Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame outfielder who hit 586 home runs and became a racial pioneer as the first black manager in the major leagues, nearly three decades after Jackie Robinson broke modern baseball's color barrier playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 83.
Major League Baseball announced the death but did not specify the cause. The Baltimore Sun recently reported that Robinson was in the late stages of a long illness.
Playing for 21 seasons, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles, Robinson was the only winner of the Most Valuable Player Award in both the National and American Leagues.
He was an intense and often intimidating presence, leaning over the plate from his right-handed stance, daring pitchers to hit him (which they did, 198 times), then retaliating with long drives, "pounding pitchers with fine impartiality," as baseball writer Roger Kahn once wrote. He broke up double plays with fearsome slides.
As a player, Robinson insisted that teammates match his own will to win. As a manager, he had little patience with lack of hustle.
Robinson won baseball's batting triple crown in 1966, hitting 49 home runs, driving in 122 runs and batting .316 in his first season with the Orioles and helping the team capture a World Series championship for the first time in franchise history.
He batted at least .300 in nine different seasons, had 2,943 career hits, drove in 1,812 runs and played on five pennant-winning teams. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first time on the ballot.
Robinson made his debut as the majors' first black manager with the Cleveland Indians on April 8, 1975, 28 years after Jackie Robinson (no relation) first took the field with the Dodgers. Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's widow, threw out the ceremonial first ball.
Frank Robinson, who was still an active player, punctuated the historic occasion by hitting a home run in his first at-bat, as the designated hitter, leading the Indians to a 5-3 victory over the New York Yankees.
He managed for all or parts of 16 seasons, with the Indians (1975-77), the San Francisco Giants (1981-84), the Orioles (1988-91), the Montreal Expos (2002-04) and their successor franchise, the Washington Nationals (2005-06). He never managed a pennant winner, but the Baseball Writers' Association of America named him the American League manager of the year in 1989, when his Orioles finished second in the East Division, two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays.
Orioles' Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer told Baseball Digest in 2006 that Robinson's arrival in Baltimore via a trade with Cincinnati had kindled the franchise's resurgence. "If Frank saw something, Frank was going to say something," he said. "When he came over here, he was the leader. He was the guy. He made us all better."
Another of the Orioles' leading pitchers of that time, Dave McNally, was quoted in John Eisenberg's oral history of the team, "From 33rd Street to Camden Yards": "As good as Frank was, it was how hard he played that really made an impact. The intensity the man had was really incredible."
Frank Robinson was born Aug. 31, 1935, in Beaumont, Texas, and grew up in Oakland, Calif., the youngest of 10 children. He signed with the Reds organization in 1953 and made his major league debut as Cincinnati's left fielder three years later.
In that season he hit 38 home runs in a lineup laden with power hitters like Ted Kluszewski, Wally Post and Gus Bell, and was named Rookie of the Year.
Robinson went on to hit 37 homers, drive in 124 runs and bat .323 for the Reds' 1961 pennant-winners, and he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player that year. He remained a formidable figure at the plate for Cincinnati through the mid-'60s.
In what became one of baseball's most one-sided deals, the Reds traded Robinson to the Orioles after the 1965 season. Cincinnati received pitcher Milt Pappas and two other players, none destined to make much impact. Bill DeWitt, the Reds' general manager, was quoted as saying that Robinson was "an old 30," suggesting that he was past his prime.
But Robinson was named MVP for the American League and MVP for the World Series in 1966, when the Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers with a lineup also including Boog Powell at first base, Davey Johnson at second and future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson at third.
The Orioles also had a superb pitching staff led by McNally, Palmer, Wally Bunker and Steve Barber. Robinson hit two home runs in that Series, both off Don Drysdale, the first in Game 1 and the second in the Series-clinching Game 4, a 1-0 Baltimore victory.
In his six seasons with the Orioles, he helped lead the team to four pennants and two World Series championships.
Robinson was traded by the Orioles to the Los Angeles Dodgers before the 1971 season and later played with the California Angels and briefly with the Indians. After being named manager, he continued to play as a designated hitter.
When the Indians announced in October 1974 that Robinson would become their manager, a milestone event in baseball's race relations, he received a congratulatory telegram from President Gerald Ford.
"I don't think I was hired because I was black," Robinson said. "I hope not. I think I've been hired because of my ability."
Robinson's wife was Barbara Ann Cole. They had a son, Frank Kevin, and a daughter, Nichelle.
Robinson entered the Hall of Fame with Hank Aaron, baseball's home-run king at the time. Rachel Robinson attended the ceremony, and she was asked about her husband's legacy in leading the way for the game's first generation of great black players.
"Jackie would not want to upstage them," she said. "But they represent the epitome of what Jackie wanted: excellence."