ROBINSON ONE OF THE GREATS OF OAKLAND
Saturday’s statue unveiling at Camden Yards before the A’s-Orioles game that honored Hall of Famer Frank Robinson got me thinking. Is there any place in America that produced more barrier-breaking or game-changing athletes than Oakland, California? You think I’m kidding? Okay, let’s start with Robinson, Rickey Henderson, Bill Russell (the Celtic, not the Dodger) and Curt Flood. And this does not count Joe Morgan, Dave Stewart and Vada Pinson. Or the late, great Willie Stargell or current All-Star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, from nearby Alameda.
Consider the difference the aforementioned foursome made on the sport they played:
- Frank Robinson — He may be one of the most underappreciated ubër stars in sports history. Playing with a burning desire to win every game he played, he often willed his teams to win. In only six seasons in Baltimore, he led the Orioles to four World Series. The former McClymonds High School legend retired with 586 career home runs to rank No. 4 on baseball’s all-time list. And he hit every one of them well before the Steroid Era began. In my mind, Robby still belongs among the elite home run hitters, well above his current No. 9 ranking. He was also a 14-time All-Star and the only player in Major League history to win a MVP award in both the National (Cincinnati, 1961) and American (Baltimore, 1966) Leagues. Yet, with all those accomplishments, they pale in comparison to what he did after his playing days. In 1975, he was hired as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians. As the first African American to manage a Major League team, he was the natural extension of another Robinson—Jackie—in knocking down barriers that some day would give other deserving people of color opportunities that were non-existent before their pioneering efforts. So if you want to talk about historic figures in sports history, you might want to mention Frank Robinson in your first breath.
- Rickey Henderson — We all know Rickey’s story, so I won’t belabor the point. Born in Chicago but raised in Oakland, he simply redefined the position of leadoff hitter and destroyed any preconceived limits on the act of stealing a base. He was one of a kind, and proudly, he was inducted into Cooperstown as an Oakland Athletic.
- Bill Russell — I know this is supposed to be a baseball blog—an A’s blog, specifically—but to make my point, you have to include the former USF and Boston Celtic center. I mean, if you were to go to the dictionary and look up the word “winner,” there’s a pretty good chance his photo would appear next to the definition—two NCAA championships on the Hilltop in San Francisco, followed by 11 NBA titles in 13 years as the cornerstone and leader of Red Auerbach’s Celtics. But beyond the championships, Russell was also a game-changer. He would do it first as a player, where his blocked shots and defense revolutionized the pro game, with his blocks essentially “steals.” Unlike today’s players who derive great pleasure swatting shots into the stands for ESPN SportsCenter replays, Russell would tip the opponent’s shots to himself and then start a devastating Celtic fast break. And like Frank Robinson, Russell was named Boston’s player-coach, nine years earlier in 1966. Again, Russell was the first African American head coach in NBA history, and not only the first, but a coach who led his team to two championships. Amazingly, another McClymonds High alumnus.
- Curt Flood — A seven-time Gold Glove outfielder, three-time All-Star and member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1964 and 1967 World Series championship teams, Flood changed the entire paradigm for the way baseball would operate as a business. He courageously challenged baseball’s reserve clause—a clause that had prohibited players from becoming free agents. He won the case, although he did with much personal sacrifice, and today every player in the majors should thank the late, great Curt Flood for opening the door to the New World of free agency that has benefitted every player who followed.
And while these four faces should be chiseled into the Oakland hills for eternity, we should also appreciate a long line of other baseball greats that started their journey a stone’s throw from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. There’s Joe Morgan, a 10-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove infielder, two-time National League MVP and member of Cincinnati’s 1975 and 1976 World Series champions. There’s our Dave Stewart, who was a 20-game winner four straight years with the A’s (1987-90), author of one no-hitter, winner of the 1989 World Series MVP award, and a member of three world championship teams (1981 Dodgers, 1989 A’s and 1993 Blue Jays). There’s Willie Stargell, a seven-time All-Star, both the National League and World Series MVP in 1979. And another McClymonds High alumnus, Vada Pinson, was a four-time All-Star and one-time Gold Glove winner who played on the 1961 Cincinnati Reds that won the National League pennant. And finally, there’s Jimmy Rollins, born in Oakland and raised in Alameda, who continues to build a resume that includes a 2007 NL MVP award, three All-Star and Gold Glove selections, and a World Series Championship ring with the Phillies.
In all, this group includes five Hall of Famers—Robinson, Henderson, Morgan and Stargell, and Russell in basketball—and a case to be made for a sixth in Flood, who impacted Major League Baseball as much as anyone, when you consider the path the sport took after he won his legal challenge. So, boys and girls, a quick history lesson about some local kids who made good. And then some.
EDITOR’S NOTE: My thanks to reader Ruth Lafler, who made two great points about my blog. First, it’s VADA Pinson, not Vida. I must have had the Blue Blazer on my mind. And second, I left out another sports pioneer who grew up in Oakland: Olympic track star Jim Hines. Born in Dumas, Arkansas and raised in Oaktown, Hines, of course, joined John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics to make one of American history’s most profound statements for Civil Rights when they took the medal stand with gloved fists pointing skyward. It was a seminal moment in the Free Speech and Civil Rights movements.