Friday February 08, 2019
Frank Robinson (1935-2019)
Frank Robinson loomed large when I was a kid. He also seemed overlooked. It's a weird combo.
He loomed large because he was the best hitter on the best team, the 1969-71 Baltimore Orioles. He'd also been 1956 Rookie of the Year, MVP in both leagues (still the only guy to do that), and the last true Triple Crown winner in ‘66 (Yaz tied Killebrew for the HR lead in ’67, so a little asterisk there).
His team certainly clobbered my team, the Minnesota Twins, who were feared most places (see Jim Bouton's comments in “Ball Four”) but lunch in Baltimore. Two best-of-five playoff series in ‘69 and ’70 and two sweeps. Did we ever come close? I remember in August ‘71 we took our grandmother, a Black+Decker worker from Finksburg, Maryland, and a huge Orioles fan, to a Twins-Orioles game at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. The day before, Harmon Killebrew became the 10th man in baseball history to hit 500 homeruns; he hit 500 and 501 off Mike Cuellar. This game seemed like it might be a pitchers’ duel: the battling Jims, Kaat vs. Palmer. But it quickly became not that. On the first pitch, Don Buford smacked a homerun. Four pitches later, with a man on first, Merv Rettenmund smacked another. Twins lost 8-2. That's how it always felt against Robby and those guys. It never felt close.
Robby was overlooked, meanwhile, because he wasn't Hank Aaron, who was approaching Babe Ruth's all-time homerun record, and he wasn't Willie Mays, who was so beloved he even had a cartoon biopic. Was Robby even the most feared hitter on the O‘s? For a while, that was Boog Powell. Was he even the most famous Robinson on the O’s? For a while, that was Brooks, who won the MVP in the 1970 World Series with a performance, both offensively but particularly defensively, that is still talked about. He had a niche: 16 Gold Gloves. Boog had a niche: big and strong and named “Boog,” for god's sake. Robby? I don't even remember if he was left field or right field.
That said, the fact that there were two superstar Robinsons on that pennant-stealing team seemed way cool in a kind of ‘70s black cop/white cop TV show way. Both became first-ballot Hall of Famers. No precedent for that: teammates, with the same last name, both going in first ballot. Frank joined in ’82, Brooks in ‘83. Even here, though, Frank was, in a way, overlooked. He went in with Hank Aaron, who received 97.8% of the vote—the second-highest percentage ever after Ty Cobb. That was the story. In the headlines, Robby, with 89% of the vote, was Aaron’s plus one.
This will strike baseball fans funny, but as a kid I got him all wrong. I always thought he was a mellow guy. I think I thought that because he seemed so composed on his baseball cards. Almost wistful. It wasn't until Ken Burns' “Baseball” in 1994 that I found out he wasn't like that at all. He was as ultra competitive as that other Robinson, Jackie. He burned. His anger made him better.
I still get him wrong. Yesterday, after news reached me of his death at the age of 83, I did the usual digging, and was surprised by how short his stint with the Orioles was. I knew it began in ‘66, because the trade—Robinson for Milt Pappas—is generally regarded as one of the most lopsided in baseball history. But I didn’t know he only lasted in Baltimore until ‘71. They traded him to the Dodgers that off-season. So his last at-bat as an O was in the 1971 World Series, Game 7, 9th inning. He popped out to short. When he arrived in Baltimore, Brooks told him, “You’re just what this team needs,” and they wound up winning the World Series that year—the first ever for that benighted franchise, which had begun as the hapless St. Louis Browns. Then they kept on winning. In the six years Frank Robinson was with that franchise, they won four pennants. In the 100+ Frank Robinson-less years, they‘ve won three.
You know what else surprised me? Not the homers. I knew he retired fourth on the all-time HR list—behind only Aaron, Ruth and Mays—because his 586 bested Harmon Killebrew’s 573 homers, and that kind of bugged me. He wasn't even a homerun hitter. He only had one 40+ season, while Killebrew had eight. But that's the way with him. He's not there, he's not there, and then he is. Why he was so overlooked.
No, what surprised me is the WAR. Among position players, Robby is 18th all time with 107.3. He's just behind Nap Lajoie and just ahead of Mike Schmidt. There are only 17 guys ahead of him in baseball history. That's his place. That high.
I still say I was right about the baseball cards. Just look at him.