Decades before Frank Robinson became the Washington Nationals’ first manager in 2005, he had already had one of the most distinguished and trailblazing careers in baseball history. He was the first — and still the only — player to win the MVP award in both the National and American leagues, and in 1975 he became major league baseball’s first African American manager.
He died Feb. 7 at his home in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 83. Major League Baseball announced his death but did not cite a cause.
Mr. Robinson burst into the national consciousness during his first season with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956, winning the NL’s Rookie of the Year Award. In 1961, he led the Reds to the World Series and won his first MVP award.
Mr. Robinson’s big league debut coincided with the final season of another celebrated Robinson — the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first black major league player in modern times. Even by 1956, several teams had not yet integrated; Cincinnati had fielded its first black player only two years earlier.
A powerful hitter, swift, graceful outfielder and hard-nosed competitor, Frank Robinson was part of a generation of black players that dominated baseball in the 1950s and 1960s, including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Puerto Rico native Roberto Clemente.
“He brought tremendous power,” Tom Adelman, a baseball historian and author, said in an interview. “He was a really graceful fielder. He ran the bases really well.”
While batting, Mr. Robinson stood close to the plate, daring pitchers to throw inside and hit him.
“Pitchers did me a favor when they knocked me down,” he said. “It made me more determined. I wouldn’t let that pitcher get me out.”
On the bases, he was fast and aggressive, bowling over defenders who were in his way. He chewed out other players for mistakes.
He was controversial off the field, too, and had frequent quarrels with his team’s management. After receiving death threats early in his career, Mr. Robinson started carrying a gun. In February 1961, he displayed it in a restaurant when a man threatened him with a knife; Mr. Robinson was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon.
The incident revealed a fissure in his relationship with the Reds. Bill DeWitt Sr., then the team’s general manager and later its owner, did not respond to a call for help from Mr. Robinson, who spent the night in jail and paid a $250 fine.
“A man learns from his stupidities,” Mr. Robinson said after the incident.
He then played as if he was trying to prove his point.
In 1961, he compiled a .323 batting average, hit 37 home runs and knocked in 124 runs while leading the Reds to their first National League pennant in more than 20 years. Cincinnati lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in five games.
In 1965, when Mr. Robinson belted 33 home runs and drove in 113 runs, DeWitt dismissed him as “an old 30,” a player past his prime, and traded him to the Baltimore Orioles.
Stung by the comment and determined to prove DeWitt wrong, Mr. Robinson had one of the greatest revenge-fueled seasons in sports history. In 1966, he won the Triple Crown by leading the American League in batting average (.316), home runs (a career-high 49) and runs batted in (122).
Only two players have won the Triple Crown since. Mr. Robinson, who was named the league’s most valuable player, capped his 1966 season by homering twice in the World Series and won the series MVP award as the Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers for the franchise’s first title. During his six seasons in Baltimore, Mr. Robinson led the Orioles to the World Series four times, winning twice.
In “Black and Blue: The Golden Arm, the Robinson Boys, and the 1966 World Series That Stunned America,” Adelman wrote that Mr. Robinson’s attitude was as important as his ability in turning the Orioles into champions.
“As good as Frank was, it was how hard he played that really made an impact,” Orioles pitcher Dave McNally is quoted as saying in Adelman’s book. “Even when we got way ahead, he only knew one way to play. You think you’re trying hard until you see someone trying as hard as he did. The intensity the man had was just incredible.”
When Mr. Robinson retired after 21 seasons as a player in 1976, his 586 home runs ranked fourth behind Aaron, Babe Ruth and Mays. (He is now 10th on the all-time list.) He finished his career with a .294 batting average and 1,812 RBI (21st all time). He was named to the all-star team in 12 seasons and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1982.
In 1975, while still active as a player, Mr. Robinson was named manager of the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first African American to hold the field general’s job. He went on to manage more than 2,000 games and was at the helm of the Montreal Expos when the franchise moved to Washington in 2005. He led the team during its first two seasons and also served as a longtime executive with Major League Baseball.
“Does anybody have as complex, as long and as distinguished a career as Robinson?” Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh history professor and author of “Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game,” said in an interview. “If this guy had played in New York or L.A. or Chicago, more of baseball America would have been aware of that.”
Frank Robinson Jr. was born Aug. 31, 1935, in Beaumont, Tex., the youngest of 10 children. His parents divorced when he was an infant, and he was 4 when he moved with his mother and her other children to California.
They settled in Oakland, where he grew up in a mixed-race neighborhood playing sports year-round. He was a member of an American Legion baseball team that won a national championship; 14 members of the team played professional baseball.
Mr. Robinson also was a star on his high school basketball team alongside Bill Russell, who became one of the greatest players in National Basketball Association history with the Boston Celtics.
After high school, Mr. Robinson signed with the Reds and was assigned to their minor-league affiliate in Ogden, Utah. In his 1988 autobiography “Extra Innings,” he wrote that he “didn’t know anything about racism or bigotry” before he became a professional baseball player, and that once he did, he experienced both repeatedly.
Ogden’s movie theater did not allow African Americans. While playing in towns in the South, he encountered slurs and segregation.
“I didn’t fight it because I was determined to be a major leaguer,” Mr. Robinson told the Sacramento Bee. “It was rough along the way in the minors, but I accepted it because I wanted to play baseball.”
Survivors include his wife, the former Barbara Cole of Los Angeles; and two children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
After 10 years in Cincinnati and six in Baltimore, Mr. Robinson played later in his career for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the California Angels and the Indians. His uniform number, 20, was retired by the Orioles and the Reds.
After his standout 1966 season, Mr. Robinson began to look ahead, setting a goal of becoming the major leagues’ first African American manager. He spent several winters managing teams in Puerto Rico.
“I was willing to do whatever I had to do to break that barrier,” Mr. Robinson told Investor’s Business Daily, “because all I kept hearing [from baseball executives] was, ‘If you only had the experience.’ I was trying to eliminate that excuse.”
His managerial breakthrough came in Cleveland in 1975. He later became the NL’s first black manager when he took over the San Francisco Giants in 1981. In Baltimore, where he managed the Orioles from 1988 to 1991, he was named AL Manager of the Year in 1989, making him the only man to win honors for rookie of the year, MVP and manager of the year.
Mr. Robinson started working for Major League Baseball as a consultant in 1997; in 2000, he was named vice president of on-field operations. Responsible for disciplining players and managers, he issued harsh penalties, particularly against players who fought during games.
He returned to managing in 2002 with Montreal. He said he had learned from his previous managing stints that he needed to be nicer without losing the competitiveness that had driven him to become a great player.
“I used to be almost, ‘This is the way I want it done, and that’s the way it has to be done,’ ” he said while managing the Expos. “I’m more willing to listen.”
He stayed with the Expos when the franchise came to Washington, giving the capital a big league team for the first time in 34 years.
In a move that rankled Mr. Robinson, the Nationals replaced him after the 2006 season. He joked that, in addition to being the first black manager in both leagues, he was the first to be fired four times.
In 2005, President George W. Bush — a onetime owner of the Texas Rangers franchise — awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. He continued to work for the MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, until his death.
Mr. Robinson’s enduring image in Washington came from his debut season, when he inspired a mediocre lineup of players to play over their heads for the first half of the season.
One of the most dramatic moments of Mr. Robinson’s tenure came in June 2005, when his first-place Nationals were in Anaheim, Calif., playing the Angels. Mr. Robinson asked the umpires to check the glove of Angels relief pitcher Brendan Donnelly. When the umps found pine tar, an outlawed substance sometimes used to give pitchers better grip on the ball, Donnelly was ejected from the game.
Angels Manager Mike Scioscia walked toward the 69-year-old Mr. Robinson, who glared back at his younger counterpart through dark glasses. Scioscia told him he would have Nationals pitchers “undressed” in a search for foreign substances.
Mr. Robinson and Scioscia had a heated argument and had to be separated by umpires as the crowd loudly booed and players streamed from the benches and bullpens of both teams.
“Let me tell you this,” Mr. Robinson told The Washington Post the next day. “If people let me intimidate them, then I’ll intimidate them. But I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me. I am the intimidator.”
Matt Schudel contributed to this report.
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