Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Frank Robinson

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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.

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Comments

  1. Michael Caragliano said...

    Bruce, I agree with you 100% about Frank Robinson being vastly underrated. I think Robby gets the mark as the most underrated all-time great. I used to think that title went to Lou Gehrig, but Ripken’s assault on The Streak brought Gehrig’s other accomplishments into the discussion. Then I thought it was Roberto Clemente, until you realize that the MLB award named after him draws attention to Clemente as a whole, not just as a ballplayer. Then I thought it was Stan Musial, until I saw the respect Albert Pujols bestowed on him, making “The Man” still relevant nearly 50 years after his retirement. You have to wonder if people would sit up and notice Frank Robinson more if he had stuck around and collected 600 homers and 3,000 hits.

    On the baseball card front, Robinson’s 1973 card is a nice baseball card mystery. It’s a great horizontal action shot with Robinson swinging and the catcher and ump watching. He was with the Angels by the start of 1973, so Topps resorted to airbrushing to take “Dodgers” off the front of his jersey, but the script underline is still there, and the yellow seats and scorboard scream Dodger Stadium. The photo was taken during the day, and the Phils and Dodgers only played one day game at Chavez Ravine in 1972, so the mystery is solved easily: the Phillies catcher is John Bateman, and the home plate umpire is Bill Williams.

  2. Jim C. said...

    Um, the Orioles wear orange, not red.

    It’s interesting that you mention Don Baylor.  Perhaps the Orioles’ biggest motivation for trading Robinson was to make room for Baylor in the outfield.  Also, note that Baylor has publicly credited Robinson with teaching him the hard-nosed playing style they both had.

  3. Michael said...

    If Frank had been a Pete Rose type player-manager, he probably would have cracked 3000 hits and 600 in 1975.
    As far as most underrated, he is a good candidate. But I think there is an even better candidate, which you highlighted yourself: “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”
    Who’s missing?
    Tris Speaker – 9th all time in bWAR (6th for outfielders), all time leader in doubles, 5th in hits (second when he retired), a 157 OPS+, .436 wOBA, and 158 wRC+.
    Another underrated player is Cap Anson, who collected 3435 hits in much shorter seasons in the 19th century. Using BB-Ref’s neutralizer, had he played a 162-game schedule, he would have collected an amazing 4,823 hits.

  4. Paul E said...

    Frank was appreciated in his time – 2 MVP awards at least say half as much….

    Underated? How about Eddie Mathews and Mel Ott? W/O checking, Mathews has to 2nd in 3B WAR and Ott has to be regarded on par/even greater than Frank as an offensive player. Neither ever received an MVP award

    Dodgers shipped Dick Allen out of town in 1972 because he wouldn’t eat pasta with Frankie and Dino. Robinson wasn’t up to the rigors of the NL at age 35. That being said, he is absolutley an all-time great and the inspiration for Dayton OH native Michael Jack Schmidt wearing #20

  5. Anon said...

    Agree with bucdaddy that the more correct description is forgotten than underrated and could apply to both RObinson and Musial (and Speaker as well). THere are a lot of people who, if you asked them to name all-time greats, the very best of the best, would rattle off the Ruths and Mantles and so on and when they didn’t name RObinson or Musial would kick themselves for forgetting those names. THat’s not underrated, that’s just forgotten.

  6. john said...

    From the Giants’ 1st year in The City (1958), till 1965, only Aaron was more feared by Jints fans.  We were very happy when DeWitt (De-half-Witt?) traded him.

  7. Ralph C. said...

    The 1981 San Francisco Giants hired the second black manager in major league baseball history—and the first black manager in the National League history.  This manager was Frank Robinson. This kind of thing doesn’t happen too often, does it?

    Another great article, Bruce.

  8. Steve I said...

    Good article.  Because Robby had 500 fewer games than Aaron (and 200 fewer than Mays), his career totals don’t look the same, but all three were essentially the same: contemporary outfielders who batted .300, slugged .550, hit 30 doubles and 35 homers a year, walked and struck out 80 times, scored and batted in 105 runs, and stole a dozen bases.  A really well-matched trio, just Robby wasn’t quite as durable.

  9. Mike Clark said...

    Speaking of forgotten players, I think Larry Doby was the 2nd black manager hired – by Bill Veeck in 1978. Also a Hall of Famer.

  10. Marc Schneider said...

    I think Frank Robinson has been hurt, at least in recent years, by the attention paid to Roberto Clemente, primarily due to his performance in the 1971 World Series.  After that, people made such a big deal out of Clemente being overrated that, in my mind at least, he became somewhat overrated, at least in comparison to Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.  Robinson was also hurt by the reputation he picked up as somewhat of a troublemaker because he didn’t conform to the conservative values of baseball front offices, ie, especially as an African-American player,he didn’t keep his mouth shut. It’s ironic in a way that he became the first black manager because he was considered a “militant” by some in the game. 

    Steve I makes a good point.  Robinson missed much of 1967 due to an injury, which may have affected him in 1968 (when most other hitters struggled anyway).  Without that, he would certainly have been well over 600 home runs.

  11. butch said...

    Look, We All Know Frank Robby Was A Great HOF Player!! What We Tend To Forget Is That He Was Also An Even Greater Manager!! Sadly, He Had Lousy Teams To Manage, But Who Has More Knowledge About The Game Than Him? Very Few, I’d Say!! I Felt He Got Hosed In Washington With MY BELOVED EXPOS/NATIONALS!! He Should Have Stayed Around To See The NATS Start Winning!! But He Will Be 80 Years Old Soon, And That Is Kind Of Old. I Welcome Comments.

  12. Bruce Markusen said...

    Marc, it’s interesting that you mention that. Robinson and Clemente had quite a personal rivalry, which came to a head during the 1971 World Series. Clemente made some complaints about the condition of the outfield at Memorial Stadium, Robinson then told Clemente to shut up about it (indirectly, not face to face), and Clemente came back with his own retort about being able to play anywhere on any outfield. I guess Clemente had the last laugh. He batted .414 in that Series, hit two home runs, and helped carry the Pirates to one of the biggest upsets in Series history.

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