Frank Robinson made history in AL and NL
In the years leading up to that summer, rumors had swirled about a few potential candidates. They included Maury Wills, who had retired as a player after the 1972 season, and Satchel Paige, who last pitched in 1965 and was already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. There had also been conversation surrounding Roberto Clemente, who was planning to retire after the 1973 season and had long been rumored as a managerial candidate, only to lose his life in a horrific plane crash at the end of 1972.
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The Indians’ players came to Robinson’s defense. They circulated a petition, signed by all of the players, which stated they too would sit out all three of the games. Relief pitcher Dave LaRoche showed Robinson the petition. Robinson was flattered by the support but suggested to LaRoche that the players reconsider their decision.
Robinson also had to deal with difficult forces within the front office. Robinson’s boss, Seghi, had a penchant for second-guessing his manager, a trait that rubbed the old-school Robinson the wrong way. Seghi also pushed for Robinson to put himself in the lineup more often, given his track record as a productive power hitter. But Robinson preferred to play only sparingly, appearing in just 49 games, while deferring to Rico Carty as the Indians’ DH. That decision also allowed Robinson to concentrate more of his efforts on the demands of managing.
Robinson also encountered problems with some of his veteran players, including staff ace Gaylord Perry. The relationship had started poorly the previous September, when Robinson first joined the team. Perry went to the media and expressed his desire to be paid $1 more than what Robinson was making. Not surprisingly, that public plea did not sit well with Robinson, with the hard feelings carrying over to the 1975 season.
Another player, Blue Moon Odom, threatened to jump the team, but not over any objection with Robinson. Odom was upset about his contract and wanted a raise of $8,000. Robinson repeatedly talked to Odom about his situation, convincing him to stay with the team.
In spite of the series of obstacles, Robinson guided the Indians to a very decent record of 79-80, an improvement of three and a half games over Cleveland’s 1974 performance. For a team that received little power from three positions – catcher, second base and shortstop – had aging players at first base and DH and received only 15 starts from Perry before he was traded to the Texas Rangers, that win/loss record was more than respectable.
As with most first-year managers, Robinson endured his share of growing pains. But it was also obvious that his intelligence, his intensity, and the experience gained from 21 years as a player made him an above-average manager. And he would only get better over time.
After often losing his temper that first summer, Robinson learned to select his fights more judiciously. In 1976, he returned to the Indians as their player/manager, this time leading the club to an-above .500 record of 81-78. He did earn four more ejections, but his relations with umpires did improve over his first summer.
Robinson returned to the Indians for a third season in 1977, but a subpar start of 26-31 resulted in his firing. He would receive a second shot at managing prior to 1981, when the San Francisco Giants hired him as a replacement for Dave Bristol – and in so doing made Robinson the first Black manager in National League history. In 1982, Robinson led the Giants to a respectable third-place finish in 1982. Later on, he would lead a rebuilding effort with his former team, the Orioles. He won a “Manager of the Year” Award in Baltimore, and that, coupled with his work in helping the Montreal Expos and Washington Nationals become perennial overachievers, cemented his reputation as one of the game’s more accomplished managers.
As with his playing legacy, Robinson the manager may remain underrated, especially given the pressure he had to overcome in becoming the first Black skipper in the history of the American and National leagues. Bolstered by his old-school approach and work ethic, along with his deep-seated knowledge of the game, Robinson’s managerial work only enhanced his reputation as one of the game’s wisest and toughest men.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum