Frank Robinson meant so much to the game of baseball

Jeff Neal

By the time I became a full-fledged Cincinnati Reds fan -- armed with pennants that hung in my room and a ever-growing collection of bubble gum cards -- Frank Robinson was a Baltimore Oriole.

I remember examining the back of Robinson's 1970 Topps card as my beloved Reds embarked on a World Series collision with Robby's O's.

"He was a Red? Why the heck did we trade him?" I asked my father.

He didn't have an answer. And nearly 50 years after the Reds dealt a 30-year-old Robinson to Baltimore in exchange for pitcher Milt Pappas and two other minor league hurlers, there is still no clear explanation.

Reds GM Bill DeWitt -- the man who made the deal -- said Robinson "wasn't a young 30." I guess that meant he felt Robinson was slipping.

But the year after Robby was traded, he won the 1966 American League Triple Crown, was the AL's Most Valuable Player and was also the World Series MVP as the Orioles swept the Dodgers in four games.

His 49 home run and 122 RBI season was in fiery defiance of any notion that he was washed up. It was that ferocious approach to the game that made him a legend.

The acquisition of Frank Robinson signaled the beginning of a tremendous run for the Orioles. Over the next six years, they advanced to four World Series and won a pair of world titles.

In short -- save the Red Sox dealing Babe Ruth to the Yankees -- the Reds' trade of Frank Robinson is probably the worst in the history of baseball.

I sat and watched as Baltimore's two Robinsons (Frank and Brooks) dismantled my Reds in five spirit-crushing games in the 1970 fall classic.

Where was Milt Pappas? He was a Chicago Cub by then ... he was out of the Reds organization by 1968.

Later, as an adult and a student of the game, I often wondered what would have happened in Cincinnati had Robby remained a Red. In the years right around the time Robinson was dealt, the pieces of the famous Big Red Machine were falling into place. Robinson led the 1961 Reds to the World Series and had an MVP season at the age of 25. Pete Rose was already a starter by 1963. Tony Perez was quickly emerging. Johnny Bench and Lee May would soon follow. Before the 1972 season, the popular May and infielder Tommy Helms were traded to Houston in exchange for Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo and Denis Menke. Morgan, of course, would become a hall of famer and a two-time MVP, while Geronimo and Billingham would be solid contributors throughout the Big Red Machine era.

Can you imagine how Robinson might've swung things in the Reds' favor had he been in the lineup with Rose, Bench, Perez -- and later Davey Concepcion and Morgan? Maybe we win the world championships in 1970 and 1972.

Frank Robinson was a leader in the clubhouse in Baltimore -- he would've provided that same type of support in Cincinnati.

Robinson was productive as a hitter into the mid-70s -- and in 1975 became the first African-American manager in history when he took the helm of the Indians.

Can you imagine Robinson coaching under Sparky Anderson?

Sadly, Robinson was inducted into the hall of fame as an Oriole. And that makes sense. The Reds seemingly gave up on their star -- and they did so right smack dab in the middle of his prime.

But I am happy that Robinson and the Reds organization mended fences, so to speak, later in his life. He is a Reds hall of famer and a statue of Robby stands in front of the Great American Ball Park.

Robby died last week at the age of 83. His contribution to the game of baseball as a player, a manager and an activist for the advancement of minorities in managerial positions is immeasurable.

Through it all, Frank Robinson remained humble. Compare him to Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier as a player? Frank wouldn't hear of it.

"Being the sport's first black manager was nothing compared to what Jackie did or what he went through, but it was important because I was the first and that meant the door's open," Robinson said in 2016. "But how long the door would stay open depended on basically the way I conducted myself and the success that I would have."

He conducted himself like a gentleman. And although he never made the postseason as a manager, he won well over 1,000 games and was the American League Manager of the Year in 1989, when he guided his old O's club. As a player, Robinson hit nearly 600 homers and drove in over 1,800 runs in a 21-year career that saw him average 34 homers, 109 RBI and a .294 batting average. He was simply one of the greats of all time.

As a fan in Reds country, I feel so fortunate to have been able to venture to Riverfront Stadium and watch the likes of Rose, Bench, Morgan and Perez roll to two world championships and become one of the most successful franchises of the 70s. The 1975 and 76 Reds could've competed with any team in baseball history.

But I do regret that I didn't get to see Frank Robinson in a Reds uniform.

If DeWitt knew then what we all know now, Robby would've remained a Red forever.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Contact him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.