Several Reds players appeared on the most recent ESPN Hall of 100, the network’s list of the one hundred greatest players of all time. Here’s my general post on their rankings. I’ve previously covered Barry Larkin (#75), Pete Rose (#38), Griffey Jr. (#35), Johnny Bench (#26), and Tom Seaver (#22). The numbers in parentheses reflect the player ranking on the ESPN list.

“An old 30.” That phrase sends chills up the spine of any Reds fan. Those are the words of former Reds general manager Bill DeWitt who traded away one the greatest Reds ever over a feud. In December of 1965, DeWitt shipped the legendary Frank Robinson (#20) to the Baltimore Orioles for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. The trade is likely the worst in the history of the Reds franchise.

Because of that ill-advised trade, Frank Robinson’s career in Cincinnati is more known for its unfortunate end than Robinson’s incredible talent and accomplishments. As far as relationship analogies go, Robinson is the one that got away.

Robinson grew up in Beaumont, Texas, the same hometown as Jay Bruce. After moving to California, he played high school basketball with Celtics legend Bill Russell and baseball with future teammate Vada Pinson before signing with the Reds in 1953 as a seventeen year old. That is one impressive high school athletic program.

After a few years in the minor leagues, Robinson debuted for the Reds in 1956, hitting 38 homeruns on his way to the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He also led the league with 122 runs scored and played in the first of his twelve All Star games. His rookie season was a sign of things to come as Robinson would continue to develop into a prolific hitter.

Robinson played ten seasons with the Reds (1956-1965). During his Reds career, he hit 324 homeruns while batting .303/.389/.554. He won the MVP in 1961 and finished in the top five in MVP voting two other seasons with the Reds.

While Robinson won the MVP in 1961, his best season came in 1962 when he slashed an otherworldly .342/.421/.624. Robinson hit 39 homeruns while knocking in 136 runs and scoring 134 runs of his own. His 8.2 WAR that season tied for the highest WAR total of Robinson’s career.

A prolific slugger, Robinson hit at least 30 homeruns in seven of his ten seasons with the Reds. He never hit less than 21 homeruns. He has the second most homeruns in the history of the franchise. Robinson was such an enforcer that pitcher Jim Bouton said when “Going over the hitters it was decided that we should pitch Frank Robinson underground.”

That might have been the best strategy. In 1966, the season after the Reds traded him, Robinson won the American League MVP for the Orioles. He continued to be a good offensive player late into his 30s, and his runs created score (wRC+) was at least 120 (100 is average) in every season in which Robinson played at least 100 games.

Robinson would end his baseball career as one of the greatest players ever. He hit 586 homeruns, currently 9th best all time. He also accumulated 104 fWAR, 18th best all time among position players. His career wRC+ of 153 is better than Joe Dimaggio, Honus Wagner, and Mike Schmidt. Robinson retired as a player after the 1976 season.

Robinson also made an impact on the color barrier in the sport. He became the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball in 1975 when he was a player/manager for the Cleveland Indians. Robinson’s managerial presence paved the way for Bill Lucas to become the first African-American general manager for the Atlanta Braves in 1977.

Unfortunately, Robinson has seemingly never gotten over the trade from the Reds and his feud with DeWitt. Even though he played more seasons with the Reds than any other team, Robinson chose to wear the Oriole hat when he entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

The Reds have tried their best to patch things up with Robinson. He was elected to the Reds Hall of Fame in 1978. The Reds retired Robinson’s No. 20 jersey number. When Great American Ball Park opened in 2003, the Reds built a statue of Robinson in Crosley Terrace. Regardless of any mistakes or perceived injustices, the Reds have recognized the greatness of Frank Robinson and emphasized his role on some of the great Reds teams of the 1950s and 1960s.

Robinson continues to have an impact on the game. He recently accepted a position as a senior adviser to the new baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred. His voice remains influential in the game he has given his life to. And thankfully, his professional baseball life began as a Cincinnati Redleg. While the end of Robinson’s career in Cincinnati was sour for all involved, his playing days in Cincinnati were as sweet as they come.

6 Responses

  1. D Ray White

    Right up there with Frazee trading Babe Ruth for money. Easily one of the two or three worst trades in baseball history. DeWitt did some very good things with the Reds, but it’s hard to overcome this epic blunder. The player comparison to DeWitt’s snafu is Bill Buckner. Buckner was a good player, but will always be remembered for one mistake.

  2. Tom Reed

    Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson covering the outfield at Crosley brings back a lot of great memories. Robinson became the offensive leader as Ted Kluszewski’s great career wound down as a Red. My worst day as a Red’s fan was when I heard Frank Robinson was traded to Baltimore. It was tough to believe.

  3. Victor Vollhardt

    While I will never agree with trade of Frank Robinson (what great player) I do have a fond affection for Bill Dewitt and the combo of Dewitt and Hutchinson in their re-tooling of the Reds of the early sixties. Had Hutchinson lived I don’t think Robinson would have been traded. But it wasn’t the worst trade–go to Gabe Paul in 1958. He sent Smoky Burgess (great pinch hitter) , who batted .297 for the Pirates in 59 along with Don Hoak( great leader), who batted .294 in 59 for the Pirates and Harvey Haddix (12 inning no hitter) who went 12-11 in 1959. And all three repeated those kind of seasons in 1960-when the Pirates beat the Yankees in the WS. What did the Reds get in return? Whammy Douglas-one eyed pitcher who would never again appear in the ML and John Powers a hitter, who had a batting stance that prevented him from getting to certain pitches (lifetime .195 hitter in ML) Jim Pendleton ,who once was a good utility player, but who was now 35 years old and was done. And of course the key player Frank Thomas with an injured thumb and was known as “The Donkey” (would not take coaching) and a .225 hitter for the Reds in 59. Thomas did have one saving grace–they traded him to the Cubs after the 59 season and one of the players coming to the Reds was Bill Henry who was very important in the bullpen for the 1961 NL champs Cincinnati Reds.

  4. John Heseltine

    The Reds traded Christy Mathewson for Amos Rosie and Josh Hamilton for Edinson Volquez. With the Robinson trade they are sadly responsible for three of the five worst trades ever made.

    • lwblogger2

      The Hamilton/Volquez trade was indeed bad but I don’t see it as one of the worst in history. Maybe one of the worst in Reds’ history but not in the history of baseball.

      • John Heseltine

        Hamilton’s performance with the Rangers was outstanding immediately. Within five years he had an MVP and two trips to the World Series, and the Reds had one decent year of pitching that made no difference whatsoever. Subtract Volquez and throw Hamilton in with Votto and Bruce from 2008 through 2012 and what chance do you think there would be that the Reds would not have been in the Series? Do you think the Rangers would have been there twice?

        That’s pretty much exactly the same impact the Robinson trade had in the 1960s.

        Name me two trades that were worse than any of the three Reds moves I listed but don’t include Ruth for money because it had nothing to do with evaluating talent. There are some bad ones but they are mostly of the Mathewson-Rusie prospects for vets type. I was constantly watching the Reds on Gameday in 2007 and I knew that Hamilton was a superstar (I also thought he had the character of Lou Gehrig, which was a bit off).