth and sixth innings. In doing so, he accomplished one of the rarest feats in baseball: hitting two grand slams in one game.
The two innings played out in eerily similar fashion. In each case, the Orioles loaded the bases with one out on a Dave McNally walk, Don Buford single and Paul Blair free pass to set up Robinson’s long ball. Robinson even blasted both his slams off pitchers named Joe: starter Joe Coleman in the fifth and reliever Joe Grzenda in the sixth.
Robinson is one of just 13 players in MLB history to hit two grand slams in a game, a list that includes fellow Orioles Jim Gentile (May 9, 1961) and Chris Hoiles (Aug. 14, 1998).
A world champion again (1970 World Series, Game 5)
After a shocking World Series loss to the New York Mets in 1969, Robinson and the Orioles returned to the Fall Classic the following year as men on a mission. They dispatched the Cincinnati Reds in the first three games of the series, but the National League champs staved off a sweep with a Game 4 win. The Reds then jumped out to a 3-0 first-inning lead in Game 5, and Oriole fans might have been feeling just the tiniest bit of uneasiness.
Thanks to Robinson, the Baltimore faithful could breathe easy. The slugger quickly got the Orioles back into the game with a two-run first-inning homer off Jim Merritt, shaving the deficit to one. That began an onslaught of nine unanswered Orioles’ runs. The club breezed to a 9-3 victory, clinching the Orioles’ second world championship.
Perhaps all the sweeter, it came against a Reds team that had stunned Robinson by trading him in 1965 after a successful 10-year stint in Cincinnati. The three players the Reds acquired in that deal — starter Milt Pappas, reliever Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson — were long gone by the time the ’70 Series came around.
Besting a fellow Hall of Famer (July 28, 1971)
Remember what I was saying about Robinson being a great clutch hitter? Even the best pitchers in baseball history weren’t immune to his late-inning heroics. When the East-leading Orioles hosted the West-leading Oakland Athletics in Baltimore in late July, the series had all the drama you’d expect from the two best teams in the AL. In the finale, the Athletics carried a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth, having scored their runs on an uncharacteristic three-error inning by third baseman Brooks Robinson.
After the first two Orioles of the ninth singled to chase starter Blue Moon Odom, the Athletics turned to Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers. The only batter he faced was Frank Robinson, who crushed a game-winning, three-run homer. It was the second straight night that the Orioles tagged Fingers for a walkoff home run; Brooks Robinson did the honors the previous evening. Frank’s walkoff capped a series sweep — a harbinger of that year’s ALCS three months later, when the Orioles again swept the Athletics in three.
Frank Robinson had Fingers’ number throughout his career, going 9-for-25 (.360) with two homers and 10 RBIs. Other Hall of Fame pitchers Robinson excelled against were Gaylord Perry (.417), Bert Blyleven (.350) and Ferguson Jenkins (.333).
Joining the 500-homer club (Sept. 13, 1971)
The nightcap of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers — which didn’t begin until 8:46 PM local time — brought a paid attendance of just 13,292 to Memorial Stadium. But those few hundred hardy fans who stuck around to the end of the Orioles’ 10-5 loss were rewarded.
Robinson entered the day with 498 career home runs, and he’d added another in the first game of the twin bill. He’d gone 0-for-3, though, to begin the second game. And as the clock approached midnight and the Orioles entered the bottom of the ninth, Robinson wasn’t guaranteed another at-bat. His milestone, it seemed, might have to wait.
It didn’t. With two outs in the ninth, a Boog Powell single extended the game long enough for Robinson to come to the plate once more. He promptly smashed a two-run homer into the left field bleachers off left-hander Fred Scherman. With that, Robinson became the 11th member (at the time) of the prestigious 500-homer club. He would hit just three more regular season home runs in his Orioles’ career.
Hustling the Orioles to victory (1971 World Series, Game 6)
One of Robinson’s last significant plays as an Oriole didn’t happen at the plate or in the field. It came on the basepaths. Robinson wasn’t a burner — never stealing more than 11 bases in a season as an Oriole — but he was a smart, aggressive runner. And his baserunning acumen loomed large in helping the Orioles force a Game 7 of the 1971 World Series.
When Game 6 kicked off in Baltimore Oct. 16, all the momentum was on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ side. They’d won three games in a row and were on the verge of icing the series. The Pirates jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but the Orioles scraped back into a tie with a run apiece in the sixth and seventh.
The deadlock remained until the bottom of the 10th. With one out, Robinson drew a walk. Merv Rettenmund followed with a single to center, and although the 36-year-old Robinson was hobbled by a strained Achilles’ tendon, he aggressively took an extra base, rounding second and diving into third base ahead of the tag. The next batter, Brooks Robinson, lifted a fly out to center fielder Vic Davalillo, not particularly deep. Frank, though, would not be denied. He charged toward the plate and slid in safely under leaping catcher Manny Sanguillen, winning the game.
Through sheer force of will, Frank Robinson had kept the Orioles alive in the Series for another day. It was Robinson’s second-to-last game as an Orioles’ player, but perfectly symbolic of how much he meant to the team.