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A Swing Hitched To Stardom: FRANK ROBINSON

         

    He had a hitch in his swing. He crowded the plate like few others ever had done. His arm went dead one year, and he couldn't play the outfield.

 

But that didn't prevent Frank Robinson from becoming one of the best players ever to put on the red-and-white Cincinnati uniform.

 

Robinson was a product of Oakland, California, and was first noticed by scouts at the age of 14 playing American Legion baseball. He had a big hitch in his swing then - just as he did when he terrorized National and American League pitchers.

 

"This kid has a hitch in his swing, but don't let anyone tamper with him. It's how he generates his power," Reds scout Bobby Mattick told Reds general manager Gabe Paul about Robinson. Mattick eventually signed him, hitch and all.

 

Robinson roared through the Cincinnati farm system, and in 1956 he was voted the National League Rookie of the Year. He smashed 38 home runs, tying the National League record for a rookie, a record he still shares with Wally Berger. Those 38 homers were tops for the club that year when it tied the National League mark.

 

Robinson's career at one point seemed to be short-lived. His right arm went dead, powerless. He couldn't throw. And ballplayers who can't throw are about as useless as automobiles without wheels. He was moved to first base. But after a season there, the arm came around. The only answer seemed to be that Robby had a sore arm, and a season of not throwing much let it heal.

 

Because Robinson crowded the plate - sometimes he actually leaned out over it - he continually was knocked down. But he seemed to thrive on it: many times he would get up out of the dirt and hit the next pitch over the fence. He was absolutely fearless at the plate and, regardless of how many times he was hit, he bounced right back up.

 

During Gene Mauch's reign as Philadelphia Phillies manager, he automatically fined any pitcher who knocked down Robinson $50 ­quite a reversal for a manager known as one of the feistiest in the game.

 

Robinson played the outfield much the same way as he batted. He did not give in to fences and often crashed into an outfield wall on the dead run. When he played hard, there were few better at the game than Frank Robinson.

 

1961 was one of his finest years: he batted .321, hit 37 home runs and knocked in 124 runs. He led the Reds to their first pennant in 21 years and won the Most Valuable Player Award. Five years later he won the MVP again, but that time for the Baltimore Orioles.

 

It was after the 1965 season that Robinson was traded to Baltimore. Team-owner Bill DeWitt will never live down his statement that Robinson was "an old 30." But, at the time, the deal looked like a good one. Frank hadn't done much since his MVP year, and the Reds needed pitching, which they got.

   

Robinson's competitive spirit came home to haunt DeWitt and the Reds. He won the Triple Crown for the Orioles in 1966, and when he picked up his MVP trophy he laid claim to being the only player in baseball history to be named Most Valuable in both leagues.

 

In the early 1970s Robinson began setting his sights on managing. In 1975 he got his chance when Cleveland hired him as baseball's first black manager. Two years later he became the first black manager to be fired. He went on to Rochester in the minor leagues, then coached for Earl Weaver in Baltimore, and finally returned to managing in 1981 with the San Francisco Giants.

 

Robinson's career has been one of baseball's most unique. And one of the best. For that reason, he was ushered into the Hall of Fame last January - only the 13th player ever elected on the first ballot. Not bad for a kid who had a hitch in his swing.

 

         
       

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