I was having a conversation with a younger Indians fan the other day. I guess you could refer to him as a millennial. He was complaining about the Indians erecting a statue to honor Frank Robinson. Robinson became the first black manager in MLB when the Indians hired him as manager in 1975.
My young friend argued that Robinson was over the hill as a player when he came to the Indians as a player in 1974. While it was unique that he became a player/manager in 1975, he excelled at neither. His record as manager was slightly under .500 for less than 3 seasons. He argued that while becoming the first black manager was important, Robinson was fortunate to be at the right place, at the right time.
Everything my young friend says is true. As a player in his prime, Robinson may have been the most respected slugger in baseball. He was the first player to be named MVP in both leagues, but by the time he arrived in Cleveland, he was 38 years old. He only had 225 AB’s over the next three seasons for the Tribe.
But all you really need to know about Frank Robinson, the player for the Cleveland Indians, occurred on opening day 1975, but I remember it like it was a scene out of The Natural. On a cold, but sunny day at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, DH/Manager Frank Robinson lined a home run in his first at bat. He seemed to stumble out of the box in his all-red Indians uniform, but the crowd roared with amazement. It instantly became a part of Indians folklore.
Robinson was a mediocre manager for the Indians because he had a spotty roster. He did have an ace in future HOF’er Gaylord Perry. He also had a 20-year-old Dennis Eckersly, but the rest of the staff were journeymen. In the field were an aging Boog Powell and Rico Carty, along with interesting players like George Hendrick, Buddy Bell, and Frank Duffy. Robinson did openly campaign for a manager job before the Indians hired him. He even became a manager in the winter leagues to prepare for a job. Eventually Robinson also became the first black manager in the National League as well when he became the manager of the Giants in 1981. He was also named the American League Manager of the Year for his work with the Orioles in 1989.
Saying that someone would be a black manager was like saying eventually somebody would discover the New World, but Christopher Columbus eventually made it. Maybe he was lost, but it was still a big deal. Robinson may have been fortunate to land with the Indians. Owner Ted Bonda and GM Phil Seghi probably got some valuable PR by hiring Robby as the player/manager. The Indians could use any star power they could get. In 1975, with Robinson as player/manager, the Indians finished with a 79-80 record.
Ultimately any argument that goes back over 40 years should be looked at with the perspective of history. It may be hard for some younger people to realize, but sports and American society in general were not as openly integrated as they are today.
All baseball fans know Jackie Robinson became the first black man in MLB with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947. Larry Doby became the first in the American League here in Cleveland in July of that year, but the Red Sox didn’t add a black player until 1959. The Washington Redskins of the NFL didn’t have a black player until the Browns traded them Bobby Mitchell in 1962. It took the National Guard to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963. It took until 1989 for the loved National Football League to hire its first black head coach of the modern era. It was Art Shell of the Raiders.
So, Frank Robinson was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for the Cleveland Indians. It’s a proud mark for the franchise. He managed a varied group of players like Gaylord Perry from North Carolina, Dave Duncan from Texas, Rico Carty from the Dominican Republic, and George Hendrick of Los Angeles, California.
If Christopher Columbus is worthy of a national holiday for getting lost, then Frank Robinson worthy of a statue in Cleveland.