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Front Row Seat: Frank Robinson is most underrated slugger in baseball history

by MIKE LESKO | REPORTER Published: August 17, 2016 1:00 AM
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Frank Robinson, who was inducted July 30 into the Cleveland Indians' Hall of Fame, is the most underrated slugger in baseball history.

Fans typically rattle off the names of legendary home run hitters like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, but often forget Robinson, who was right there with them.

Robinson sacrificed his career home run total to become skipper of the Indians -- the first black manager in Major League history -- late in his playing career in 1975.

As a player / manager, his playing time diminished as he focused on guiding the Tribe. He finished his career with 586 home runs.

That was fourth on the all-time home run list when he retired and is ninth all-time now. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

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The Indians' Hall of Fame Class of 2016 also included Jim Thome, Albert Belle and Charlie Jamieson. Robinson, who will turn 81 on Aug. 31, was not able to attend the ceremony.

Robinson first became a star in Cincinnati, leading the Reds to the World Series during the 1961 season when he was the National League most valuable player.

However, prior to the 1966 campaign, the Reds, believing Robinson was over the hill, traded him to the Baltimore Orioles for three players. It was a terrific deal for the Orioles.

In 1966, I was a young baseball fan when Robinson achieved his remarkable triple crown season, leading the American League in homers, runs batted in and batting average.

In one game against Indians pitcher Luis Tiant, he slammed a home run completely out of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, the only time it had ever been done.

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Naturally, Robinson was the American League MVP that season. In the '66 World Series, he powered the Orioles to the title as they tripped up the Los Angeles Dodgers and supreme pitcher Sandy Koufax, which seemed impossible at the time.

AFTER THAT, Robinson led the Orioles to three more World Series and a second championship in 1970.

In Cleveland, Robinson is most remembered for slugging a home run in his first at-bat in the home opener in his initial game as the first black manager. I attended the game. The roar of the crowd was immense after his homer.

After that, there were other exciting moments when Robinson inserted himself into the lineup as the designated hitter. But he was an older player concentrating mainly on leading the team.

As manager, Robinson had mixed results. It was, after all, the lousy Indians team of yesteryear, and not even the great Frank Robinson was going to change that.

But during his prime, he was a player filled with greatness.

When I was a kid and someone mentioned that some modern player was really good, my mom Bettie, who was a big baseball fan like me, would say, "He's not as good as Frank Robinson."

She was correct.

Years later, I was in the Orioles locker room after covering an Indians game for a newspaper.

I was there to get quotes from one of the Orioles stars when I saw Robinson enter the room. Dressed in a suit, he was a front office executive with Baltimore by that time.

Soon I found myself standing right next to him as he talked to some member of the team. At that moment, I thought of my mother and how she always praised him.

Mom was right. Few players in baseball history were as good as Frank Robinson.

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4184

Facebook: facebook.com/mike.lesko.378

Twitter: Mike Lesko@MikeLesko_RPC

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