The legend has statues in three cities. Who can claim him as their own?
Frank Robinson is, without reservations, one of the greatest players in baseball history. He is one of only twenty position players to top 100 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer, he earned MVP’ awards and World Series championships, and his career is replete with legends of his might and brilliance at the plate.
His place in baseball history is as secure as anyone’s, and more secure than most. In studying his career though, something sprung out at me. Robinson is somewhat unique among baseball’s greats, in that no one team can truly lay claim to him.
The first thing you think of when it comes to Robinson and team affiliation is the Orioles. It’s the hat he wears on his Hall plaque, it’s the team he was on when he hit a ball literally out of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium – the team memorialized it by planting a flag at its landing spot 540 feet from home plate – and it’s the city where he won a Triple Crown, MVP, and a pair of World Series. I’ve stood by his statue at Camden Yards, it’s as mammoth as his historical stature. To be honest, I didn’t really think of him as anything other than an Oriole until I looked into him more.
But Robinson spent only six years in Baltimore. He was brilliant there of course, being the on the other end of countless dazzling web gems from Brooks Robinson and posting that .316/49/122 Triple Crown stat line his first year there en route to the MVP. It wasn’t his first mark of greatness though, and it wasn’t his first MVP. That was won in 1961 with the Cincinnati Reds as he slashed .323/.404/.611 and led the NL in slugging and OPS+ at 165.
For ten years he was the centerpiece of the Reds offense, a living-god in the National League’s oldest city. His three best years by WAR were in Cincy: 8.7 in ‘62, 7.9 in 64 and 7.7 in his MVP year in ‘61. Again, he was truly brilliant. So brilliant that he still stands as the fourth best player in Cincinnati history by WAR at 63.3, no small feat on a team with such rich history. The fans revered him enough that they voted to include him in a sculpture of the Legends of Crosley Field, unveiled in 2003. It’s incredible the dominance he displayed for two franchises.
This is not a story that is typically told of players from the old days, especially from before the Reserve Clause was abolished. Players of Robinson’s caliber stuck with one team for basically their entire careers, or at least until the team decided they weren’t worth the money anymore. So seeing a player of this caliber sent to the Orioles for a pitcher that never panned out (Milt Pappas was the centerpiece of the deal, along with Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson) is simply mind blowing.
Yes, 30 years old in 1966 was much older in the game than even 30 is today, but that doesn’t make it any less of a bad trade.
In six years with the Orioles Robinson averaged 5.4 rWAR and slashed .300/.401/.543, his OPS a point better than his time in Cincy and his OPS+ fully 19 points higher due to the increasingly pitching-friendly atmosphere in baseball for a few years. Surely however, he made his greatest mark there with the titles, Triple Crown and MVP. Baltimore seems like a true home for Robinson, if we’re to value championships as the end-all, be-all (and revenge seasons always help too, with that insane first season in Baltimore).
But it’s not clear cut at all, espiecally since there’s a wild card – Cleveland. More than anywhere else, this is where Robinson sealed his place in baseball lore. The Indians brought him on from the Angels in mid-1974 and made him player-manager in 1975, making him the first African-American manager in baseball history. This was the beginning of a long career as a manager – even winning Manager of the Year four times and getting his number retired by the Nationals – but more than that it was the breach of a racial wall that deserves respect and honor.
His arrival in Cleveland alone is enough to make him a historical giant. The Tribe wasn’t successful under Robinson – they were generally unsuccessful at everything from about 1955 to 1994 – but he was vital to the future health of the game as a whole and for other minorities to break into a leadership role. He was pretty good too – in 1975 he posted a 153 OPS+ in 149 plate appearances – and the Indians thought enough of him and recognized what he did for the game enough to erect a statue at Progressive Field in 2017.
So who claims Frank Robinson?
Obviously there can be only one answer – baseball claims him. Between being a generational player, a star for two storied franchises and a trailblazer in the game, how can he be anything but the most Mr. Baseball type of guy that exists. It’s truly fascinating though his career arc. It’s something we’re used to these days, and are in the midst of it happening again as both the Orioles with Manny Machado and hte Nationals with Bryce Harper may well lose a potential franchise all-timer to another team. Again, that didn’t happen before Curt Flood. Like Joe Cooper said in BASEketball, players pre-Reserve Clause were like indentured servants.
Players – even big players – moved teams all throughout history. That includes the ‘legend-that-never-dies’, Babe Ruth, who infamously got traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees.
But to seal yourself in the history of not one but three old franchises, to the extent they build monuments to you, not to mention getting your number retired by another, that is something that has to be unique to Robinson. He’s not quite the shining legend that others like Ruth or Mays or Aaron are, not quite on the tip of the tongue as an all-time great to the average fan, but he’s no less a player and no less a singular figure in the history of the game. His ability to grace so many franchises with his presence, with his effort and skill and mind and might, that’s a rare gift.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball past and present at Let’s Go Tribe, Beyond the Box Score, and occasionally can be found elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.