Crowding the plate, fearsome and fearless, Frank Robinson hammered his way into the Hall of Fame.
His legacy, however, was cemented the day he simply stood in the dugout at old Cleveland Stadium as the first black manager in Major League Baseball.
Robinson, the only player to earn the MVP award in both leagues, died Thursday at 83. He had been in failing health and in hospice care at his home in Bel Air. MLB said he was with family and friends at the time.
“Frank Robinson’s resume in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
Robinson hit 586 home runs — he was fourth on the career list behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays when he retired and now ranks 10th. An MVP with Cincinnati and Baltimore, he won the Triple Crown while leading the Orioles to their first World Series championship in 1966.
An All-Star outfielder in 12 seasons and a first-ballot selection to Cooperstown, Robinson also was a Rookie of the Year and picked up a Gold Glove.
But his place in the sport’s history extended far beyond the batter’s box and basepaths.
In 1975, Robinson fulfilled his quest to become the first African-American manager in the big leagues when he was hired by the Cleveland Indians. His impact was immediate and memorable.
The Indians opened at home that year and Robinson, still active, batted himself second as the designated hitter. In the first inning, he homered off Doc Medich and the crowd went crazy, cheering the whole April afternoon as Cleveland beat the Yankees.
The Reds, Orioles and Indians have retired his No. 20 and honored him with statues at their stadiums.
Robinson later managed San Francisco, Baltimore and Montreal. He became the first manager of the Washington Nationals after the franchise moved from Montreal for the 2005 season — the Nationals put him in their Ring of Honor, too.
More than half the major league teams have had black managers since his debut with Cleveland.
Robinson later spent several years working as an executive for MLB and for a time oversaw the annual Civil Rights Game. He advocated for more minorities throughout baseball and worked with former Commissioner Bud Selig to develop the Selig Rule, directing teams to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a new manager.
For all he did on and off the field, Robinson was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005.
Born Aug. 21, 1935, in Beaumont, Texas, Robinson attended McClymonds High School in Oakland, California, and was a basketball teammate of future NBA great Bill Russell. But it was on the diamond, rather than court, where fame awaited Robinson.
Former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer, who also gained first-ballot entry into the Hall, once called Robinson, “the best player I ever saw.”
Starting out in an era when Mays, Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams were the big hitters, Robinson more than held his own over 21 seasons. He finished with 1,812 RBIs and hit .294 — he played in the World Series five times, and homered in each of them.
Robinson was the only player to hit a ball completely out of old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and once connected for grand slams in consecutive innings of a game. But he didn’t just slug away, as evidenced by a .389 on-base average boosted by 1,420 walks against 1,532 strikeouts. Extremely alert on the bases, he had 204 steals.
Robinson played the game with grace, yet was known as fierce competitor who combined hard work with natural talent. He crowded the plate, yielding to no pitcher, and didn’t seem to care about being brushed back or getting hit by a pitch 198 times.
“Pitchers did me a favor when they knocked me down,” Robinson said. “It made me more determined. I wouldn’t let that pitcher get me out.”
And opposing pitchers noticed.
“Frank Robinson might have been the best I ever saw at turning his anger into runs. He challenged you physically as soon as he stepped into the batter’s box, with half his body hanging over the plate,” Hall ace Bob Gibson once wrote.
“As a rule, I’m reluctant to express admiration for hitters, but I make an exception for Frank Robinson,” Gibson wrote.
Survivors include his wife, Barbara, and daughter Nichelle.
There was no immediate word on funeral arrangements.