His time in Cleveland may have been short, but Frank Robinson’s legacy as a member of the Indians organization is one that changed the game of baseball forever.
His accomplishments will be honored on Saturday when the Indians induct Robinson into their Hall of Fame on July 30, along with former players Albert Belle, Jim Thome, and the late Charlie Jamieson.
Robinson, who will turn 81 on August 31, is not expected to be in attendance.
“These are four of the all-time great players in our franchise’s storied history, and through their individual personalities and achievements, each has created his own special memories for generations of Indians fans,” said Cleveland senior vice president of public affairs Bob DiBiasio in a statement announcing the Indians’ new additions to their Hall. “We’re excited to officially recognize their contributions to our franchise and the game of baseball by inducting them into the Indians Hall of Fame.”
The four new additions will push the population of the Indians Hall of Fame to 44 members.
Robinson took the field just 100 times as a Cleveland Indians player, but it was the first game of the 1975 season that was easily the most significant. It was his first as their manager, their player-manager, the first African-American to ever hold the top job in the dugout in the history of Major League Baseball.
On April 8, 1975, the Indians opened the season against the New York Yankees. Robinson, who replaced Ken Aspromonte as the Indians’ manager in the offseason, penciled himself in as the team’s designated hitter and two-hitter for Cleveland’s annual holiday.
Baseball’s commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, was present for the contest, as was the mayor of Cleveland, Ralph Perk. Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson (who had passed in 1972), was on hand to throw out the game’s first pitch. Frank’s wife was also in attendance for the event with son Kevin and daughter Nichelle. A crowd of 56,204 was on hand to take in history.
Gaylord Perry walked the leadoff man, Sandy Alomar, before he was erased on a caught stealing. Strikeouts of Lou Piniella and Bobby Bonds brought the Indians to the plate. Oscar Gamble fouled out to third baseman Graig Nettles and in stepped Robinson. On a 2-2 pitch, described by Robinson as “a fastball, low and away”, he took Yankees starter Doc Medich deep to left, making the momentous occasion all the more memorable and magical, something almost impossible to script.
One of the first players to greet him was Perry, who was involved in a public difference of opinion with Robinson on day one of the skipper’s first spring training as a manager.
Cleveland would fall behind the next inning as Chris Chambliss and Thurman Munson drove in three off of Perry, but the Indians would slowly chip away, getting a Jack Brohamer sacrifice fly in the second, a solo homer from Boog Powell in the fourth to tie the game at three, and RBI hits from the pair in the sixth to give the Tribe a 5-3 advantage. Perry made it stand with a complete game and Robinson won his historic managerial debut.
“Any home run is a thrill,” shared Robinson after the game (quoted in the April 9, 1975, edition of The Plain Dealer), “but I’ve got to admit, this one was a bigger thrill.
“[General manager Phil Seghi] suggested to me this morning, ‘Why don’t you hit a homer the first time you go to the plate?’ I told him, ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’”
Cleveland Stadium was loud down to the final pitch, with fans yelling and waving pennants as Munson grounded back to Perry.
“I’ve never been involved in anything like that,” Powell shared after the game. “This is not a knock at Baltimore fans, but they never – I mean they never – reacted like that, not even in the World Series.”
Bullpen supervisor Jeff Torborg reiterated the same sentiments as Powell, saying “I’ve been in two World Series and two All-Star Games and I never saw anything like what happened in the ninth inning. Never.”
Cleveland and its fans understood the significance of the day and of the game.
Robinson would hold down the job for 374 more games, playing sparingly along the way in 1975 and 1976. The Indians finished in fourth place in each season, going 79-80 in his first season and 81-78 in the second. He left his playing days behind him at the start of the 1977 season, but after a slow 26-31 start, he was let go.
It would not be until 1978 that another African-American got an opportunity to manage – former Indians outfielder and future Hall of Famer Larry Doby took over for the Chicago White Sox after another former Indian and Hall of Famer, Bob Lemon, was relieved of duty in the Windy City.
Robinson’s ticket to Cooperstown and baseball immortality was already punched by the time he came to Cleveland in 1974. A 12-time All-Star, including his final trip that season while still with the California Angels, Robinson was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1956 and MVP in 1961 while with the Cincinnati Reds and won the American League’s MVP award and the Triple Crown while with the Baltimore Orioles in 1966. All but the final 14 of his 586 career home runs had been hit during ten seasons in Cincinnati, six in Baltimore, one in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, and parts of two years with the Angels.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 on his first ballot.
After his time in Cleveland, Robinson would work as a coach with the Angels and the Orioles before receiving the manager’s title again in 1981 with the San Francisco Giants, where he led the club for parts of four years. He returned to Baltimore to lead the Orioles, this time as their manager, from 1988 to 1991. He later took the helm of the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals for five seasons from 2002 to 2006.
Robinson was well-known for his on-the-field leadership, a no nonsense kind of player who held others accountable for their mistakes. He lived the game, he knew the game, and he understood what he needed to do and which buttons to push to get the most out of his teammates and coaches. Even from that problematic first day of spring training as the Indians manager, Robinson had his expectations and made sure others lived up to them. He was respected and admired by those who knew him and played with him or for him.
When the Indians acquired him from the California Angels on September 12, 1974, Robinson was two weeks past his 39th birthday and clearly in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career. Cleveland was still in the race in the American League East and the acquisition was front page news in the city as his accomplishments and reputation as a player clearly preceded him. His addition did not make a difference in the standings as the Tribe finished the season in fourth place, but Robinson’s place in Cleveland Indians history was forever cemented the following year.
Nearly 40 years after his time in Cleveland came to an end, Robinson will add another chapter to his illustrious story, one far more significant than any statistics, records, or wins and losses during his more than 50 years involved in Major League Baseball.
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