Happy 75th to Frank Robinson

Today is Frank Robinson’s 75th birthday. Frank Robinson, of course, is not exactly forgotten today. He is widely known as a baseball institution having been a great player, mediocre manager and high profile league official for more than half a century. Interestingly, partially due to all his other baseball related accomplishments, his playing career is often overlooked. Today, Robinson at times seems like little more than a name on a home run list which gets passed by players like Jim Thome or Alex Rodriguez. Most fans contemporary fans know that Robinson was a great player, but few are aware just how great he was.

There are three main reasons why Robinson’s accomplishments as a player are not recognized for being as extraordinary as they really were. First, he was something of a victim of playing in a pitcher’s era. Some of his best years were in the late 1960s, when the high mound and big ballparks contributed to a pitching dominated era. Had Robinson played in a more hitter friendly era, his numbers would have been even more impressive. His neutralized numbers give him 630 home runs, 3,170 hits and a .558 slugging percentage, increases of 44 home runs and .021 to his actual numbers. Of course, other contemporaries of Robinson’s including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron would have also benefited from playing in a more hitter friendly period as well and had even more impressive numbers.

Second, Frank Robinson’s career overlapped with a player with very a similar skill set, who played the same position but who was slightly better. Hank Aaron, was clearly a better player than Robinson, but there skills were very similar. Moreover, Aaron and Robinson were more comparable than might seem to be the case for much of the time they played together. Aaron’s advantage over Robinson comes largely from his better counting statistics due to his extraordinary durability. For example while Aaron had fully 814 more hits, Robinson had the higher on base percentage by a slight margin of .015. Similarly, Aaron hit far more homeruns 755-586, but only slugged .018 more than Robinson. Again, Aaron was undoubtedly the better player, but the shadow his career has cast over Robinson has grown over time.

There was another right fielder who played through the 1960s whose memory has also contributed to the eclipse of Frank Robinson’s legacy. Roberto Clemente, though a far better fielder, was not as good as Frank Robinson. However, Clemente was a great player in his own right with an extraordinary personal story and tragic death which have lived on, rightfully, in the memories of many baseball fans. Most casual, and even not so casual, fans today would say, wrongly, that Clemente was better than Robinson suggesting that if baseball fans have room for two right fielders from that era in their memories, Robinson will not be one of them.

Fourth, Robinson suffered from the tyranny of round numbers more than almost any other great player. Robinson retired 57 hits short of 3000, 14 home runs short of 600 and .006 short of a .300 batting average. If he had met even one of these thresholds, his career would be perceived differently. If he had done all three, his name would be mentioned alongside the only other two players to have ever hit 600 home runs, made 3000 hits and had a batting average of .300 or more, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

Lastly, Robinson played in medium sized or small media markets for most of his career, only playing in a major media market, Southern California, for just short of two years when he was already past his prime. This, however, probably contributes more to how he is remembered now, than to how he was perceived then. As a 12 time All Star who finished in the top ten in MVP voting nine times, Robinson was understood to be a truly great ballplayer while he was active.

Robinson’s post-playing career in baseball is now significantly longer than his playing career was. Accordingly, it is not surprising that his accomplishments on the field have faded somewhat. However, Robinson was one of the true greats of the game, retiring in fourth place on the career home run list, the first player to win the MVP award in both leagues and one of two players to win the triple crown in the last half century. On his 75th birthday, perhaps we can take a moment to remember Robinson’s on the field accomplishments as well.