Robinson’s Opener May be the Most Important in Tribe History
Steve Eby | On 06, Apr 2013
As Opening Day in Cleveland arrives this Monday, memories of openers-past flood back in to the minds of Cleveland fans—just as they do every year.
Just a year ago, the Tribe faced the Blue Jays in a grueling 16 inning home opener, as Chris Perez blew a save in the ninth to spoil Justin Masterson’s masterpiece and gave the fans hours of free baseball. That game became the longest Opening Day in baseball history, breaking the record previously held by the 15 inning affair between the Tigers and Indians in 1960. The Tribe came up short in both marathons.
The Indians opened the 2007 home season in the snow, then again at Milwaukee’s Miller Park when Seattle Manager Mike Hargrove spoiled a 4-0 Indians lead and a possible no-hitter by starter Paul Byrd by complaining about the weather. The Tribe was sent to Milwaukee for the next series against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as Old Man Winter continued to cover Progressive Field.
The first game at Jacobs Field in 1994 was a classic walk-off win, and who could forget the extremely emotional opener the year before, as the Tribe remembered the tragic deaths of their teammates Steve Olin and Tim Crews?
The legendary Bob Feller hurled a no-hitter against the White Sox in 1940 and the Opening Day no-no is still the only one of its kind. Going even farther back, the Cleveland Blues and Chicago White Stockings squared off on Opening Day in 1901 as the first foes to battle in any American League game.
All of these games—especially Feller’s—are unique and historic, but none are more historically significant than the one held at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on April 8, 1975.
The 1975 opener at Municipal Stadium was the stage for Frank Robinson’s managerial debut, as the Indians hosted the nemesis New York Yankees. What was so historic was that Robinson was about to break down a color-barrier as the first black manager in baseball history, and the player/manager was batting second in the Tribe’s order as the designated hitter.
The Indians had traded for Robinson in September of 1974 and named him the club’s skipper shortly after. At the time of the trade, Robinson already had his ticket punched for the Hall of Fame, as the slugger had amassed 572 homeruns and 1,773 RBI over his nearly two-decade career. He was the 1956 Rookie of the Year, a two time MVP and a former Triple Crown winner. His tenure as manager started out inauspiciously, however, as he and Gaylord Perry—the Indians best pitcher—had argued back and forth during spring training. Not surprisingly, the spat between the two future Hall of Famers was not big enough to keep Robinson from naming Perry his Opening Day starter.
Prior to the event, the media hounded Robinson about his thoughts on breaking down such a historical barrier. Robinson said that his thoughts were of former Dodger Jackie Robinson (no relation) “as they always are every time I put on my uniform.”
Jackie broke the Major League color-barrier as a player nearly three decades prior to Frank’s historic day. African American players had already dominated the game for years, as players like the Robinson’s, Willie Mays and then all-time homerun king Hank Aaron had been tearing up pitching for a long time by then, but Frank was about to take a Jackie-like step into uncharted territory.
“I think 1947 was much more important than (this game),” Robinson said in a Russell Schneider article from the Plain Dealer. “It was a breaking period for black people coming into baseball, and how many followed depended upon Jackie’s conduct. But that isn’t the case now. What and how I do doesn’t mean nearly as much as what and how Jackie did.”
Perhaps he was right, or perhaps he was determining shades of grey, but it did not matter. Frank Robinson was ready to make baseball history as the first black manager in the history of the game.
Along with his history-making questions came inquiries about how he would handle managing a ball club while playing and his playing ability 19 seasons into his career.
“I don’t think managing will be as difficult as it would be if I played in the field, on defense (instead of serving only as a designated hitter),” Robinson said. “The most difficult part will be to keep myself in shape to play…I’m probably 15 or 20 at-bats short of being really ready, although I’m not hitting the ball too badly.” After the Opening Day pregame ceremonies that included Rachel Robinson—Jackie’s widow—throwing out the first pitch, the city of Cleveland quickly found out what Robinson’s definition of ‘not hitting the ball too badly’ was.
Perry warmed up the crowd of 56,715 fans by shutting down the Yankees in the first inning, including two strikeouts of former Indian Lou Piniella and future Indian Bobby Bonds. It wasn’t until after Yankee starter Doc Medich got Oscar Gamble to pop out to start the bottom of the first that the big crowd became electrified.
Robinson strode to the plate on that near-freezing Tuesday afternoon to a thunderous ovation from the Cleveland crowd. Robinson tipped his helmet then dug in to face Medich, trying to follow the orders from general manager Phil Seghi, who famously told Robinson to homer his first time up prior to the game.
“Phil suggested to me (that) morning,” Robinson was quoted in another article by Schneider, “’Why don’t you hit a homer the first time you go to the plate? I told him, ‘You got to be kidding.’”
He wasn’t kidding. And Robinson wasn’t one to really kid around either.
Robinson crushed a low and away fastball deep into the frigid Cleveland air that sailed deep toward the left field fence. Piniella raced back and leapt at the wall, but came down with his glove empty as the ball cleared the fence for a homerun that would have seemed too cliché to put in a Hollywood movie.
Robinson circled the bases having just given the Cleveland Indians one of baseball’s signature moments, as well as a 1-0 lead over the Yankees.
“Any home run is a thrill,” Robinson said, “but I’ve got to admit, this one was a bigger thrill.”
The fans roared in excitement and appreciation for one of baseball’s true pioneers. Tribe centerfielder George Hendrick was the first to greet him at the plate, and then Perry was the first to greet him outside of the dugout. Robinson took off his helmet and raised it to the adoring Cleveland crowd.
Robinson and Perry, with great assistance from Boog Powell’s RBI double and solo homerun, defeated the Yankees that afternoon by a final score of 5-3. Lost in the hoopla of the historic Opening Day victory was the fact that Robinson had not only hit a homerun, but had also notched the first win in his managerial career.
“(Robinson) took the pressure off with that home run the first time up,” Perry said after the game. “That hit took the pressure off him and everybody else. I’m very happy for him, that the game turned out this way.”
It turned out a way that only a true American legend could have scripted.