Frank Robinson, Nats' first skipper and MLB's first African-American manager, dead at 83

Chris Lingebach
February 07, 2019 - 3:58 pm
Frank Robinson, Nats' first skipper and MLB's first African-American manager, dead at 83

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Frank Robinson, the Nationals' first manager, a Hall of Famer, Major League Baseball's first player to ever win Most Valuable Player in both leagues, and its first African-American manager, of both leagues, is dead at 83, the league has confirmed.

Robinson helped lead the Orioles to two World Series titles (1966, 1970) in four trips between the 1966 and 1971 seasons. In the 1966 season, Robinson won the Triple Crown – leading the American League with a .316 batting average, 49 home runs and 122 RBI – the American League MVP and World Series MVP.

Robinson began his career with a boom, slashing .290 with 38 homers and 83 RBI for the Reds, winning NL Rookie of the Year in 1956.

He wrapped up his prolific 21-year playing career in 1976, with a .294 lifetime batting average, .389 on-base and .537 slugging percentages, with 586 home runs (fourth at the time, behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays; now 10th all-time) and 1,812 RBI.

Robinson used the game to promote racial equality. According an archived article for ESPN, Robinson was initially reluctant to join the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, declining membership unless the organization would allow him to not make public appearances while he remained an active player.

But, Nick Acocella writes, Robinson's attitude changed "after he was confronted by Baltimore's segregated housing and a lack of support from the team in overcoming the bigotry of the city's real-estate business. Within a few years, he was one of the most outspoken players in the majors on a variety of racially charged issues, among them a lack of enthusiasm for rebuking white pitchers for throwing at black hitters."

In 1975, the Cleveland Indians named Robinson player-manager, making him Major League Baseball's first-ever African-American manager. He would manage the Indians through his final two seasons as a player, and through one partial season in 1977, compiling a 186-189 record. Robinson would go on to manage the San Francisco Giants (1981-84), Orioles (1988-91), Montreal Expos (2002-04) and Washington Nationals.

Managing the Nationals in their inaugural 2005 season, Robinson led a ragtag group of baseball journeymen to the top of the NL East through the middle of July, D.C.'s first touch of baseball since the Senators packed up for Texas after the 1971 season. Robinson, at 69, still had a gut full of fire and was ready to go toe-to-toe with any manager or ump at the drop of a hat. The Nats finished the season in fifth place at 81-81, but the nation's capital now had a thirst for winning baseball. New to that club in September was 20-year-old rookie Ryan Zimmerman, who's now entering his 15th MLB season.

"Frank was my first big league manager," Zimmerman said in a statement. "I still remember being so nervous to walk into his office and introduce myself. He was a living legend and I was a twenty-year-old kid right out of college. I can honestly say that meeting was the last time I ever felt that way around him. From that day on, he took care of me and treated me like a son. He was hard on me and at times I wondered why.

"I'm positive my career was shaped by the way he treated me and pushed me to be a professional. He taught me so many lessons about baseball and life that I will keep with me and pass along to teammates, friends and even my two daughters. We kept in touch through the years with phone calls, breakfast or lunch when I was on the west coast and locker room visits. He will be deeply missed by so many people. Thank you Frank for all that you did for me. You made baseball, and more importantly this world, a better place."

Robinson managed the Nats for one more season in 2006, his final year as a big-league skipper. He would go on to work in various front office roles for the league. In 2005, Robinson was bestowed the highest civilian honor in the United States, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.

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