Baseball legend Frank Robinson passes away at 83
on February 26, 2019
On February 7, Oakland native and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson passed away at the age of 83 after a battle with a prolonged illness. The McClymonds High School graduate played 21 seasons in the league, hitting 586 home runs. He was a 14-time All-Star and the only player to win Most Valuable Player Awards in both leagues – 1961 for the Cincinnati Reds in the National League and 1966 for the Baltimore Orioles in the American League. In 1982, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 89.2 percent of the vote.
“It was a real loss for baseball here in Oakland and the Bay Area,” said Paul Brekke-Miesner, a local sports historian, of Robinson’s passing.
“If it was not for Rickey Henderson coming out of Oakland, Frank Robinson was probably the greatest of all time,” Brekke-Miesner continued, referring to the legendary Oakland A’s player. “I think he never got the credit he deserved because of the way he played the game.” Robinson was known for his fierce competitive will and leadership on the field.
As a player, Robinson was known for “hard-nosed” style of play. He never played the game dirty, but “if you needed a double play broken up, Frank broke up that double play,” according to Brekke-Miesner. (A double play is making two outs in the same continuous play.)
Brekke-Miesner, deeply rooted in Oakland, attended Castlemont High School and was a former “stringer” for The Oakland Tribune and The Berkeley Gazette. His book, Home Field Advantage: The City that Changed the Face of Sports, documents all the sports players out of Oakland in the last 150 years. Baseball in Oakland, he said, “has the greatest pedigree of all, in which 90 players have gone to the major leagues over the last 100-plus years.”
He reflected back to when he first heard of Robinson in high school. During that time, McClymonds baseball head coach was George Powles, who sent 17 players onto the major leagues. “He was a tough kid who grew up in Oakland,” Brekke-Miesner said of Robinson. “He learned to play the game from George Powles, so you learned to go all out.”
When working on his book, Brekke-Miesner interviewed Powles, who stated that Robinson was the “greatest player he ever coached.”
At McClymonds, Robinson was part of an outfield crew that included players such as Curt Flood and Vada Pinson. Flood became a seven-time Golden Glove winner who played 12 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Golden Glove is awarded to any player who has exhibited superior individual fielding performances throughout the season. Pinson was also an elite talent, one of only ten players to make at least 250 home runs and 300 steals in their playing career. Robinson’s classmates also included fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, a second baseman for the Reds, and Rudy May, who went on to a 14-year pitching career.
Robinson also played basketball with Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who became the first black coach in the National Basketball Association.
At 15 years old, Robinson played for Powles’ American Legion baseball team, where his talent shone and he become noticed by scouts. Upon graduating high school, he signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds. By 1956, he was the National League rookie of the year.
Brekke-Miesner also mentioned at that time black players such as Robinson had to be “significantly better than their white counterparts.”
“It was a few years removed from when Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier in baseball,” said Miesner. “If you look at his stat line, it’s just amazing. He is right up there with the Mickey Mantles and all the other great white players.”
In his 21-year career, Robinson went on to play for the Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels, and Cleveland Indians. Not only did Robinson win the MVP in both leagues, but he also won the Triple Crown award, which is awarded to a player who leads the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in (RBI’s) at the end of the season. He also led the Orioles to two World Series Championships in 1966 and 1970.
In 1975, Robinson became a trailblazer for African Americans in the game, as he became a player-manager for the Cleveland Indians, making him the first black manager in the MLB. He would then go on to manage the San Francisco Giants, Orioles and Montreal Expos—now known as the Washington Nationals—before retiring in 2006. He would then work in various positions for the MLB such as on-field operations and senior vice president for Major League Operations.
“He was an icon for everybody especially in the black community,” said Brekke-Miesner. “There was a time not too many years ago when there was a belief that African Americans did not have the mental capacity to be a manager, and he broke that concrete ceiling.”
Currently, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is the lone black manager in the MLB.
“We are deeply saddened by this loss of our friend, colleague and legend, who worked in our game for more than 60 years,” wrote Robert Manfred, the league’s commissioner, in a statement. “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.”
According to Cassidy Lent, reference librarian for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Robinson family asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory be made to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis or the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Robinson’s number—20—has been retired by both the Baltimore Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds. But this season, Baltimore players will wear a number 20 commemorative jersey patch on the right sleeve of their jerseys to honor Robinson. Cincinnati players will also honor him with a black number 20 patch on the left chest of their jerseys.
For Brekke-Miesner, Robinson’s passing will take some time to get over, as he wished he could have fulfilled one dream: to rename North Oakland’s Bushrod Park in Robinson’s honor.
“Some of the greatest players in the game learned the game there,” said Miesner. “It’s important that young men knew the history of the game here in Oakland. Him passing before we got that done was sad for me.”
“He played, coached, and worked in baseball for almost 60 years of his life,” said Miesner. “When you stop to take the time and think, what he accomplished and how he accomplished it, he’s one of the greatest Major League Baseball players of all time.”
On February 7, Oakland native Frank Robinson, passed away at the age 83 after a battle with a prolonged illness. Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
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