The scene of a player being the best in not only Reds history, but the best in Major League history, has become a familiar one. Regarded as one of the greatest right-handed hitters who ever lived, Frank Robinson is the easy choice as the best to ever wear the #20 for the Cincinnati Reds.
Bursting on the scene in 1956 at the ripe age of 20, the young slugger from Beaumont, Texas, clobbered 38 homeruns and led the league with 122 runs on his way to cruising into being named the National League Rookie of the Year. His All-Star appearance and seventh place finish in the MVP voting also announced the arrival of one of the greatest players to ever patrol the outfield at Crosley Field.
One of the oddest instances in Robinson’s career was his particular adeptness at being drilled by a thrown ball. On seven separate occasions, Robinson led the league in hit by pitches. If for any other reason, this may speak to the “spirit” behind the game of baseball during this era. When a team felt wronged, they targeted the opposing teams’ best hitter, which Robinson happened to be.
Continuing his meteoric rise, Robinson slugged away as the Reds put together their best team in nearly two decades at the beginning of the 1961 season. Of course, the ultimate goal was not in the cards as the M&M boys from the Bronx were busy crushing their way into the history books. In the Midwest, Frank Robinson was collecting the first of his two MVP trophies, this one of the National League variety. Robinson certainly had a titanic season with a .323 batting average, 37 homeruns and 113 RBI’s, but did not lead the league in any of those categories.
Criminally enough, he outperformed himself in every single major statistical category the following year in 1962, and all he had to show for it was a fourth place finish. Maury Wills, the speed demon Dodger shortstop took home the award that year based primarily on his 104 stolen bases. Robinson led the league in runs (134), doubles (51), on-base percentage (.421), slugging percentage (.624) and OPS that season (1.045), just to be denied.
After the two best seasons of his career, Robinson disappeared from the game’s Mid-Summer Classic, regardless of finishing fourth in MVP balloting in 1964. He returned to the July showcase in 1965, and managed another 30 homerun-100 RBI, typical Robinson-like season, but folks within the Reds organization were wary. What happened next has gone down as one of the worst trades in the history of Major League Baseball.
Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson were acquired from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Frank Robinson at the conclusion of the 1965 season. It is hard to imagine things going worse, and the Reds front office had their “foot in their mouth” moment when Robinson went on to put up historic numbers that are still revered today in the following season with the 1966 Orioles.
As painful as it was to watch Robinson have the sports first Triple Crown in ten seasons, watching Robinson win the ring he never won in the Queen City must have been unbearable. Certainly, his first ten seasons spent in Cincinnati made him the superstar he became, but he got the World Series ring he so coveted as a member of the Baltimore Orioles.
There is great irony in the fact that this piece is being written on a day where our nation celebrates the work and tireless efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his attempt to strip away any barriers race ever created. Robinson was the first African-American manager in the history of Major League Baseball, a distinction that cannot ever be stripped away. More important than his Triple Crown, or the fact that he is the only player ever to win the MVP award in both leagues, Robinson was an ambassador for the game of baseball in the African-American community.
The summer of 1982 was when Robinson was inducted into baseball immortality. Receiving 89.2% of the vote, an appalling 45 of the 415 available voters did not vote Robinson in on the first ballot. He may have gone in as a member of the Baltimore Orioles, but his impact on the city of Cincinnati and the Reds organization cannot be ignored.
Outside of Great American Ball Park stands a glorious bronze statue of one of the best players to ever play our magnificent game. A feared power hitter with a disarming smile, carried Reds baseball for a decade.
Cesar Geronimo went on to wear the#20 while he was a member of the famous Big Red Machine decades later, as the club had yet to retire the number. Finally, in 1998, it was hung up for good, ending the debate about who was the best to ever wear the #20 as a member of the Reds.
As far as the rest of the Majors, Mike Schmidt is the only other player to don the #20 for a significant period of time to merit an argument. Depending on the era of the person you ask, their opinion may differ on who the best was. For Reds fans everywhere though, Frank Robinson will never be forgotten for not only the man he was in between the white lines, but the man he was off it as well.