Frank Robinson Left a Lasting Impact on Sports, America and our Play Like a Champion Community
Updated: Feb 11, 2019
The great Frank Robinson was a Hall of Fame baseball player. The first player to ever win the MVP award in both the American and National Leagues, he was officially inducted in 1982 after a career that speaks for itself. A part of 5 teams over 21 seasons, the hard-hitting Robinson made 14 All-Star games while batting .294 and hitting 586 home runs, a feat that placed him 4th all-time when he retired and still sees him inside the Top 10. Playing primarily in Cincinnati and Baltimore - where he won the World Series in 1966 and 1970 - Robinson was among the most feared hitters in the game and undoubtedly one of its best players. There are many statistics where he ranks ahead of legendary names like Ruth, Mantle, Mays, and Aaron.
And yet, all of his accomplishments on the field pale in comparison to his broader impact on baseball, sport and the world around him. In 1975 Robinson became the Player/Manager of the Cleveland Indians and in doing so became the first African American manager in Major League Baseball, breaking the color barrier for that role nearly 30 years after Jackie Robinson did so as a player. After going on to manage 16 years for 4 different franchises (which included winning the 1989 AL Manager of the Year Award), he stepped into the Commissioner's office, where he worked on a number of issues as a Vice President and Senior Advisor to the Commissioner over 12 years.
Robinson became active in the civil rights movement in Baltimore after he was traded there following the 1965 season and struggled to find housing due to his skin color. When he did settle, in a racially mixed upper-middle class neighborhood on the city's northwest side, his arrival helped spur positive changes in the city's race relations during a tumultuous time, shedding light in particular on the areas of segregated housing and discriminatory real estate practices. So great was his impact on the city that less than a year after he couldn't find a home, a street was named in his honor, one of many such awards he would receive in recognition for his service to society and his impact on the world around him.
So great were his contributions to the game of baseball and society that in 2005, Robinson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. The highest civilian honor any American can receive, Robinson was given the award for "setting a lasting example of character in athletics."
Who would have predicted that a new era of segregation is taking place in American sports today? Three years ago star center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles, Adam Jones, called baseball “a white man’s game.” The statistics bear him out. There was only one African American manager in Major League Baseball last year and the percentage of black major league players is down to below 8% from a high of 18%. The trends in youth sports are not promising. Participation in baseball and in other youth sports depends increasingly on family income and zip code, which disproportionately exclude minority children.
The youngest of ten children, in a single parent household, Robinson played sports growing up because they were free. In an interview for the National’s Urban Youth Academy, he expressed shock and disappointment that baseball had become too expensive for many children to play. He bemoaned the fact not that children lacked the same opportunity he had to make it to the big leagues, but that they were deprived of the hope and encouragement that youth sports had provided for him.
We were blessed to see Frank Robinson's character up close when he became a friend of Play Like a Champion. Robinson sat down for a series of videos to discuss the importance of character, encouragement and play in youth and high school sports. These videos live on as part of our high school coach training, providing his insight into teaching children to love the game and providing positive coaching and instruction.
Robinson died today at the age of 83, survived by his wife Barbara and daughter Nichelle. We were privileged to have worked with Mr. Robinson and share in a small part of his substantial legacy, a life that will continue to impact baseball and society for years to come.