Robinson trade was defining moment for O's
Hall of Famer Palmer says it set tone for championship
To celebrate Black History Month, MLB.com has put together a month-long series detailing some of baseball's greatest figures as a way to pay tribute and offer fresh perspective on the game's most pivotal moments. And for the Baltimore Orioles, 1966's trade for African-American outfielder Frank Robinson was a move that paid dividends practically before the ink had a chance to dry.
Robinson won the Triple Crown his first year in Baltimore, leading the American League with a .316 average, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs. He remains the only minority player in history to win the Triple Crown in batting, and his gutsy style -- both on and off the field -- helped lead the organization to its first World Series title.
Robinson's teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who is currently an Orioles broadcaster, shared some special moments and insight from that groundbreaking season:
It was before [the year] started and we were down at Spring Training. There was a pitcher [named] Stephen Cosgrove, he threw in the mid-90s and had a great curveball; it literally fell off the table. And I'm sitting there next to Dick Hall, one of our relief pitchers, and Frank -- who had just got there -- dug in. He was four of five days late to Spring Training that year because he had gone to Baltimore to get housing for his family. So, Cosgrove threw him one of these great curveballs and he hit it down the left-field line, right over the chalk, and I look at Dick Hall and I said, "I think we just won the pennant." And that was what you saw the rest of the year.
Robinson became the only player to ever hit a home run ball completely out of the Orioles' old home at Memorial Stadium on May 8, 1966. He finished that season with the most homers by a right-handed Triple Crown winner.
Frank was more than just the .316, the 49 homers, the 122 RBIs, whatever it was that year. It was about just setting the tone for our team.
I remember I was down 2-0 against Catfish Hunter and Frank, who had struck out a bunch of times before that, hit a three-run homer right down into the mezzanine to win the ballgame. He just set the tone really, for our whole team. He wasn't a dirty player, but he played the game all-out. If you were second baseman or a shortstop, you knew you weren't going to turn a double play without him going into you hard.
I was so happy when they traded for him [from Cincinnati in exchange for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.] And Pappas is a heck of a pitcher, it's not like we didn't give up something, but I don't think anybody anticipated us getting somebody like [Robinson]. And then, of course, in the World Series we are playing the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they had won in '63, and they had beaten the Twins in '65. So, Frank homers in the first inning of Game 1 and I'm pitching Game 2, and we're all thinking, "Hey, we have a chance to win here."
The Orioles posted a triumphant four-game sweep of the defending champion Dodgers and Robinson's Game 4 homer, off Don Drysdale, stood as the only run in the 1-0 series-clinching victory.
It was just a year where Frank was, well, he was Frank. I pitched against [Willie] Mays, and I pitched against [Hank] Aaron in All-Star games and at the end of his career, and it's something. But I got to see Frank game in and game out, and I can't imagine a better player.
He just played, both on and off the field. We had a kangaroo court, and he made baseball fun. He just played with such a sense of purpose.
A member of the Orioles Hall of Fame, Robinson is one of six players with a brand-new bronzed statue as part of upgrades in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Robinson, who was the first African-American manager in baseball, also grew into a strong advocate for civil rights issues while in Baltimore.
I think Frank had dealt with most of that [racial tension] before he came here. It's funny, I never thought of Frank being black. I just thought of Frank as being as good of a player as you could ever see, and how meaningful he was to our ballclub because he was Frank.
It's hard to explain. Guys who played with Willie Mays, will say, "Wow, he was Willie Mays." [Reds manager] Dusty Baker will tell you, "I learned from Hank Aaron because Hank Aaron saw everything." Hank Aaron hit 755 home runs. Well, Frank was that kind of player. I never thought of Frank as a great black baseball player. Frank was just a great baseball player.
Unless you really saw Frank and you saw how tough he was, and how he positioned himself in the outfield, and how good a baserunner he was, you don't really realize how exceptional of an all-around player he was. And he really set the tone for what would really be the beginning of a 20-year era for the Orioles.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.