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OC Register: Frank Robinson, Baseball Hall of Famer, dies at 83

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Frank Robinson, a trailblazer who forged his own path from the playgrounds of West Oakland to baseball immortality, died Thursday after a long battle with bone cancer, according to several reports. He was 83.

The Hall of Fame outfielder had been in hospice care for the past few months and passed away in Los Angeles, almost 45 years after he made baseball history by becoming its first African-American manager with the Cleveland Indians.

Robinson is mostly remembered in the Bay Area for managing the Giants from 1981-84, when he was the first African-American to manage in the National League.

But the long-legged, quick-wristed kid from McClymonds High with a chip on his shoulder remains perhaps baseball’s most overlooked superstar. In fact, when he was near the end of his managerial career in 2005, one of his players on the Nationals apparently asked him if he had ever played the game.

Oh, did he ever.

A 14-time All-Star and two-time world champion, Robinson finished his star-studded 21-year career with 586 home runs and remains the only major leaguer to win the MVP award in both the American and National leagues.

His former Baltimore Orioles teammate, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, once said Robinson was “the best player I ever saw.”

Robinson’s baseball legacy was cemented on a sunny, summer day in New York in 1982 when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For a kid who had always fought to prove he was worthy, Robinson told those in attendance that even he couldn’t believe where his career had taken him.

“A young boy in Oakland, California playing on an asphalt baseball field, he didn’t dare dream, not even dare think … wouldn’t even dare let the thought enter his mind that he would one day be standing up here being inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Robinson said during his speech. “But it has happened. I thank the lord for giving me the god-given talent to play the greatest game in this country.”

From the time Robinson burst into the major leagues with the Reds as a record-setter in 1956 until he finished his managerial career with the Nationals in 2006, he had spent 50 years in uniform. Coupled with his time working in the Commissioner’s office, Robinson has worked in baseball for more than 60 years.

The sometimes surly, often times superlative Robinson made an impact right away as a 20-year-old rookie with the Reds. The right fielder’s batting line was .290/.379/.558 for a .936 OPS. He also hit 38 home runs to set a National League rookie record that the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger finally broke 61 years later with 39.

Robinson won the NL MVP five years later after hitting 37 home runs and driving in 124 runs and posting a 1.015 OPS for the Reds.

The Reds then seemed to test Robinson’s competitive juices when they traded him to the Orioles after the 1965 season, saying he “is an old 30.” A rejuvenated Robinson wasted no time in proving how wrong the Reds were.

All he did in his first year in Baltimore was win the AL MVP, capture the Triple Crown by hitting 49 homers, driving in 122 runs and batting .316, all while leading the Orioles to a world championship.

The man Orioles fans affectionately called “F. Robby” wound up playing 10 more seasons in the majors — five as an All-Star — while hitting 262 more home runs to finish with the fourth-most in MLB history when he finally retired at the end of the 1976 season. Not bad for a guy dismissed as too old a decade earlier.

While winding down his career in 1975 with the Indians, Robinson was hired as their player/manager. It was a bittersweet moment for Robinson. Just three years earlier, and nine days before he died, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson talked about how he’d love to “look down the third base line and see a black man as manager.”

“The one wish I could have is that Jackie Robinson could be here today to see this happen,” Robinson said during a press conference after his hiring.

As someone accustomed to spectacular debuts, Robinson did it again on Opening Day in 1975. In his first game as manager, he inserted himself into the lineup as Cleveland’s designated hitter. Naturally, he smashed a home run off the Yankees’ Doc Medich in his first at-bat. It was his eighth opening day home run, which remains an MLB record.

After his playing days were over, Robinson went on to manage the Giants, Orioles, Expos and Nationals during a 16-year managerial career that saw his teams go 1065-1176. He was the AL’s Manager of the Year in 1989.

In San Francisco, Robinson’s teams went just 264-277 and finished in third place in the NL West twice in four seasons. But it was also in San Francisco that Robinson’s aggressive nature was frequently on display.

One of the more memorable moments for Robinson came when he went to the mound to take pitcher Jim Barr out of the game. Barr dismissively flipped the ball to Robinson and began walking toward the dugout. An agitated Robinson quickly spun Barr around and, with finger wagging, chewed out his pitcher on the field.

The man some called “The Director of Discipline” wasn’t always the most loved manager, but he certainly earned the respect of many. Current Giants announcer Duane Kuiper, who played for Robinson in both Cleveland and San Francisco, said he was “the best manager I ever played for.”

Born in Beaumont, Texas, on Aug. 31, 1935, Robinson was the youngest of Ruth (Shaw) Robinson’s 10 children. By the time he was four, his father had left the family so his mother moved Frank and her other children to Oakland.

Growing up in a tenement on Myrtle Street in West Oakland, his family struggled to make ends meet. Robinson once joked his quickness came from being one of 10 kids. “If you weren’t quick, you didn’t eat,” he said.

Sports had also become a perfect way for the young Robinson to avoid the trouble that surrounded his neighborhood. The grittiness and aggressive style of play that Robinson came to be known for in the majors was also born on the playgrounds near his home.

Once, while sliding into second base to try to break up a double play, Robinson cut his leg and tore a hole in his pants, incurring the wrath of his mother in the process. As a testament to his tenacity, Robinson’s slide had come while he was playing on the asphalt.

He never owned his own baseball glove until he was 14. That was around the time Robinson’s talents really began to show while playing American Legion baseball. As a 14-year-old playing against mostly older kids, Robinson helped Bill Erwin Post 337 of Oakland win the first of its back-to-back national championships.

Later, under the guidance of famed Oakland youth coach George Powles, Robinson stood out despite being surrounded by greatness in the city. Consider that by the late 1960s two Oakland high schools just 2½ miles apart — McClymonds and Oakland Technical — had produced 29 major leaguers! While at Mack, Robinson even teamed with future NBA legend Bill Russell to make the Warriors’ 1952 basketball team virtually unbeatable. Meanwhile, Robinson’s Mack baseball team, also featuring future major leaguer Curt Flood, were also dominating. Another Mack star, Vada Pinson, would later patrol the Cincinnati Reds outfield with Robinson.

Months after the 1953 baseball season, Robinson, armed with a $3,500 signing bonus from the Reds, left Oakland to begin what would become the journey of a lifetime.

Robinson is survived by his wife, Barbara, a son and a daughter.

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