Robinson makes history — and helps bring home a win — 40 years ago today
Vince Guerrieri | On 08, Apr 2015
When the Indians dealt for Frank Robinson in September 1974, at face value, it looked like they were hoping the slugger – who led the Orioles to four pennants and a pair of world titles after being dealt from the Reds to Baltimore in 1965 at “an old 30” – had a little left in the tank to keep the Tribe afloat in the American League East race. On Sept. 12, 1974, the day of the trade – which was front-page news in Cleveland – the Indians were six games back with 20 to play.
The Tribe ended up finishing in fourth place, but Robinson would go on to make history.
On Sept. 13, when the trade was announced, Plain Dealer sports editor Hal Lebovitz said it was a prelude to Robinson becoming the first black manager in Major League Baseball. Lebovitz wasn’t just a voice in the wilderness, and Indians general manager Phil Seghi did nothing to quell the rumors.
One of the reasons the Indians were able to snag Robinson from Los Angeles was that Robinson, who had managed winter teams in Puerto Rico, was actively lobbying for the manager’s job. The Angels had fired Bobby Winkles midway through the season, and ended up replacing him with Dick Williams, who was out of work after clashing with Athletics owner Charlie Finley, despite winning two straight World Series for Oakland.
The problem was that at the time, the Indians had a manager: Ken Aspromonte. But Seghi was given a contract extension by the Indians in September, and Aspromonte read the writing on the wall. He gave a farewell news conference – as it turned out, he never managed in the major leagues again – and suggested that Robinson would need to be either a player or manager for the 1975 season.
“Managing will be difficult for Frank Robinson unless he uses himself very sparingly as a player,” Aspromonte said at Cleveland’s legendary Keg & Quarter. “If he just limits himself to pinch-hitting in the ninth inning, then you are depriving your roster of a player, and you only have 25 to start with.”
Opening Day in Cleveland is usually a holiday anyway, but in 1975, it took on the sheen of a celebration unseen in the city in a generation. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn would be on hand for the opener against the Yankees – as would more than 56,000 fans – and Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, would throw out the first pitch. Shortly before Jackie Robinson’s death in 1972, he expressed his hope for a black manager. “I wished Jackie could have been there,” Frank Robinson said in 1975. “The next best thing was having (Rachel) there. It kept me focused.”
Rachel Robinson was cheered. Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk, who caught the first pitch, not so much. Kuhn was also booed. It was a cold day on the lakefront, with an atmosphere described as like a World Series, with out-of-town reporters covering the historic game.
Robinson had inserted himself into the lineup, batting second as the designated hitter. He got down in the count 0-2 to Doc Medich, and then caught the next pitch and sent it over the fence for a home run. The crowd went nuts.
Robinson’s home run was the only one in the game. In fact, it wasn’t even the only home run by an ex-Oriole playing for the Indians. Boog Powell hit a game-tying home run in the fourth, and doubled home the go-ahead run in the sixth.
But after the game, even Powell wanted to talk about Robinson. “I was screaming along with everyone else in the dugout when he hit the ball,” said Powell, who was on his way to a Comeback Player of the Year season for the Indians.
Robinson ended up retiring as a player after the 1976 season. He’d made a total of 228 plate appearances in two years with the Indians, hitting the last 12 of his 586 home runs with Cleveland – including one on a cold history-making day 40 years ago today.