Wednesday, April 8, 2015

This Day in Baseball History (Frank Robinson Becomes First Black Manager)

April 8, 1975—In the first game ever managed by an African-American, Frank Robinson found that his best decision may have been penciling himself into the lineup as designated hitter. He rose to the occasion on that windy home opener at Municipal Stadium, clubbing a first-inning home run off Doc Medich that spurred the Cleveland Indians to a 5-3 victory over the hated New York Yankees.

It figures that would happen. When I first started taking notice of the Yankees, around 1970, Robinson, back when he was with the Baltimore Orioles, always seemed to make short work of the Bronx Bombers. Their hopes for the pennant seemed to fly out of the ballpark along with one of his homers.

Now, it was a different story. At 39, the onetime Triple Crown winner and MVP in both leagues was clearly in the twilight of his career as a player. Moreover, he was no longer on the dominant American League team of the last decade, but a squad that hadn’t even been to the postseason since 1954. He had been acquired by Cleveland in September 1974 and named manager of these perennial also-rans shortly thereafter. Unlike the Yankees, who were expected to contend after their down-to-the-wire finish the prior year, management at the Indians would have been happy just to see improvement.

In many ways, Robinson’s first victory was the one memorable highlight of his rookie year as manager—even for most of his 16-year career as a skipper. Cleveland finished out of the money again. Young players didn’t come along as fast as hoped; veterans didn’t provide the hoped-for lift; and his hypercompetitive spirit could only be released in battles with umpires so numerous that they didn’t do his club any good. Particularly annoying were players (notably, pitcher Gaylord Perry and catcher John Ellis) who questioned his authority, missed signs, resisted his insistence on physical conditioning or didn’t learn the fundamentals of the game.

For all his pride, Robinson still readily copped to his mistakes. “Listen, I was the first black manager in baseball and there was incredible pressure,” he said in an interview in Sports Magazine in August 1981. “I don't blame anyone else. I was too tough….I lack patience. I probably got on guys a little too hard, with the wrong tone of voice.”

Part of the first generation of African-American players after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, Frank modestly downplayed the significance of his own achievement before and after the game. But there is no doubt that, by performing his job capably, he eased the transition of blacks into positions involving strategic and talent evaluation. Many have pointed to those who followed in his wake in big-league dugouts, such as City Gaston (the first black to win a World Series), Willie Randolph and Ron Washington. But, even before these moves came, other blacks had followed Robinson’s lead by moving into the front office (notably, Bill Lucas with the Atlanta Braves).

“Leadership” was the word that came to many teammates’ minds when it came to Robinson. On the field, they rallied behind one of his clutch hits; in the Orioles’ clubhouse for several years, he presided over their mock “Kangaroo Court.”

As his career went on, Robinson had quietly gone about the business of learning the managerial trade. He started with the most basic of questions: What was the most basic way to instill the fundamentals that don’t get noticed by fans but often win ballgames? He made mental notes of what he liked (or didn’t) in his own managers.

Over the prior half-dozen seasons, Robinson had managed a club in the Puerto Rican winter league where his former Baltimore Orioles boss, Earl Weaver, had gotten his start. After some of the challenges the manager-in-training encountered there (e.g., a second baseman skittish about taking his position because he interpreted two sticks lying together as representing evil spirits), knowing when to yank a starter must have seemed, by comparison, like a snap.

Excellence on the field does not necessarily translate into similar achievement in the dugout, though. In this light, Robinson’s managerial record, while averaging out to a losing percentage, actually looks better than most other Hall of Fame players who made this transition:

*Pete Rose: Let’s move on (he certainly wishes we could, though out of embarrassment rather than anger);
*Ty Cobb: The man that Rose supplanted as all-times-hits leader acted as player-manager for his last six years with the Detroit Tigers. Though he achieved a winning record in five of these seasons, only in one of those did he come within single digits of the pennant winner. About the only person he could count on in the clubhouse was himself, as he never batted less than .338 and once even exceeded the .400 mark. But when you think of the explosive, racist Cobb, remember this: he may have been the one Hall of Famer closest to being a psychopath. Would you want him managing other people?
*Ted Williams: Maybe the greatest hitter of all time, he made batting a science and was delighted to share his secrets with all who would ask. Maybe he should have become a hitting coach. But instead, he became manager of the historically hapless Washington Senators (you know: “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League”). Not only could he not revive the club, but he reacted with insensitivity to Curt Flood when the opponent of the reserve clause attempted to re-enter the game with the Senators;
*Eddie Mathews: The superlative slugger was one of the best third basemen of all time and could teach players a thing or two about hitting. But a drinking problem, he admitted late in life, ended several post-playing jobs prematurely, including a stint as manager of the Atlanta Braves in the 1970s;
*Bill Terry: In the 1930s, the New York Giants’ superb first baseman revived a ball club that had turned against hard-charging longtime skipper John McGraw. But eventually, his proud, cool demeanor alienated the local press corps and, consequently, fans;
*Rogers Hornsby: He might have been the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history. He might have even won a World Series in his first year as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. But he quarreled with owner and players alike. In 1932, his Chicago Cubs players were so delighted to get rid of him that they won the pennant after his firing, then refused to vote him any World Series share, as if to rub salt in his wound. Forget that nickname, “The Rajah”—many players would have felt that “Captain Bligh” would have been a more appropriate nickname for this martinet.
*Joe Cronin: The great shortstop found intermittent success as a player-manager with both the Washington Senators and the Boston Red Sox before moving into executive positions as general manager of the Bosox and American League President.

Robinson never led a pennant or World Series champ, but he was thought highly enough that, even after being eventually fired by the Indians, a couple of seasons later, he ended up being hired by three more clubs, including the site of his greatest glory, Baltimore. Every team he managed improved on their record from the prior year. In 1989, his second-place finish with the O’s even earned him Manager of the Year honors.

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