Frank Robinson arrived in a 1965 trade and World Series titles soon followed

September 22, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The flag, which fluttered above left field at Memorial Stadium, was a study in simplicity - a surprisingly unobtrusive reminder of the day that Frank Robinson became the only player to hit a baseball completely out of the old ballpark.

Maybe you have to be from Washington to agonize over what the meaning of "is" is, but nobody from Baltimore ever had to be reminded what the meaning of "Here" was on that orange banner.

It represented the defining moment of the most talented player ever to put on an Orioles uniform.

Robinson played only six years for the Orioles after he was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Milt Pappas in December 1965, but he was the catalytic figure in the team's emergence as one of the cornerstone franchises of the American League.

No disrespect intended toward fellow Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson and future Cooperstown inductee Cal Ripken, of course. They each have their own pedestals - each able to make a case for being the greatest Oriole of them all.

Frank Robinson spent less than a third of his great career in an Orioles uniform, but he still qualifies because those six seasons changed everything on 33rd Street. He won the Triple Crown and the Most Valuable Player trophy and a World Series ring in his first year here (there's that word again), and the Orioles would never be the same again.

It wasn't their first big season. They had won more than 90 games the two previous years, but had finished as high as second only once since the franchise jumped from St. Louis to Baltimore for the 1954 season.

They were good. Robinson, the only other player who could be mentioned in the same breath with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in the argument over who was the greatest player of the 1960s, made them great.

He introduced himself to Orioles fans with 49 home runs and 122 RBIs and led the club to a 97-63 record. He became the first Triple Crown winner since Mickey Mantle a decade earlier and the only player to win the MVP award in both leagues. He would go on to play in four World Series and win a second world title in 1970.

No one should have been surprised. Robinson was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1956, hitting 38 homers for the Reds. He averaged 32 homers over his first 10 major league seasons, and that was at a time when 30 home runs was considered a pretty impressive season. He also was a Gold Glove outfielder (1958) with a strong throwing arm, but his defensive ability was overshadowed in Baltimore by eight-time Gold Glove center fielder Paul Blair.

Of course, there was more to his presence in the Orioles' lineup than just the numbers he put up year after year. He was the perfect counterpart to the blue-collar Brooks, the archetypal good guy who was the rock of the Orioles infield. Frank brought a hard edge to the Orioles' dugout that enhanced the team's winning chemistry and quickly established him as a leader in the clubhouse.

The mammoth home run on Mother's Day (May 8) in 1966 was simply an exclamation point. He turned on a pitch from Luis Tiant and sailed it past the upper deck in left field to the amazement of a crowd of 37,658. It wasn't until later that season that the flag was put up, but the number of people who claim to have been there that day has probably reached seven figures.

"I knew I hit the ball good," Robinson said last week. "I knew it was going out of the ballpark, but not the whole thing. When I went around the bases, I didn't know I hit the ball all the way out of the ballpark. The guys in the dugout said it went out and I said, `You're kidding.'

"It didn't sink in until I went back to the outfield and the fans gave me a standing ovation."

The Orioles slipped to sixth place the next year, but climbed to second in 1968 and won 109 regular-season games before falling victim to one of the greatest upsets in World Series history in 1969. Robinson still shakes his head in amazement at the way the New York Mets upended one of the best teams in Orioles history. The Orioles won their second world title in 1970 (the World Series that etched Brooks Robinson into the national consciousness) and reached the Series for the third straight time in 1971 before Robinson bid farewell to Baltimore.

In all, he played only about a third of his career in Charm City, but he went into the Hall of Fame as an Oriole and still considers those six seasons the defining period in his great career.

"I had more team success there and I became more recognizable across the country playing with the Orioles instead of the Reds," he said. "We won two world championships and four American League championships. It was about team success, not individual.

"Overall, the six years I spent there were very enjoyable for me and my family. We looked at Baltimore as our second home."

He may have been all business on the field, but he knew when to lighten the mood in the clubhouse, serving as the judge for the Orioles' famous "Kangaroo Court" in the late 1960s.

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