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An Appreciation

How Frank Robinson’s baseball contributions went from underrated to historic

Remembering the career of the Hall of Famer and MLB’s first black manager

When Frank Robinson was managing the Montreal Expos (2002-04), I asked him if all of his players knew who he was.

They did not, the gray-haired man with the pained gait said. He then explained how two players had recently asked him if he’d ever played the game.

Please tell me they’re the product of another country’s education system, one not steeped in American lore.

Nope, he said, those two fellows were American. I was stunned. All I could think to ask was …

“What did you say?”

“I told them I played a little.”

Then he smiled.

He played baseball, and not just a little.

I know the game has never produced a perfect product. That didn’t mean Frank Robinson ever stopped trying. And what he brought to the game, as a player, manager, executive, trailblazer, was so propelled by unbridled talent and pride, determination and drive, he awed those wise enough to pay attention.

On Thursday, Brooks Robinson was among the many Hall of Famers who recalled the special player whose plaque hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, after Frank Robinson died at age 83.

Brooks Robinson was a star among stars in Baltimore when Frank Robinson joined the Orioles in 1966. And the titular head of that team has often said Frank taught the Birds how to win. “I put Frank in a class with Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Mickey Mantle,” Brooks said in a statement. “He was the best player I ever played with. When he came here in 1966, he put us over the top.”

I have often wondered whether all who should know better truly understand just how incredibly special No. 20 was. It often seemed that many did not. Remember, it was baseball fans who compiled an all-century team to welcome the 21st century but did not include Frank Robinson.

Claire Smith (left) describes Frank Robinson (right) as one of the most underrated players of his era.

Photo Courtesy of Claire Smith

Bud Selig, then the commissioner, had assured that baseball would fix any obvious oversights after the poll closed. And the game did add Stan Musial to the roster. But not the late Roberto Clemente. And not Frank Robinson.

Frank, on-site during an All-Star Game ceremony honoring the team, watched from the stands as the living members named by the fans were introduced. The banned-for-life Pete Rose was allowed on the stage. Frank Robinson was not.

That moment alone convinced me that Frank Robinson unfairly and inexplicably was the most underrated player of his era, or any other.

I know Frank felt it. I know he understood why people openly questioned why there were not enough accolades, or apologies. Apologies for a man who’d spent a quarter-century staring up at only Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays on the all-time home run list.

The soiled steroid era may have helped knock him, and his 586 homers, down the HR list to No. 10, but purists know who belongs on baseball’s Mount Rushmore.

Frank Robinson belongs.

He’s the only player to have been voted MVP in both the National and American leagues. Thousands of players have had a chance to join him, yet the distinction has remained unequaled since 1966. He’d won the AL MVP by authoring a Triple Crown in ’66, his response to the Cincinnati Reds trading him because he was deemed too old.

He capped that 1966 season by helping lead Baltimore to a World Series sweep of the Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale-led Los Angeles Dodgers.

Little did we know that this Robinson, like Jackie, was out to reshape the game and how it looked at African-Americans. Though Frank would not be the last, he was the first black American to manage a major league team. He likely will forever remain the only major league manager of any hue to pencil himself into the lineup, then homer in his first at-bat.

That’s a man whose responses to barriers were as fierce and persistent as his approaches at the plate and on the basepaths. Few wanted to be on the receiving end of that intent, that glare, not even the lords in the owners’ boxes.

Perhaps that is the reason I never missed an opportunity to sit and listen to Frank Robinson, to watch and learn. To me, passing on such occasions would have been akin to shrugging off a chance to watch da Vinci or Michelangelo paint a canvas. I never tired of visiting his world, and seeing the game through the eyes of a man who played more than just a little bit.

Claire Smith is a recipient of The National Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award for her contributions to baseball writing as a reporter and columnist. She is a news editor for ESPN.