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Frank Robinson reports to that great baseball diamond in the sky: Darcy cartoon

February 10, 2019

Frank Robinson reports to that great baseball diamond in the sky: Darcy cartoon

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Frank Robinson’s timing in death is as good as his timing was in the batter’s box and one the field. The first African-American to serve as a Major League manager for the Cleveland Indians passed away during Black History Month.  And just days before MLB teams report for spring training, first ballot Hall of Famer Robinson reports to that great baseball diamond in the sky, joining fellow barrier-breaking players Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby.

Even setting aside Robinson’s history-making turn as a manager, his baseball career, spanning more than 60-years, is the stuff of legends.

Robinson was the first person to be named MVP in both the American and National League, and finished in the top three two other times. He was Rookie of the Year and a 14 time All Star. Robinson led the Cincinnati Reds to their first Pennant in 27 years.  He led the Baltimore Orioles to their first World Series win.  In 1989 he was named American League Manager of the Year.    The Cleveland Indians erected a statue of Robinson in 2017.  The Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles have also erected statues of Robinson and all three teams have retired his number.

In addition to managing the Indians and Orioles, Robinson managed the San Francisco Giants and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals

In ESPN’s obituary for Frank Robinson, they noted how in 2016 he told “Outside the Lines” his becoming the first black manager “was nothing compared to what Jackie (Robinson) did or went through, but it was important because I was the first and that meant the door’s open.  But how long the door would stay open depended on basically the way I conducted myself and the success that I would have.   They said this was a chance for you to break that barrier.  Open the door and to let more African-Americans to have the opportunity to come through it.”

The Indians were so hard up for cash, they reportedly only payed Robinson $20,000 more than he was making as a player, when they also named him manager at age 39.  In total he was still making less than $200,000. He and Gaylord Perry had the two highest salaries.

Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto wrote about his interview with Robinson in 1979 when he was a rookie baseball writer for the Baltimore Evening Sun and Robinson had rejoined the Orioles as an outfield coach.    Pluto and Robinson recount what a dysfunctional mess of a team and organization Robinson had joined.

It was the stuff of movies when Robinson hit a homerun in his first game as Indians’ player manager.  The Tribe’s all red tomato uniforms never looked so good.  Yet by 1977 Robinson was fired.   But before then, in 1976, he did lead the team to its first winning season since 1968, finishing 81-78.

I was in fifth grade when Robinson was named manager.  My favorite teams were the Indians and Yankees.  And I only liked the Yankees because their owner was an ex-Clevelander, they had ex-Indians playing for them along with Ohio’s Thurman Munson, and those classic uniforms.

The Indians in those days were never contenders, yet they had players that a fifth-grader could still root for and follow, like Buddy Bell, Duane Kiper, Rick Manning and Dennis Eckersley.  A budding cartoonist  also enjoyed watching Boog Powell fit into his uniform and Oscar Gamble’s cap fit on his head. 

None of those players I followed on those 1970′s teams was of the stature of Robinson, not even Gaylord Perry.  Both he and Eckersley would also later be in the HOF.  But in ’75, even as fifth-grader, I knew that Robinson joining the team and becoming the first black manager was a big deal and important.   It made me feel good about the  team, not embarrassed by it because of their record.  It made me proud to be from an underdog city that had elected the first black mayor and whose baseball team now had hired the first black manager.

Frank Robinson opened a huge door in 1974-’75.  But still,  ten years later, racist blackface/kkk photos were appearing on the yearbook page of the 2019 governor of Virginia Ralph Northam, demonstrating we have to work as hard as Robinson played to keep those doors of opportunity and equality open.

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