WHEN FRANK ROBINSON was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, even the famously competitive Robinson knew the headliner that day was fellow inductee Hank Aaron, who gained election with 406 of the 415 votes cast by baseball writers. Overshadowed again, Robinson received 370 votes. "It seems like I've been chasing him for a long time," Robinson noted that day. "I've always been one step behind or one year behind. When I broke in, all the talk was about Hank Aaron, and I must say we've had a long and friendly rivalry on the field."
Baseball and America lost one of its great noble warriors on Feb. 7 with the death of Robinson at age 83. Aaron hit more home runs, and fellow contemporaries Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente played the game with more crowd-pleasing panache. And Robinson may have fallen just outside the glamorous spotlights of 600 home runs (586), 3,000 hits (2,943) and a .300 lifetime batting average (.294). But Robinson devoted himself heart and soul to baseball with a sense of purpose that sets him apart from all others.
Relentlessly dutiful more than flamboyant, Robinson may be the most underrated great player in the game's history. He accomplished what otherwise sounds like several lifetimes of work for others: Rookie of the Year, World Series MVP, Gold Glover, Triple Crown winner, Manager of the Year, senior adviser to the commissioner, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and, most meaningfully, the first black manager in Major League Baseball.
We cloak the fringe player in glory when he displays such work ethic characteristics, knighting him with adjectives such as "gritty" and "gamer." Now take all those qualities and roll them into a superbly talented, all-time great hitter, and you understand the uniqueness of Robinson. With strong wrists and lightning-fast hands, Robinson hit 30 homers or more 11 times. Only his role as a manager kept him from even bigger career numbers.
During his first season as manager, Robinson threatened to bench catcher John Ellis for the season because of what Robinson determined was a selfish attitude. DH Rico Carty summed up both the players' discomfort and Robinson's intensity in one perfect complaint: "He wants us to play exactly like he used to."
Lesser men might have viewed the Robinson standards as impossible ones. But we know that they are possible because he showed us. Frank Robinson forever is in nobody's shadow.