Robinson still going strong at 70

Robinson still going strong at 70

ATLANTA -- One could argue that Frank Robinson is the most successful person to ever work in Major League Baseball over the last 50 years. The accomplishments speak for themselves.

From 1956 to 1976, Robinson put together a Hall of Fame career over the course of 21 seasons, hitting .294 with 586 home runs and 1,812 RBIs with five different teams -- the Reds, Orioles, Dodgers, Angels and Indians.

Robinson, who celebrates his 70th birthday on Wednesday, is the last right-handed hitter to win the Triple Crown and the only person to win the Most Valuable Player Award in both leagues, a feat that still surprises Robinson himself. He figured free agency would cause a lot of players to repeat the feat.

"People probably think I'm joking that I'm surprised," Robinson said not long ago. "People look at me and say, 'You've got to be kidding. That's tough to do.'

"It's not tough to do. The better players are moving around, and it's mind-boggling that some players haven't done it."

The year was 1966, a season Robinson now calls "a magical-type year." It was Robinson's first season with the Orioles after being traded from the Reds. His impact in Baltimore was felt almost immediately.

In early April, Robinson hit a ball completely out of Memorial Stadium off Luis Tiant. Robinson went on to win the Triple Crown, hitting .316 with 122 RBIs and a career-high 49 homers, and helped the Orioles sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

"That year, you can put it in a capsule," Robinson said. "After the trade, everything kind of fell into place. We won the league championship. You go to the World Series against the mighty Dodgers and you sweep them in four games. It was one of those years you just didn't dream about."

Robinson's accomplishments continued after his playing days were over. Off the field, Robinson was the vice president of on-field operations for Major League Baseball and helped put together the Arizona Fall League.

During his playing career, Robinson made it known that he wanted to remain in the game as a manager. And his wish came true in 1975, when the Indians hired him as the first African-American to manage a big-league team.

Robinson has managed in the Majors for 15 years. During those years, he has considered himself "a good mechanic." Four teams -- the Indians, Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals -- have asked Robinson to turn them into winners.

All four teams improved under Robinson, with the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals finding themselves in pennant races.

Before the 2005 season started, for example, most of the baseball experts predicted that the Nationals would be one of the worst teams in baseball. But, as usual, a Robinson-led team is overachieving.

Entering Wednesday's action, the Nationals are in the thick of the Wild Card race, and, even though they are six games behind the Braves, Robinson still has his sights on a division title.

But in order for them to reach the top of the division, the Nationals must start picking it up on offense. The team is hitting just over .230 in the second half and that's the reason the club is 14-27 during the second half, sitting in fifth place.

"No one seems to be running away from anybody," Robinson said. "The Mets and Phillies probably made the biggest jump. Atlanta is kind of in neutral and we are in reverse."

Asked if it bothered him that he has never had the horses from the start to win a championship, Robinson said, "If it bothered me, I wouldn't be where I am today. It's just like living in one area of town and you can't afford the things some of your friends can afford. Does that bother you? Subconsciously, it does a little bit. But you can't let it get the best of you and control your thought process. If you do, you won't have a very happy life."

For 70 years, Robinson credits his happy life to several people: his mother, Ruth; his playground director in Oakland, Mary Russo; and his high school coach and father figure, George Powles; his wife, Barbara; and children, Kevin and Nichelle.

There have been reports over the years that Frank was his mother's favorite child, but he said his mother didn't let him get away with anything. He never received a spanking from his mother, but her glaring eyes kept him from doing the wrong things in life. In fact, Robinson said he loved his mother so much that out of pure respect for her, he couldn't go into a life of crime.

"I never got a whippin', but sometimes I wish she had given me one because she could give you some looks, boy. You would rather have her put a spanking on you," he said. "You could get over that, but that look ... that was all that it took. My personality, I took after her. She was a very quiet, kind of a shy lady."

"Out of pure respect for my mother, I didn't want to ever bring anything negative or bad to where she would have to take some type of disciplinary action. I respected her so much -- the sacrifices that she made for us and to have the best that we possibly could have."

The other lady in Robinson's life as a child was Russo, who encouraged Robinson to enjoy sports. He waited on her doorstep every morning and walked her to work so he could pick up the baseball equipment.

"She had a direction on which way I went," he said.

Then there was Powles, who had the greatest impact on Robinson's life. Powles was the baseball and basketball coach at McClymonds High School in West Oakland, Calif., the school Robinson attended.

"There hasn't been one storm cloud in my relationship with my wife and my kids about baseball or being away for so long."
-- Frank Robinson

It was Powles who taught Robinson the fundamentals of baseball. And it paid off handsomely for Robinson in years to come.

"He prepared you to go out and play baseball and have an opportunity to win ballgames," Robinson said. "We were well organized. He knew the rules of the game. He executed the game fundamentally -- offensively and defensively. He could show you both ways. In the infield-fly rule, he would teach you how to do it defensively and offensively."

Robinson's wife and his children are the primary reason he has stayed in the game.

One of the sacrifices Barbara and the kids made occurred in the late 1960s, when Frank was with the Baltimore Orioles. He decided that he wanted to become a manager after his playing days were over.

In 1968, Frank accepted a job to manage Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Barbara was supportive, telling Frank, "Whatever you have to do, you do it. The kids and I will adjust to you."

Frank feels that statement set the tone for him to have a successful career after his playing days were over.

"They have made a lot of sacrifices. They put up with a lot of stuff. They have been very positive and have always been in my corner," Frank said. "There hasn't been one storm cloud in my relationship with my wife and my kids about baseball or being away for so long. That has allowed me to approach the jobs that I've had with an open mind and focus on the jobs without worrying about them."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.