Robinson came out of nowhere in 1956 to win the Reds’ left-field job. Crowding the plate, challenging pitchers, and sliding hard, he tied Wally Berger‘s rookie record of 38 homers, made the NL All-Star team, led the league with 122 runs scored, and was hit by pitches a rookie-record 20 times. The Reds as a team hit a NL-record 221 homers that season, improving 16 games in the standings to finish just two games out of first place. For the next ten seasons, Robinson was their undisputed leader. Batting .322 as a sophomore, Robinson was one of eight Reds elected to the NL All-Star starting lineup in 1957, and was the only outfielder who wasn’t removed by Commissioner Ford Frick after the details of a ballot-stuffing campaign by Cincinnati management was exposed.
Recurring arm trouble caused Robinson to slump to .269 in 1958, as he experimented at first and third bases while winning a Gold Glove in left field. Shifted to first base full-time in 1959, Robinson sat on the bench during the first of that year’s two All-Star Games. Seething, he came back with three straight hits, including a homer, in the second game. A few days later, he slid hard into Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews, precipitating one of the most memorable brawls in baseball history and the first between black and white stars. Booed intensely, Robinson responded with a grand slam against the Braves and took off on a batting tear climaxed by three homers against the Phillies on August 22. He finished with 36 HR, 125 RBI, a .311 batting average, and 106 runs. Despite more arm pain, Robinson won his first of three straight NL slugging titles with .595 in 1960. The angry young civil-rights advocate began carrying a gun in self-defense in response to numerous death threats. He was eventually arrested for brandishing it at a short-order cook who had refused to serve him.
In 1961 Robinson led the Reds to their first pennant since 1940 with his first MVP season, hitting .323 with 37 HR, 124 RBI, and 117 runs. His .611 slugging percentage led the NL, and he stole 22 bases in 25 attempts to lead in stolen base percentage. He was especially torrid in the stretch run. So dangerous was Robinson after being brushed back that Phillies manager Gene Mauch began fining any of his pitchers who worked Robinson inside. Robinson’s third straight slugging title came in 1962 (.624), when he also led the league with 51 doubles and 134 runs. He hit .342 with 39 HR and 136 RBI, and missed leading in total bases and batting average when, respectively, Willie Mays of the Giants and Tommie Davis of the Dodgers surpassed him during the three-game playoff after Los Angeles and San Francisco were tied at the end of the regular schedule.
Playing through injuries in 1963, Robinson saw his offensive output plummet. He broke his slump by choking up two inches on the bat, chopping at the ball. His speed garnered him a career-high 26 steals. Returning to form in 1964, Robinson hit .306 with 29 HR and 96 RBI, and followed with a .296 average, 33 HR, and 113 RBI in 1965. But Reds GM Bill DeWitt traded Robinson to the Orioles with outfield prospect Dick Simpson for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun. The deal was immediately the most unpopular in Reds history, and attendance, offense, and morale all dropped sharply until Johnny Bench assumed the leadership and cleanup roles three years later. DeWitt, who defended the deal by calling Robinson “an old thirty,” eventually lost his job. In 1966 Robinson led the Orioles to the first pennant and a World Series upset sweep of the Dodgers. The first Triple Crown winner since Mickey Mantle in 1956, Robinson led the AL with 49 HR, 122 RBI, a .316 batting average, a .637 slugging percentage, and 122 runs. He capped his season with two home runs off Don Drysdale in the World Series. When he was voted MVP, he became the first man to win the award in both the NL and AL. He appeared to be headed toward a second straight Triple Crown in 1967 until he was hurt late in the season. Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown instead, while Robinson finished second in batting (.311) and slugging (.576), third in RBI (94), and fourth in HR (30) while playing only 129 games. Injuries continued to hamper him in 1968, but he rebounded in 1969, leading the Orioles to the AL pennant while hitting .308 with 32 HR, 100 RBI, and 111 runs.
On June 26, 1970 Robinson hit grand slams in consecutive innings. He finished the year with 25 HR, 78 RBI, and a .306 batting average, his last .300 average. After 28 HR, 99 RBI, and a .281 BA in 1971, Robinson was sent to the Dodgers in a six-man deal. He hit only .251 for Los Angeles, with 19 homers in 103 games, before moving on to the Angels in a seven-man trade the next winter. Robinson rebounded to .266 with 30 HR and 97 RBI. By this time Robinson was managing in winter ball, making no secret of his ambition to become the first black manager in the major leagues. When the Indians, well out of contention, acquired him on waivers late in 1974, rumors of a managerial change soon surfaced.
After the season, in which Robinson hit 22 homers, the Indians appointed him playing manager for 1975. Cleveland’s ace pitcher Gaylord Perry, a South Carolina native, promptly questioned Robinson’s ability to manage. Gaylord’s brother Jim was also the Indians’ second-best pitcher. Robinson settled the issue in characteristic style, homering to give Gaylord the Opening Day victory. Shortly afterward, he traded both Perrys. Easing himself out of the lineup, Robinson led the Indians to their first winning record (81-78, fourth place) since 1968 and only their third .500-plus season since 1959 in 1976, but he was fired when they started slowly in 1977. He coached for the Angels the balance of 1977, coached for the Orioles and managed at Rochester through 1980, and then managed the Giants from 1981 through August 1985, contending in 1981 and 1982 and finishing only two games out in 1982 despite having only a few talented players.
In 1986 Robinson returned to the Orioles as a coach. Early in 1988 he was installed as manager after Cal Ripken, Sr. had lost the first six games. The streak extended to a record 21 losses from the start of the season before the Orioles finally won. Robinson turned the club around in 1989, guiding the Orioles to first place at the All-Star break and second place at the end of the season; Baltimore wasn’t eliminated until the final series of the season, against Toronto. When the Orioles faced the Blue Jays, managed by Cito Gaston, on June 27, 1989, it was the first ML game in history to feature a pair of black managers.