Few knew what would happen when baseball returned to the District in 2005. The Montreal Expos were lifted out of Quebec and brought down to the nation’s capital, providing celebration and wonder. Frank Robinson was in charge.
Robinson already had extensive managerial experience. He became the first black manager in Major League Baseball as the player-manager for Cleveland in the 1975 season. Montreal was his fourth managerial home. Nothing prior was the same as Opening Day in Washington. Everything before prepared him for it.
Robinson died this week. He was 83.
“We are deeply saddened by this loss of our friend, colleague and legend, who worked in our game for more than 60 years. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Frank’s wife Barbara, daughter Nichelle, their entire family and the countless fans who admired this great figure of our National Pastime," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
Robinson leaves as one of the game’s legends. Robinson was a two-time MVP, All-Star MVP, World Series MVP, Triple Crown winner while playing for the Baltimore Orioles, where he would later also manage, and member of the Hall of Fame. He even threw-in a Manager of the Year recognition in 1989 and added the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Robinson went on to work for Major League Baseball as the honorary president of the American League after his days on the field concluded. Few can match his legacy.
Statement from the Angelos family on the passing of Hall of Famer and Orioles Legend Frank Robinson. pic.twitter.com/pNMx7cDJ8O— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) February 7, 2019
His roots suggested fame was ahead. Robinson played high school basketball in Oakland with one of history’s all-time winners, Bill Russell, after being born in Beaumont, Texas. But baseball was his calling.
Robinson remains the lone player to be named MVP in both leagues. He hit 586 home runs during a 21-year career with five teams. The journey began in 1956 when Robinson was a 20-year-old rookie. His 38 homers and league-leading 122 runs scored were enough to earn him the National League Rookie of the Year Award and an All-Star Game appearance.
He slugged with remarkable consistency from there. Robinson walked as often as he struck out on his way to almost 600 home runs, the kind of elite hitting that translates from his playing career, which closed in 1976 at age 40, to the modern era with an emphasis of reaching base in multiple ways.
Working for the Orioles in 1966 following a lopsided trade from Cincinnati -- a historical fleecing despite Baltimore sending out three players to acquire Robinson -- delivered his nadar at the plate. Only nine players in MLB history have won the Triple Crown. Robinson became the eighth after a dominant summer in Memorial Stadium delivered a .316 average, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs. Robinson also led the league OPS, OPS-plus, runs and total bases. He was named MVP. The Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
In 1970, Robinson hit back-to-back grand slams in the Orioles’ 12-2 win over the Washington Senators at RFK Stadium. Baltimore again won the World Series that year, and reached the final postseason series four times in his six seasons with the Orioles. The era is an unrivaled span in the organization’s history.
Robinson’s hitting approach mirrored the one he took off the field. He crowded the plate, often being brushed back in the era which demanded such an approach. He would get up, reset, then attempt to pulverize the next pitch.
He dealt with racial unrest throughout his playing career with the same direct and unimpeached approach. Bethel Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Ala., in 1956, the year Robinson debuted as a player a six-hour drive north. His appointment of player-manager for Cleveland caused President Gerald Ford to reach out in a letter and Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to express regret. From the New York Times, Oct. 3, 1974 following an almost two-hour news conference to announce Robinson’s position:
President Ford described Robinson's selection as “welcome news for baseball fans across the nation” and a “tribute to you personally, to your athletic skills and to your unsurpassed leadership.” Attending the news conference were Bowie Kuhn, the Commissioner of Baseball, and Lee MacPhail, the president of the American League.
“We got something done,” Kuhn commented, “that we should have done before.”
Wearing a black and white plaid suit with a vest, Robinson attempted to reduce his sociological burden.
“The only reason I'm the first black manager is that I was born black,” he said calmly. “That's the color I am. I'm not a superman, I'm not a miracle worker. Your ballplayers determine how good a team you have. I might influence the ballplayers to some extent, but if we have a good team, they deserve the credit. If a ball club fails, I think the manager should be held responsible. I want to be judged by the play on the field.”
Asked if he foresaw any additional pressure on him to succeed as a black manager, he replied:
“I don't see any pressure. I don't see any goals I have to achieve as the first black manager. The pressure from within is not there.”
Robinson spoke those words to start his first managerial job. His final one ended in the District at the end of the 2006 season. An inspirational first half of the 2005 season engaged a longing baseball crowd. The team receded following the All-Star break, leaving Robinson to wish he was more adamant in his push for reinforcements before the trade deadline that season. The potent first half allowed the team to finish an unexpected 81-81. But, the following year brought a dip to 71-91, closing Robinson’s time in Washington as well as his managerial career.
By then, Robinson was 70 years old, having entered Major League Baseball 50 years prior on April 17, 1956, as a 20-year-old hitting seventh and playing left field at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. Vinegar Bend Mizell won the game, Joe Nuxhall lost, and Frank Robinson began one of baseball’s great journeys with a telling double in his first at-bat.