The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Frank Robinson: Baseball's Pioneer as First Black Manager

Following Jackie Robinson’s debut as the first black player in the majors in 1947, it took over a quarter of a century for Major League Baseball to hire its first black manager.  Frank Robinson, who died last week at age 83, made history in 1975 when signed a contract as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians.  Robinson also became the first black manager in the National League in 1981 with the San Francisco Giants.

Robinson had been traded by the California Angels to the Cleveland Indians with three weeks left in the 1974 season.  At 38-years-old, he was in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career.  At the time, he was fourth on the all-time home run list following Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.  He was the only player to be voted the Most Valuable Player in both leagues (Cincinnati in 1961 and Baltimore in 1966).

When Indians manager Ken Aspromonte resigned with just days left in the 1974 season, Cleveland GM Phil Sehgi offered him the job, but under the condition that he would continue to play.  Although not his preference to hold both roles, Robinson agreed to the arrangement.  When it came time to talk about his salary for the new job, the Indians offered him the same amount, $180,000, as he had previously signed as just a player.  Robinson initially balked at the offer as being unfair because the Indians were essentially asking him to manage for nothing.

Robinson’s agent, Ed Keating, counseled him that if he wanted to manage in the big leagues, this would be his big chance.  Ever since his early playing days in Cincinnati, Robinson had decided he wanted to stay in baseball after his playing career, ideally to manage a major-league team.  However, he hadn’t envisioned he would ever be the first black to manage.  Robinson ultimately agreed to the Indians’ terms, but alerted the front office that his primary focus would be on the other 24 players on the roster and that player Frank Robinson would be secondary in his priorities.

Robinson’s appointment was truly significant, since there had been only three black managers (Gene Banks, Tommie Aaron, and Hector Lopez) in the minor leagues and only a handful of blacks as coaches on major-league teams at the time.  Robinson’s managerial experience included five seasons at the helm of Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

Before a home crowd on Opening Day in 1975, manager Robinson placed himself second in the Indians batting order.  In the bottom of the first inning, he hit a home run off New York Yankees pitcher Doc Medich.  Robinson said it was his all-time thrill during his 37-year career, as the Indians also won the game, 5-3.

The Indians wound up one game short of a .500 season, finishing in fourth place, 15 ½ games behind the Boston Red Sox.  Robinson led the team to an 81-78 record the next year but then was let go after 57 games in 1977.

He went on to manage the San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Montreal Expos, and Washington Nationals for a total of 16 seasons.  He was American League Manager of the Year with the Orioles in 1989.  The season represented a dramatic turnaround by the Orioles who had lost their first 21 games of the previous season during which they won only 54 games.

Robinson blazed the trail for other prominent black managers in the majors, including Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, Cito Gaston, Ron Washington, and Hal McRae.

Robinson may have been underrated as a player by virtue of his career occurring at the same time as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.  But he was a true “five-tool” player before the term became widely used to describe players with equally outstanding hitting, fielding, and running skills.

In any case, the baseball writers got it right by electing him to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1982.  Following his career on the field, he held various executive positions in Major League Baseball’s front office.  He was regarded as one of the outstanding ambassadors for the game.

(Note: Frank Robinson’s book Extra Innings (McGraw-Hill, 1988) was the source for details about his first managerial job with Cleveland.)

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