This week the MLB will honor legendary manager Frank Robinson with the Frank Robinson Memorial Award. Robinson’s incredible career in baseball was highlighted by managing the Cincinnati Reds for 12 seasons, including from 1956 to 1968. As manager, Robinson compiled a 454-398 record while leading the Reds to the first five of their seven consecutive National League pennants. He also managed the Chicago White Sox to a World Series title in 1968.
However, it was during his tenure as the Cincinnati Reds’ manager that he earned the reputation of a bookmaker. The Reds were known for their aggressive playing style, and players like Hank Bauer, Tony Perez, and Wes Neff were often seen as more trouble than they were worth. One of the more infamous incidents involving the Reds and gambling involved Bauer, and according to an old Sports Illustrated report, he wagered $10,000 on a game that he played in despite being 0-5 at the time.
As manager, Robinson was known for his quick temper, and when he found out Bauer had bet on a game, he fined Bauer $500 and traded him to the Chicago White Sox. Bauer, however, did not take the news well, and he hit a home run in his first at-bat against the Reds. Reportedly, he cried on the field and vowed to get even with Robinson.
But before Bauer could get even, he was traded back to the Cincinnati Reds two days later. This time he was 0-4 with a 7.23 ERA when the trade was reportedly settled. So how did the Reds prevent another meltdown from happening? They reportedly paid him $20,000 to stay quiet about the incident with Robinson.
It’s no secret that baseball has been plagued by gambling scandals for years, and in 2014 Major League Baseball agreed to pay $26 million to settle claims that it engaged in collusion with bookmakers in attempts to fix games. Since then there have been multiple reports of MLB executives and managers being involved in fixing games, and in March of this year the New York Times reported that at least 10 current and former MLB players have been banned for life because of their ties to gambling rings. While baseball has taken some steps to clean up its game, as an example, the number of people arrested for sports gambling has more than doubled from 208 in 2014 to 458 in 2018 according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Report.
More Than Half a Century of Management
Before we begin to discuss the impact that Robinson had on baseball, let’s take a look at his extraordinary career in baseball. Robinson was born in 1929 in Derry, New Hampshire. He graduated from Harvard in 1952 and then went on to play 10 years in the Minor Leagues before getting his first managerial job with the Class D Duboisville Robins in 1966. That same year, he was named Manager of the Year in the Appalachian League, and in 1967 he led the league in wins (30), ERA (2.47), and games managed (56).
When the Reds were looking for a replacement for their longtime manager Jack McKeon, who had just finished his 12th season in charge, they looked no further than Robinson, who had just led the league in wins (26) and ERA (2.51) for the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds. According to Peter Gammons, writing for ESPN.com, there were no real negotiations. He simply showed up at the Reds’ office and was hired on the spot.
Robinson spent four seasons with the Reds, leading them to the first five National League pennants, before getting the managerial job he coveted in 1968 with the Chicago White Sox. After three seasons there, he returned to the Reds as pitching coach in 1974 and then spent five years as the club’s general manager before returning to the dugout in 1980. In 1982 he was named Manager of the Year after leading the Reds to their first World Series title in 19 years. However, the next year he was fired along with player-manager Joe Morgan, and he has not coached or managed since.
So what made Robinson such an effective manager? According to Tom Boswell, writing for The Detroit News in 2004, Robinson was “a brilliant tactician who could devise and implant game plans that often worked to perfection.” One of his most notable innovations was using science to study the effect that pitcher’s strategies had on opposing batters, and his research led to the development of the split-finger fastball, which he used to great effect. The late Ted Robinson, Robinsons’ son, said that his father was “a baseball lifer” who “loved the game for the pure fun of it” but also saw it as a way to make a living. However, as much as Ted adored his father, he was keen on pointing out that his career was “not without its problems,” mentioning, among other things, the stigma that came with being the son of a notorious bookmaker.
The Man Who Broke the Conspiracy
The Reds were not the only ones who took exception to Robinson’s antics as manager. Pete Rose, the club’s outspoken owner at the time, was also upset with Robinson’s treatment of his players and vowed to get even. He famously said, “I’m going to boycott the whole fucking game,” after complaining that the team had no entertainment value and was ruining his business. The other owners relented and allowed Rose to throw out the first pitch in 1969, which he did with a boyish grin. (Rose would go on to manage the Reds for several more years after Robinson was fired, and he led the team to the 1970 and 1971 World Series titles. However, his reign would be marred by gambling scandals, which would later cost him his manager’s job.)
According to a 2005 New York Times article by Selena Shapiro, Robinson gained a reputation as a bit of a hothead during his managerial career, often flying off the handle at his players. One of the more memorable examples of his temper occurred during a game in Atlanta in 1966. After the Reds and Dodgers tied the game in the bottom of the 10th inning, Robinson reportedly lost his cool and started screaming at his players. Fortunately, the umpire was able to restore order and the game went on to a 12th inning.
An important point to make is that Robinson was not just some hothead who shouted at his players. He was, according to Shapiro, “intelligent and articulate.” Even those who disagreed with him usually respected his thoughts. And despite his reputation as a gambler, he did not always operate outside the rules, at least not when it came to players he felt could be effective with his strategies.
A Legend in His Own Time
As mentioned above, this week the MLB will celebrate Robinson’s life and career with the Frank Robinson Memorial Award. Robinson passed away on August 7, 2018 at the age of 83, and his family and friends, as well as fans of all baseball seasons, will remember and honor him this week. One of the best tributes to Robinson is the fact that during a game this week, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown will wear blue capes in his honor.
While he was a good manager, it is arguably his legacy as the man who broke the collusion/gambling scandal in baseball that resonates today. In August 2014, following the end of the Major League Baseball offseason, a group of researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business published a 108-page report regarding the betting scandal that had been sweeping the sport for years. The report, written by Mark Fleisher, analyzed the impact that the conspiracy of collusion between the MLB and the gambling industry had on sports betting and the teams that were exposed to its influence. Some of the more notable findings included: