In 1972, Topps did something unprecedented with its massive new set of 794 baseball cards. For the first time ever, the company included a small series of “traded cards,” which were issued late in the summer. And just so that card buyers and collectors received the message loud and clear, Topps altered the format from its regular issue cards, eliminating the team name at the top of the card but making sure to diagonally stamp the word “TRADED” in large letters onto the bottom half.
Topps issued seven traded cards that summer, including cards for Hall of Famers Steve Carlton (with the Phillies), Joe Morgan (with the Reds) and Frank Robinson, a card for fallen star Denny McLain (a rare shot of him with the A’s), and cards for good-but-not-great players in Jose Cardenal (Cubs), Jim Fregosi (Mets) and Rick Wise (Cardinals). By issuing the cards as part of its late summer release, Topps was able to snap photographs of the players in their new teams’ uniforms during the spring of 1972, rather than having to rely on the unstable art of airbrushing.
In a strange way, the Frank Robinson trade card stands out. While we remember Carlton as a Phillie and Morgan as a Red—those were the teams for which those players truly made their names—we don’t really remember Robinson as a Dodger. In fact, if you asked a baseball fan to name all the teams that Robinson played for, the Dodgers might be the one answer that would elude most people. He spent all of one year in Los Angeles, besieged by injuries, before ultimately leaving town quickly via another blockbuster trade. Robinson as a Dodger? If you blinked, you would have missed it.
Looking back, Robinson just doesn’t look right wearing Dodger Blue. I guess it’s because we’re so used to seeing him wear the red and white colors of Cincinnati and Baltimore, not to mention those all-red gems that the Indians rolled out in the mid-1970s. Even Robinson’s days with the Angels seem easier to digest. But Robinson as a Dodger just seems incongruous.
The circumstances surrounding Robinson’s arrival in Los Angeles are somewhat odd. In 1971, Robinson had played his usually profound role in helping the Orioles to their third consecutive World Series appearance. He hit 28 home runs, drew 72 walks, played a solid right field, and compiled a highly respectable OPS of .894. His numbers had fallen off only slightly from 1970, and not by a margin that should have caused great alarm.
Robinson also remained the team’s emotional leader, a fiery, hard-charging player who set the best of examples with his on-field intensity, and the imaginary “judge” who ran the team’s comical “Kangaroo Kourt,” which helped keep the Orioles players relaxed and carefree. Nicknamed “The Judge” for obvious reasons, Robinson ran the “Kangaroo Kourt” with a combination of mock toughness and humor, assessing teammates fines for anything from base-running mistakes to wearing their uniform the wrong way. The comedic setting of the Kourt, with Robinson setting the proper tongue-in-cheek tone, provided Orioles players with a way of staying loose during the long grind of the regular season.
So why did the Orioles trade Robinson? Perhaps the front office was looking for scapegoats to punish for the team’s disappointing finish in the World Series. The Orioles had plastered the Pirates in the first two games, only to lose four of the next five in one of the Fall Classic’s most stunning upsets ever. More likely, the Orioles were concerned about Robinson’s birth certificate. At the time of the trade, Robinson was 35 years old. He was still a very good player, but not in his prime. Orioles general manager Frank Cashen, newly installed as Harry Dalton’s successor, may have felt that Robinson was nearing rapid decline; if that were indeed the case, Cashen may have looked at the trade as a final opportunity to extract something of value for a Hall of Fame player.
So, the decision to trade Robinson was defensible. What was not was the package of players the Orioles received in return. In exchange for Robinson and hard-throwing lefty reliever Pete Richert, the Orioles received a package of four young players. The headliner was Doyle Alexander, regarded by some as the Dodgers’ best pitching prospect. But Alexander was not a hard thrower, and not the kind of young pitcher that seemed destined to become a franchise pitcher. Furthermore, the Orioles already had loads of pitching, with a quartet of four returning 20-game winners and a top pitching prospect of their own in Jesse Jefferson. As it turned out, Alexander would have a successful career, but the prime of it would come much later with the Rangers and the Blue Jays.
The other three players that came to Baltimore were catcher Sergio Robles, pitcher Bob O’Brien, and Royle Stillman. Of the three, Stillman is the most well-known, and if that isn’t damning with faint praise, then that phrase has no reason to exist.
The trade did not do much to help the Orioles, particularly in the short term, but it did even less for the Dodgers. The season immediately threw Robinson a curve in the form of the players’ strike, which delayed the start of the season and affected Robby’s timing at the plate. He also suffered a number of injuries, starting with a groin injury and continuing with a jammed wrist that he suffered while crashing into the outfield wall at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The wrist injury not only helped limit his playing time to 103 games, but affected his swing upon his return from the disabled list.
I had originally though the transition to Dodger Stadium had damaged Robinson’s hitting, but the numbers do not bear that out. Robinson hit .302 and slugged .530 at Dodger Stadium, normally a boneyard for batters. For Robinson, his problems did not occur at home, but on the road, where he compiled a .212 batting average and a .701 OPS.
Robinson did find it difficult playing for Walter Alston, the legendary Dodgers skipper. Quiet and reserved, Alston didn’t talk much to his players, at least not directly. Robinson, a talkative and outgoing sort, preferred a manager who would have made more of an effort to communicate with his players, particularly a veteran like Robby.
Approaching his 37th birthday and facing criticism that his days as an impact player were over, Robinson worked harder and adapted to advancing age; he bounced back by hitting 30 home runs for the Angels and maintained his effectiveness as a player through the 1974 season, just two years before his retirement.
Robinson’s achievements as a player are sufficient to gain him a place in the game’s mythical pantheon. Yet, they don’t include all of his contributions to the game. In 1975, he became the first African-American manager in major league history, a pioneering feat that hasn’t been given its full recognition, even three and a half decades after the fact.
Overcoming racist elements from some quarters of the game, particularly fans and some opponents, Robinson learned quickly on the job, beginning with his tenure as a player-manager for the Indians. In his early years with the Indians, Robinson lost his temper too often and didn’t handle his disagreements with umpires very effectively, but he learned to curb his temper and selected his fights more judiciously.
After enduring growing pains in the dugout, Robinson became an improved manager with the Giants, guiding the team to a respectable third-place finish in 1982, and later led the Orioles out of the wilderness of one of the worst eras in the franchise’s history. A “Manager of the Year” Award in Baltimore, coupled with his work in helping the Expos and Nationals become perennial overachievers, convinced some observers that he had become one of the game’s more accomplished managers. As with his playing legacy, Robinson the manager remains underrated, but his old-school approach and deep-seated knowledge of the game earned him the respect of both the old-time print media and some of their younger counterparts on the Internet.
Few men have combined a Hall of Fame playing career with a distinguished tenure as a manager. Frank Robinson deserves recognition for both; he was one of the game’s immortals on the field and then an inspiring leader from the dugout.
Decades after his playing days ended, Frank Robinson remains clinically underrated. The attention given to Robinson’s retirement as a player—he would remain a manager in 1976—fell short of the pomp-and-circumstance afforded contemporary players like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. Unfortunately, the passing of time hasn’t done much to improve Robinson’s legacy with the mainstream media. Whenever a writer provides his listing of an all-time team or a media outlet conducts of survey of fans, Robinson’s name never seems to make the cut. He’s never listed among the top three outfielders of all time, rarely even named among the top half-dozen outfielders, and hardly even given consideration as the team’s imaginary designated hitter.
Of course, the competition is ridiculously stuff. How exactly does Robinson break through an all-time outfield of Ted Williams, Mays, and Babe Ruth, not to mention Aaron and Barry Bonds? How do we include Robinson without sending insults at Ty Cobb or Stan Musial or Rickey Henderson? There are no easy answers to those questions.
Perhaps ranking Robinson is missing the point. Let’s just appreciate him as a full-fledged five-tool talent who did everything well in his prime: he hit for average and power, ran well and stole bases efficiently, played a good defensive right field, and threw well from the outfield (at least until he hurt his shoulder). Simply put, he had no discernible weakness in his all-encompassing game.
And then there are the more subtle aspects to the game, especially the parts that involve intelligence and effort. As a hitter, Robinson was both patient and aggressive; he was selective enough to draw walks and limit his strikeouts, but daunting enough to take a stance that featured half of his body hanging over home plate, challenging pitchers to throw at him inside (and pile up his hit-by-pitch totals).
On the bases, Robinson was one of the greatest base-runners of all-time. Hustling at all times, he ran with an unmatched abandon and urgency, even when plagued by injury. On potential double plays, few runners of his era have ever matched Robinson’s intensity in knocking down middle infielders. While arguments could be made for the likes of Don Baylor and Hal McRae, it’s debatable whether either of those gamers took out the second baseman with any more ferocity than Robinson did.
And then there’s Robinson’s defensive play, which featured an emphasis on the fundamentals: hitting the cutoff man and throwing to the right base. From controlling the strike zone to understanding the importance of running the bases to grasping game situations in the outfield, Robinson excelled at every one of these under-appreciated aspects of the game.
It’s these favorable attributes that come to my mind when I’m privileged to hold one of Frank Robinson’s baseball cards.