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Robinson, Smith and the Origins of Oriole Park

Baltimore OriolesBaseball lost a major figure when Frank Robinson, pioneering manager and Hall of Fame player, passed away last week. One part of his legacy worth noting for us: his input into the design of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

There were plenty of tributes to Robinson in the baseball world when he passed away Feb. 7. He was the first player to be named MVP in both leagues, and at the tail end of his playing career he was the first African-American manager in the majors, serving as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He later managed the Giants, Orioles, Expos and Nationals — the final two under some pretty severe limitations.

He was Orioles manager when Oriole Park at Camden Yards was designed and built. It was groundbreaking as MLB’s first retro ballpark, and during planning he provided plenty of input to Janet Marie Smith, who was director of design for the project. It also led to a prolonged friendship that lasted far beyond the Oriole Park planning stages. From Mississippi Today:

“Everyone knows Frank for his baseball accomplishments, but he was also an amazing man, so passionate about whatever he was involved in,” Smith said by telephone from her Baltimore home. “He accomplished so much in life that his important contribution to the design of Camden Yards ranks so far down the list it rarely gets mentioned.

“I can tell you, Frank was very much a part of it. He had very definite ideas about the design on the playing field and the clubhouse and his input was invaluable. When things mattered to Frank, they really mattered and, thankfully, Camden Yards really mattered to him….

“We started out as colleagues though he had a big recognizable name and was already in the Hall of Fame,” Smith said. “As was the case of so many of the people who worked with Frank, we became really good friends. I am going to miss Frank. You know, when you read about him, you read about his toughness, that tough veneer of his as a player and a manager. But he was such a softie inside. He made the people around him feel special.”

The philosophy behind Oriole Park — a retro design evoking the look and feel of an old ballpark while still offering modern conveniences — reverberated throughout ballpark design in both the majors and the minors after it opened, with other facilities like PNC Park and Oracle Park following suit in imaginative ways. And much of what Robinson recommended, such as a core old-time design and field features like minimal foul space and asymmetrical outfield fences, became a core part of modern ballpark design.

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