Frank Robinson was a Dodger big deal
As the stars of my youth start to die off some make a bigger emotional impact than others. Frank Robinson had a storied HOF career well documented yesterday by numerous outlets including MLB media which showed off what they considered the ten most important moments of his career. What won’t be included in all the homages to the great Frank Robinson was his lone season as a Dodger as his career was winding down. That was probably because there aren’t any Dodger bloggers except for myself who actually saw Frank Robinson play baseball at the Ravine.
1970 was the year I started watching the Dodgers in person at the Ravine and while I had my favorites in Billy Grabarkewtiz and Bill Sudakis the team lacked star power. Don Sutton wasn’t very far into his future HOF career and wasn’t even the best pitcher on his team. In 1971 the Dodgers tried an African-American slugger named Dick Allen to bring some cachet to the team and Allen did his job becoming the best hitter on the team with booming home runs to center field. The three best hitters on the Dodgers in 1971 were all African-American hitters, Dick Allen, Willie Davis, and Willie Crawford.
Dick Allen wasn’t long for the Dodgers and on Dec 2nd, 1971 the Dodgers pulled off two trades that involved a future HOF, two players who remain two of the most iconic players in baseball history, and one player who helped the Atlanta Braves become the best team of the 1990s. The first trade was to move Dick Allen to the Chicago White Sox for Tommy John. Dick Allen would go onto win the MVP in 1972 and start a three-year-run of an OPS+ over 160. Tommy John, of course, is famous for the surgery named after him but he was also an excellent pitcher over a twenty-six-year career. The 2nd trade of the day sent Doyle Alexander and three prospects to the Orioles for Frank Robinson. Doyle Alexander was just 20 but he never fulfilled the expectations of being traded for a future HOF. He did have a long career but it was near the end in 1987 that he really made his mark when he was traded from Atlanta to Detroit for a prospect named John Smoltz who is now HOF and annoying Fox TV Analyst John Smoltz. Detroit was trying to win the pennant in 1987 and Doyle did everything he could do going 9 – 0 for the Tigers and helped propel them in the postseason where they lost to the Twins.
Frank was still a force putting up a 151 OPS+ and coming in 3rd in the MVP voting in 1971 for the Orioles. It was a hotly debated trade in Baltimore with many fans upset that their star had been traded to the West Coast. In replacing Dick Allen with Frank Robinson the Dodgers were hoping they had found the star power they sought and possibly a mentor for the young team.
What they got was an oft injured player who was outhit by Manny Mota. His OPS+ of 127 is impressive by itself but at age 36 it was by far the lowest of his career since his age 22 season. The Dodgers got something, they just didn’t get what they had hoped for.
As a fan, I got exactly what I’d hoped for. I got to see Frank Robinson play baseball at Dodger Stadium and while it was so long ago that I don’t have any specific memory, I do remember being enthralled when I saw him wearing Dodger Blue. I know I saw him hit some of those nineteen home runs. The Dodgers did another one and done and traded Frank in the biggest blockbuster trade ever done between the Dodgers and Angels. The Dodgers traded Frank and a boatload of young talent to the Angels for Andy Messersmith and for two years that was one hell of a deal as young Andy anchored a pitching staff that would end up in the World Series.
As I noted in 1971 the top three hitters for the Dodgers were all African-Americans. In 1972 it was two of the top three with the other being Manny Mota. Frank Robinson and Willie Davis were the other two. In 1973 Willie Crawford had the highest OPS+ on the team but Joe Ferguson and Steve Garvey nabbed the next two spots. In 1974 it was Jimmy Wynn, not MVP Steve Garvey who lead the Dodgers in OPS+ with a hefty 151. Joe Ferguson was second at 132, and Willie Crawford and Steve Garvey tied for 3rd at 130.
The Dodgers traded for Dick Allen in 1971, Frank Robinson in 1972, and Jimmy Wynn in 1974. Three of the best African-American hitters to grace baseball during their careers. Dick Allen was traded one year later on the same day Frank Robinson was acquired. Frank Robinson was traded one year later. Jimmy Wynn survived two years and unlike Frank Robinson and Dick Allen was able to lead the Dodgers to the World Series. Steve Garvey won the 1974 NL MVP, Jimmy Wynn was the better player. Al Campanis made all those deals. Al was one hell of a General Manager.
One final Frank Robinson note and it is not related to baseball. Frank was a huge basketball fan and I would often see him at the Forum, but I also saw him at the Sports Arena watching the Clippers or more likely whoever the Clippers were playing.
My favorite players of the 1970s who weren’t Dodgers were almost always African-American baseball players. Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Stargell, Reggie Jackson, Reggie Smith, Dave Parker, Jim Rice, Ken Singleton, Billy Williams, Bob Watson, Bobby Bonds, Willie Davis, Willie Crawford, Jimmy Wynn, Bill Madlock, and Hal McRae to name those who come to mind.
You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a list of African-American players in the 21st century whose parents or grandparents weren’t already major league players. Gary Sheffield, Frank Thomas, Mookie Betts, and Andrew McCutchen are the only players who I can come up with.
I miss that.