After winning the 1966 Triple Crown, Frank Robinson made a prophetic statement: "I don't want people to say Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in one breath, and, then, in the next, Frank Robinson. I want them to say Mantle, Mays, Aaron and Robinson in the same breath." 33 years later, baseball released the results of a poll to determine the greatest players in baseball history. A big stink was made because Roberto Clemente didn't make the list; no one seemed to notice that Robby wasn't there, either.
As a player, Frank Robinson was basically a duplicate of Hank Aaron. Aaron debuted in 1954, Robinson in 1956; they
were both black, right-handed right-fielders; they both rank among the scariest
power hitters ever, but were also great athletes who did everything well. Aaron
was a little bit better, a little healthier, and he lasted a bit longer, but Robinson's best seasons were as good as Hank's.
Frank Robinson was the youngest of 11 children, a gifted athlete who played basketball in high school with Bill Russell. He was signed right out of high school for $3000, and made his professional debut in 1953 at Ogden in the Pioneer League, where he played third base. In 1954 he played with Tulsa in the Texas League, where he played second base before moving to the outfield. In 1955, his progress was slowed by a mysterious arm ailment that prevented him from throwing; by 1956, the arm had healed, and he was ready for the majors at age 20.
Robinson was the 1956 NL Rookie of the Year, in a season in which he tied an NL rookie record by hitting 38 home runs. Like Aaron, he became reknowned for his quick wrists, and he followed up with a strong sophomore season in 1957. In spring training in 1958, he was beaned in the head by Camilo Pascual and knocked unconscious. He was plagued that season by headaches, and also found himself flinching at the plate. At midseason he was hitting only .247 with eight homers.
He rediscovered his aggressiveness at the plate, and hit 23 home runs in the second half of the season. He would remain a fearless hitter who crowded the plate for the remainder of his career. He was hit often, 198 times in his career; said Robinson: "I've found that the best way to retaliate is with a base-hit". He backed up his words, so much so that manager Gene Mauch threatened to fine any of his pitchers who hit Robby. Robinson also developed a reputation as an aggressive baserunner. He shunned friendships with players on opposing teams, explaining that, "there's no way you can go barreling into second base and dump on a guy on a double play, like you should do, when you've been fraternizing with him before the game."
On August 15, 1960, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Braves, he slid hard into third base. Some bad words between him and Eddie Mathews quickly developed into a fight; Mathews landed some punches, briefly knocking out Robby and forcing him from the game. In the nightcap, Robinson played with one of his eyes swelled shut, and hit a home run. Nobody was fined or suspended; the league office came to the conclusion that this was "a normal fight between ballplayers".
This season, he won his first MVP Award, leading the Reds to the pennant, where they fell to the Yankees. In 1962, Robinson injured his back in the spring, and only hit .186 in April. He hit .356 the rest of the season, including 14 home runs in August. He finished with career highs in hits, doubles, batting average, runs scored and RBI, his best season during his stay in the National League. 1963 was a disappointing season plagued by injuries; he hit .300 again in 1964, despite being troubled by his back for much of the season, and having to take pain-killers and muscle relaxants.
After the 1965 season, he was traded to the Orioles in a deal that stunned the baseball world. Said Cincinnati owner Bill DeWitt: "The reason I traded him is because he is an old 30, he has a medical history and I wanted to strengthen our pitching". With the Orioles, Robinson made the most of his 30's, winning four pennants, two World Series, an MVP Award and a Triple Crown (see AL 1966
This is an impressive group of players, but I think that Robinson deserved the MVP. He was the best hitter in the league, and was also the league's top base stealer; he
was caught only three times. The top three vote getters were Robinson, Orlando Cepeda and
Vada Pinson. Cepeda had impressive power numbers; Pinson was very good,
and played for the Reds as well. But I think that both Willie Mays and Hank
Aaron were better players. Aaron and Mays were both
better defensive players and baserunners than Cepeda, and both
had significantly more power than Pinson.