On a cloudy but pleasant night on the lakefront 41 years ago this week at Municipal Stadium, a Hall of Fame career ended in front of fewer than 8,000 fans.
The nightcap of a doubleheader with the Baltimore Orioles marked the last appearance as a player by Frank Robinson, who had been hired as the Indians’ manager to replace Ken Aspromonte, who was fired after the 1974 season.
Robinson made 149 plate appearances in 49 games in 1975, almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter or designated hitter, as the Indians went 79-80 – their highest win total in seven years. That offseason, Robinson had shoulder surgery, but it limited his range of motion even more. He’d only appeared in 35 games before the Orioles twin bill. By that time, the Indians were a game above .500 at 73-72, but looking up at the Orioles, who themselves were 10 games behind the American League East-leading Yankees.
Prior to the game, Robinson could be found chatting with Earl Weaver, his manager for probably the most successful portion of his career, when he played in three straight World Series, winning one. Robinson was in the middle of a delicate negotiation with the Indians, who were pondering whether or not to bring him back the next year.
He inserted himself into the second game as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning with the Tribe down 3-1. Joe Lis had singled to lead off the inning, and after Ray Fosse flied out, Ron Pruitt walked to advance Lis to second. Robinson pinch-hit himself for shortstop Frank Duffy against starter Rudy May and hit a crisp single to left field that scored Lis. Robinson then lifted himself for pinch runner Alfredo Griffin, and May’s night was done as well. Relief pitcher Tippy Martinez got Rick Manning to ground into a double play to end the inning, and the Tribe went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth to end the game, allowing the Orioles to salvage a split of the doubleheader.
Robinson didn’t make an appearance in any of the remaining 12 games, and the Indians finished the season 81-78 for their first winning record since 1968.
Robinson was rehired as Indians manager, and seemed excited to manage the team, and although he wasn’t on the team’s active roster, he hadn’t formally announced his retirement as a player. He took batting practice with the Indians one day in May for his own exercise, he said, but the Indians were so bad that Russell Schneider in the Plain Dealer wrote that activating Robinson might be a consideration for a team so bereft of power hitting.
But because the Indians were so bad, Robinson couldn’t last, and he was fired in June. Indians management had been considering firing him a month earlier and talked to Dave Garcia about taking the job, but Garcia said he’d decline. A month after Robinson was fired, Larry Sherry was fired as manager of the Angels, and Garcia took that job, and brought Robinson on as a coach. Even in Anaheim, there was speculation at the end of August that when rosters expanded, Robinson would unretire to be of some use to the Angels, but it didn’t come to pass.
Ultimately, Robinson was known as a feared hitter, a Triple Crown winner (famously past what the Reds considered his sell-by date), and eventually a successful manager, with stints in San Francisco, Baltimore, and as the last manager in Montreal and the first one for the Washington Nationals. But he always regretted ending his career like it did – 14 home runs shy of 600 and 57 hits shy of 3,000.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project