The 2019 baseball season will be the 150th for the Cincinnati Reds. For ten of those years, Frank Robinson wore #20 for the Reds. In that brief time, he not only was one of the best players in baseball but he was one of the best ever to wear a Reds uniform.
Frank Robinson passed away on Thursday in Los Angeles. And a little bit of the Cincinnati Reds died with him.
Frank Robinson wasn’t a great “five tool” player. A right fielder, his arm was below average. He didn’t have great speed. But there are four main things that stood out about him.
Robinson was one heck of a hitter. He was a fierce competitor. He was durable and played most of the season. And he was a good teammate.
Longtime Cincinnati sportswriter Earl Lawson said it best when he was asked who was the greatest Reds player he ever saw. “Robby was the best,” said Earl. And Lawson covered the likes of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez.
Robinson joined the Reds as a 20-year old rookie in 1956. He smashed 38 home runs and won the Rookie of the Year award. He was remarkably consistent with his offensive numbers the next four years. Robinson made the All-Star team 14 times in his career. He was voted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
In 1961, he won the National League Most Valuable Player award when he helped lead Cincinnati to the National League pennant, batting .323, hitting 37 homers and knocking in 124 runs for the Ragamuffin Reds.
But 1962 was his best ever in a Reds uniform. He ripped 39 homers, drove in 136 runs, hit .342 and had a WAR of 8.4. Yet finished fourth in the MVP voting. It was one of the most impressive offensive seasons ever in Reds history.
You think Robby was tough? If a pitcher knocked him down, the 6’1”, 180 pound Reds right fielder kept his cool, dusted himself off and get his revenge at the plate. He was involved in more than a few fights with some tough dudes—like Milwaukee third baseman Eddie Mathews and Johnny Logan.
Before a game during the 1965 season, Reds pitcher Mel Queen was talking to a Los Angeles Dodger player on the field, a friend he had come up with in the minor leagues. Robinson pulled Queen to the side. “Hey Queenie,” said Robinson, “what’s that say on the front of your uniform?”
“Cincinnati,” replied Queen.
“You need to remember that when you’re out on the field,” said Robinson.
A good teammate? When the Reds distanced themselves from rookie Pete Rose in 1963, it was Robinson and Vada Pinson that befriended Rose. When Reds manager Fred Hutchinson was dying of cancer late in the 1964 season, the Reds rallied behind Robinson.
I won’t dwell on the disastrous trade that sent Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles after the 1965 season. Yeah, yeah, yeah—for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson as trivia buffs know . Or the famous quote from Reds GM Bill DeWitt who called Robinson “an old 30.” Robinson’s 1965 numbers weren’t shoddy—33 homers, 113 RBI’s and a .296 batting average. That ain’t old to me.
And I’d honestly forgotten Robby was the first black Manager in baseball for the Cleveland Indians. The Orioles traded him after the 1971 season to LA and then he played for Cleveland and California as well.
Today, I remember Frank Robinson as a Cincinnati Red. I’m a Reds fan today because of Frank Robinson. He was my favorite player. Everybody has a favorite player as a kid. Frank Robinson was mine.
He will always be a special, special player to me. A Reds player, in that unique vested red and white uniform. There may be statues of him in Cleveland and Baltimore but in my mind, he’s a Cincinnati Red. Forever.
In this 150th anniversary of the Reds, we need a Frank Robinson Day to honor him during the upcoming season. History demands it.
He intimidated other teams. He was a slugger. He’d choke up on the bat and didn’t care what people said. He was a force at the plate. Chico Ruiz had to be either crazy or foolish to steal home against the Phillies in September of 1964 with Robinson at the plate.
When I got the email about Frank Robinson passing away on Thursday, a bit of my childhood died. I never met him. I sent an 8 X 10 photo to him to sign a few years ago, which he did and I have it up in my sports room along with a Chris Felix painting of him that my brother bought for me. And Vada Pinson’s photo is right next to his—as it should be.
Robby was special. Like you, I’ve had other favorite players. Guys like Eric Davis, Tony Perez and Joey Votto.
But man, oh man. Frank Robinson was one of the best.
And make no mistake about it. He was a Cincinnati Red.
Photo of Crosley Field provided by Blake Bolinger. The image has been modified to include the headshot of Frank Robinson. The licensing for the photo can be found here.