Frank Robinson is the player I measure every other against, and they almost all come up short
“When you made a mistake on the field, you hated going back to the dugout because you knew you had to face Frank.”–-Elrod Hendricks.
I was asked by a reader to write something about Frank Robinson. I’m thrilled to do it for a long list of reasons. First, he’s the player I measure every other against. We all have someone like that. Sometimes, it’s a guy we grew up watching. Other times, it’s someone we covered.
My admiration for Frank Robinson comes from another place. I moved to Baltimore in 1984 to cover the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun (and later the Washington Post), and even though Frank hadn’t played a game there in 13 years, his name was still spoken with reverence.
He played for the Orioles for just six seasons (1966-71), but those six seasons transformed an entire franchise. The Orioles won the American League pennant four times in those six seasons and won the World Series twice. No team did more with less, and it was during those six seasons they gained the reputation of being one of baseball’s smartest and most efficient franchises.
Frank was a great player, not just in terms of productivity, but in terms of leadership, setting an example, you name it. He won the Triple Crown and American League MVP in his very first season of 1966, and that obviously is where all the other stuff begins. He hit at least 30 home runs 11 times, had at least 30 doubles seven times and stolen 10 or more bases 10 times.
He was a tough guy, at times brutally tough, like the day he wrapped his huge hands around a sportswriter’s throat and shoved him against a locker. There’s no way Frank ever intended to hurt the guy because he easily could have snapped the guy’s neck into six pieces. He just wanted to get a point across.
Those Kangaroo Courts he ran got a lot of attention because there was a funny photo of Frank wearing a mop on his head. But those sessions were absolutely serious. They were Frank’s way of communicating how to play the game the right way, and of not tolerating any other way, especially not tolerating losing.
Frank was unafraid to confront teammates for their mistakes. He would challenge an opposing pitcher in a moment. Fans want players to care about as much as they care. No player I’ve ever known cared more than Frank. No player was as intolerant of players who didn’t.
My favorite story about Frank concerns a game–I’ve long since forgotten the date or place–when he had a wrist injury so severe he was unable to swing the bat. Only his teammates knew how badly Frank was hurting. Never mind that. Frank bunted for a hit, stole second and scored the winning run on a hit.
During his National League days, he had some hellish battles with Don Drysdale. Don would throw one at Frank’s head. Frank would get up and slap one off the wall.
One day, some of us in the media were asking Frank about the best pitchers ever ever faced.
Juan Marichal? “Killed him,” Frank said.
Bob Gibson? “Killed him,” Frank Said.
Don Drysdale? “Killed him,” Frank said.
Sandy Koufax? “Killed him,” Frank said. “Wait. You said Koufax? No one killed him, and if they said they did, they’re lying.”
Frank was legitimately a five-tool player because he could win games with his bat, arm, legs, glove.
My other favorite Frank story is also blurry in terms of time and place. But a pitcher in the minor leagues knocked Frank down. He grounded out a couple of pitches later, and as he crossed the infield heading back to the dugout, he punched the pitcher in the face.
There were stories about a Giants pitcher who refused to give Frank the ball when, as a manager, he went to take him out of the game. That pitcher never made that mistake a second time.
Frank finished his 21-year career, with 586 home runs. At the time, only Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660) had more. At the moment, he’s ninth on the home run list, 20th in RBIs, 15th in runs, 11th in total bases and 10th in intentional walks. He’s also eighth all-time in being hit by pitches. (Frank thought the inside portion of the plate was his. Others apparently disagreed.)
Frank got 89.2 percent of the vote when he appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 1982. That year, Hank Aaron bgot 97.8 percent of the vote. In other words, Aaron wasn’t mentioned on nine ballots, and Frank wasn’t mentioned on 45, which tells you the boys had a real high standard.
I have very few pieces of memorabilia from my nearly four decades of covering this wonderful sport. My favorite is a small framed photograph taken at an Orioles function in spring training in around 1988. It shows a smiling Frank Robinson holding my infant daughter, Katy. Watching him play with her that evening made me smile then, and thinking about it, makes me smile now.