What do Frank Robinson 1966, Reggie Jackson 1977 and Kirk Gibson 1988 have in common? All of these are years where stars in their prime left their original ball clubs, joined teams that were missing one piece to the puzzle and helped lead them to a world’s championship. The fact that each year ended in a same double-digit number (‘66, ‘77, and ‘88) is just coincidence.
This season, we’ll see if all-world first baseman Albert Pujols can follow in the footsteps of these previous greats. For now, let’s take a look back at the impressive feats of Robinson, Jackson and Gibson.
Before joining their new teams each man was already established all-stars with proven track records. With the Cincinnati Reds, Frank Robinson was National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1961. With the Oakland A’s, Reggie Jackson was American League MVP in 1973. With the Detroit Tigers, Kirk Gibson was World Series MVP in 1984. But what they did in their first seasons with their new teams is each players singular moment.
Robinson was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 1966. He was considered an ‘old 30’ by the Reds and, with a little bit of baggage, thought expendable. The Orioles were an up and coming team at the time with names like Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Paul Blair. They had been chasing the New York Yankees without success.
Enter Frank Robinson. He would set the bar that Reggie Jackson and Kirk Gibson would have to reach later. They would come close, but not quite.
From day one in spring training, Robinson became the central figure of the Orioles. Every member of the organization sensed he was the final piece.
“One day in spring training, a bonus kid for the Braves threw a fall-off-the-table curve,” said Jim Palmer, “and Frank hit a rocket down the line, bringing up chalk. I turned to Davey Johnson and said ‘We just won the pennant’”
He was right. Frank Robinson took the American League by storm. Reggie Jackson would have a great 1977 and Kirk Gibson a great 1988, but Robinson made history. He became the first (and only) African-American to win the Triple Crown with a .316 batting average, 49 home runs and 122 runs batted in (RBI). This earned him MVP honors making him the only man to win the award in both leagues.
Robinson led the Orioles into the World Series as underdogs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the first inning of game one he homered off of Don Drysdale and the series was basically over. He homered again off of Drysdale in game four to complete a four-game sweep and win MVP honors.
Frank Robinson had done it, Reggie Jackson was next at bat and Kirk Gibson was on deck.
In 1977, Jackson came to the Yankees as a free agent from the Baltimore Orioles. He had won three world’s championships with Oakland and an American League MVP in 1973.
Unlike Robinson, Jackson was not accepted by his new teammates with open arms. Yankees manager Billy Martin didn’t want him and team captain Thurman Munson was upset that Jackson got a bigger contract than him. While Frank Robinson had tried to blend in with his teammates, Reggie Jackson promoted himself as ‘the straw that stirs the drink.’ Eleven years later, Kirk Gibson would announce his presence in a more hostile way.
Despite fighting with his manager and teammates, Jackson had a strong 1977 batting .286 with 32 home runs and 110 RBI. A Yankee team that had been swept in the 1976 World Series made it back in ’77. On the big stage that was so familiar to him Jackson vindicated the Yankees signing him by hitting five home runs including a record three in the decisive game six. The Yankees won their first championship since 1962 and Jackson was series MVP.
Frank Robinson had been the final piece. Reggie Jackson the straw that stirs the drink. Now it was Kirk Gibson at bat.
There was no reason to believe that lightening could strike again in 1988. After nine years with the Tigers, Gibson became a free agent and thanks to owner collusion the only team to offer him a contract was the Dodgers.
A team that was always in contention welcomed the fiery Gibson by putting eye black in his hat. This did not go over well with the former Michigan State football All-American. More a Frank Robinson than a Reggie Jackson, Kirk Gibson vowed to kill whoever did it. It happened to be pitcher Jesse Orosco. Gibson didn’t kill him, but he got his point across. He was there to win.
And win the Dodgers did. Gibson led the Dodgers to the National League pennant with an MVP performance. Los Angeles faced Oakland in the World Series and an injured Gibson was unable to play. Or was he?
He was good enough for one at bat. And what an at bat it was.
With the Dodgers down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth of game one, Gibson hobbled to the plate and hit a dramatic home run off of Dennis Eckersley to win the game and spark Los Angeles to a world’s championship.
How in the world can anyone forget Frank Robinson 1966, Reggie Jackson 1977 and Kirk Gibson 1988?