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Frank Robinson is, without reservations, one of the greatest players in baseball history. He is one of only twenty position players to top 100 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer, he earned MVP’ awards and World Series championships, and his career is replete with legends of his might and brilliance at the plate.

His place in baseball history is as secure as anyone’s, and more secure than most. In studying his career though, something sprung out at me. Robinson is somewhat unique among baseball’s greats, in that no one team can truly lay claim to him.

Most greats are tied to a team: Musial to the Cardinals, Mays to the Giants. Mantle to the Yankees. DiMaggio to the Yankees. Gehrig to the… Yankees.

The first thing you think of when it comes to Robinson and team affiliation is the Orioles. It’s the hat he wears on his Hall plaque, it’s the team he was on when he hit a ball literally out of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium – the team memorialized it by planting a flag at its landing spot 540 feet from home plate – and it’s the city where he won a Triple Crown, MVP, and a pair of World Series. Many have stood by his statue at Camden Yards, it’s as mammoth as his historical stature.

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Robinson spent only six years in Baltimore. He was brilliant there of course, being the on the other end of countless dazzling web gems from Brooks Robinson and posting that .316/49/122 Triple Crown stat line his first year there en route to the MVP. It wasn’t his first mark of greatness though, and it wasn’t his first MVP. That was won in 1961 with the Cincinnati Reds as he slashed .323/.404/.611 and led the NL in slugging and OPS+ at 165.

For ten years he was the centerpiece of the Reds offense, a living-god in the National League’s oldest city. His three best years by WAR were in Cincy: 8.7 in ‘62, 7.9 in 64 and 7.7 in his MVP year in ‘61. Again, he was truly brilliant. So brilliant that he still stands as the fourth best player in Cincinnati history by WAR at 63.3, no small feat on a team with such rich history. The fans revered him enough that they voted to include him in a sculpture of the Legends of Crosley Field, unveiled in 2003. It’s incredible the dominance he displayed for two franchises.

This is not a story that is typically told of players from the old days, especially from before the Reserve Clause was abolished. Players of Robinson’s caliber stuck with one team for basically their entire careers, or at least until the team decided they weren’t worth the money anymore. So seeing a player of this caliber sent to the Orioles for a pitcher that never panned out (Milt Pappas was the centerpiece of the deal, along with Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson) is simply mind blowing.

Yes, 30 years old in 1966 was much older in the game than even 30 is today, but that doesn’t make it any less of a bad trade.

In six years with the Orioles Robinson averaged 5.4 rWAR and slashed .300/.401/.543, his OPS a point better than his time in Cincy and his OPS+ fully 19 points higher due to the increasingly pitching-friendly atmosphere in baseball for a few years. Surely however, he made his greatest mark there with the titles, Triple Crown and MVP. Baltimore seems like a true home for Robinson, if we’re to value championships as the end-all, be-all (and revenge seasons always help too, with that insane first season in Baltimore).

But it’s not clear cut at all, espiecally since there’s a wild card – Cleveland. More than anywhere else, this is where Robinson sealed his place in baseball lore. The Indians brought him on from the Angels in mid-1974 and made him player-manager in 1975, making him the first African-American manager in baseball history. This was the beginning of a long career as a manager – even winning Manager of the Year four times and getting his number retired by the Nationals – but more than that it was the breach of a racial wall that deserves respect and honor.

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His arrival in Cleveland alone is enough to make him a historical giant. The Tribe wasn’t successful under Robinson – they were generally unsuccessful at everything from about 1955 to 1994 – but he was vital to the future health of the game as a whole and for other minorities to break into a leadership role. He was pretty good too – in 1975 he posted a 153 OPS+ in 149 plate appearances – and the Indians thought enough of him and recognized what he did for the game enough to erect a statue at Progressive Field in 2017.

So who claims Frank Robinson?

Obviously there can be only one answer – baseball claims him. Between being a generational player, a star for two storied franchises and a trailblazer in the game, how can he be anything but the most Mr. Baseball type of guy that exists. It’s truly fascinating though his career arc. It’s something we’re used to these days, and are in the midst of it happening again as both the Orioles with Manny Machado and hte Nationals with Bryce Harper may well lose a potential franchise all-timer to another team. Again, that didn’t happen before Curt Flood. Like Joe Cooper said in BASEketball, players pre-Reserve Clause were like indentured servants.

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Players – even big players – moved teams all throughout history. That includes the ‘legend-that-never-dies’, Babe Ruth, who infamously got traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees.

But to seal yourself in the history of not one but three old franchises, to the extent they build monuments to you, not to mention getting your number retired by another, that is something that has to be unique to Robinson. He’s not quite the shining legend that others like Ruth or Mays or Aaron are, not quite on the tip of the tongue as an all-time great to the average fan, but he’s no less a player and no less a singular figure in the history of the game. His ability to grace so many franchises with his presence, with his effort and skill and mind and might, that’s a rare gift.

MORE ON MR. ROBINSON

Frank Robinson (born August 31, 1935) is an American former Major League Baseball (MLB) outfielder and manager. He played for five teams from 1956 to 1976, and became the only player to win league MVP honors in both the National and American Leagues. He won the Triple Crown, was a member of two teams that won the World Series (the 1966 and 1970 Baltimore Orioles), and amassed the fourth-most career home runs at the time of his retirement (he is currently 10th). Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

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Robinson was the first black manager in MLB history. He managed the Cleveland Indians during the last two years of his playing career. He went on to manage the San Francisco Giants, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals. He is the honorary President of the American League.

In addition to his two Most Valuable Player awards (1961 and 1966) and his World Series Most Valuable Player award (1966), Robinson was honored in 1966 with the Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of the year in any sport.

In 1982, Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a Cincinnati Reds. Robinson is also a charter member of the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame (along with Brooks Robinson), and a member of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, being inducted into both in 1978. He was named to the Washington Nationals Ring of Honor for his “significant contribution to the game of baseball in Washington, D.C” on May 9, 2015. He was inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame in 2016.

The Reds, Orioles, and Indians have retired his uniform number 20. He is one of only two major league players, the other being Nolan Ryan, to have his number retired by three different organizations.

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Frank Robinson’s number 20 was retired by the Baltimore Orioles in 1972.
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Frank Robinson’s number 20 was retired by the Cincinnati Reds in 1998.
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Frank Robinson’s number 20 was retired by the Cleveland Indians in 2017.
Robinson being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

In 1999, he ranked Number 22 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

Three teams have honored Robinson with statues:

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 9, 2005, by President George W. Bush. On April 13, 2007 Robinson was awarded the first Jackie Robinson Society Community Recognition Award at George Washington University.

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In his career, he held several major league records. In his rookie season, he tied Wally Berger‘s record for home runs by a rookie (38). (The current record would be set by Aaron Judge in 2017.) Robinson still holds the record for home runs on opening day (8), which includes a home run in his first at bat as a player-manager. Robinson won the American League Triple Crown (.316 BA, 49 HR, 122 RBI) – only two players (Carl Yastrzemski and Miguel Cabrera) have since won the award in either league – and the two MVP awards, which made him the first player in baseball history to earn the title in both leagues.

Post-managerial career

Robinson first served in the MLB front office as Vice President of On-Field Operations from 1999 to 2002, responsible for player discipline, uniform policy, stadium configuration, and other on-field issues.

Robinson served as an analyst for ESPN during 2007 Spring training. The Nationals offered to honor Robinson during a May 20 game against his former club the Baltimore Orioles but he refused.

In 2007 Robinson rejoined the MLB front office, serving as a Special Advisor for Baseball Operations from 2007 to 2009. He then served as Special Assistant to Bud Selig from 2009 to 2010, and then was named Senior Vice President for Major League Operations from 2010 to 2011. In June 2012, he became Executive Vice President of Baseball Development. In February 2015, Robinson left his position as Executive Vice President of Baseball Development and was named senior advisor to the Commissioner of Baseball and Honorary American League President.