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Robinson’s Road to Managerial Debut in Cleveland was Rocky

Robinson’s Road to Managerial Debut in Cleveland was Rocky

| On 07, Apr 2020

On April 8, 1975, Cleveland’s Frank Robinson made history, becoming the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball history. On top of that, he capped off his momentous day by homering in his first at bat of the season, doing so on Opening Day in front of 56,715 fans at Municipal Stadium. We look back this time not at the home run of said day, but the circumstances leading up to Robinson’s arrival on Ohio’s north coast. – BT

In 1947, the Cleveland Indians broke the established rule of the time, signing Larry Doby and making him the first African-American ball player in the American League when he stepped on the field on July 5.

In 1974, the Cleveland Indians once again broke free from the established norms in the game of baseball, helping to further integrate professional sports by hiring Frank Robinson as the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball history.

Robinson entered the professional baseball world as a teenager with the game in a state of steady change. Six of 16 teams had added black players to their MLB rosters by the time he began his career in 1953 and that number jumped to 13 by the time he began his Hall of Fame trajectory at the start of the 1956 season. More than 20 years later and with respect earned around both leagues for his prowess on the field and his efforts to help lead his respective clubs from the clubhouse, Robinson looked to be the right man at the time to break the managerial color barrier.

His path to becoming the head man in Cleveland, however, came with its fair share of controversy and involved a rather unorthodox route taken by all parties involved.

Robinson was in the twilight of his playing career when he came to Cleveland late in the 1974 season. The 1956 National League Rookie of the Year and the first player to win the MVP award in each league (doing so with Cincinnati in 1961 and with Baltimore in 1966) was playing his 19th big league season and his second with the California Angels. Even though his playing skills were still in demand, he was already being tabbed as a manager-in-waiting before he had hung up his cleats. His former manager in Baltimore, Earl Weaver, had hopes that Robinson would one day succeed him in the dugout there when his eventually firing were to occur. Others, like his manager with the California Angels in 1974, Dick Williams, saw his value and utilized it as best that he could for the short time that the two were together.

Robinson – Ron Kuntz Collection (Getty Images)

Robinson – Ron Kuntz Collection (Getty Images)

“He helped me before I even started managing Oakland,” said Williams in an Associated Press quote from July 2, 1974. “Reggie Jackson had some trouble with the front office and Frank was managing him at Santruce of the Puerto Rican Winter League. I talked to both Frank and Reggie, individually and together. Frank was helping Jackson and by helping him he helped me.”

Williams, who had taken over the Angels mid-year in ’74, made Robinson the first team captain in Angels’ team history on July 3. Playing on a salary of $175,000, Robinson was due to receive an extra $500 for his services as captain.

His time in that post was to be short-lived, however, as within weeks of his appointment rumors of his departure from Anaheim swirled. A deal with the New York Yankees just ahead of the July 15 trade deadline fell through in the final moments. The Angels sought to trade him to the Red Sox in early August, but other teams below Boston in the standings claimed the veteran slugger on waivers, leaving California to pull him from the list. Robinson held veto power on all trades per his contract, which clouded potential deals further.

Meanwhile, in a unique turn of events, Robinson had made a somewhat surprising trip to Cleveland, where he enjoyed a night out downtown with his agent (and Clevelander) Ed Keating, Indians team president Nick Mileti, and Mileti’s wife on August 5, taking in a comedy show starring former Indians hurler Jim “Mudcat” Grant. The gathering happened between stops on a road trip for the Angels between Kansas City and Chicago.

The second place Indians, in their first real pennant pursuit since 1959 and seeing their best attendance figures since the same time, had initially claimed Robinson (as did the Yankees, which were below the Indians in the standings), blocking the Red Sox from acquiring a potentially dangerous bat in the midst of a playoff race. The Tribe trailed Boston by just a handful of games at the time of the claim, but a disappointing August followed and appeared to put the team’s postseason dreams to bed while Robinson continued to suit up for the Angels. The Indians started to heat back up during the second week of September, winning four straight from the 8th to 11th to pull back within five games of the top spot (despite still being in fourth place), and, on September 12, the team swung a deal with the Halos to add the aging star to their lineup after he was placed on waivers again.

Robinson, who was named an All-Star for the 14th and final time earlier in the season, had hit .251 with a .371 on-base percentage in 129 games for the Angels, hitting 26 doubles and 20 homers while driving in 63. He was acquired for the $20,000 waiver price, but the Indians also sent catcher Ken Suarez at the time of the deal and outfielder Rusty Torres after the season. Despite having veto power over trades, Robinson accepted the deal sending him to Cleveland instead of holding out for other “better” opportunities that had been rumored both during the season and for the coming offseason.

“I feel good about the deal, otherwise I wouldn’t have accepted it.” Robinson shared with The Plain Dealer in quotes in the September 13, 1974, edition. “I’m as sound as I can be at this stage of my career…I’ve been up and down most of the season, but I hope I can help the Indians. I think I can and I’m anxious to get started.”

The timing of Robinson’s addition did not help public opinion, nor did it factor in positively in the standings. There were questions about why general manager Phil Seghi did not push to acquire Robinson in July, when he may have helped the lineup more, rather than to wait until the final weeks of the season when it looked far more like Robinson’s services were being acquired for ulterior motives unrelated to the team’s production on the field. The team’s financial situation was also in the public concern, as the front office guaranteed Robinson’s significant salary for 1975 as part of the deal, regardless of whether he was on the team’s roster or not.

Cleveland went 6-14 with him on the roster in the final few weeks of the regular season and finished 77-85, 14 games in back of first place Baltimore. It marked a disappointing end to an up-and-down season for manager Ken Aspromonte and the Tribe, one that brought in some excitement with the team’s first legitimate playoff pursuit in 15 years that had a noticeable effect on attendance at Municipal Stadium, but one that also saw the front office bring in an outside firm, Success Motivation Institute, late in the season to try to promote positive thinking and motivation from the players and coaches over the course of eleven separate voluntary attendance sessions.

The union of the Indians and Robinson did not come without issues, some more unexpected than others. The constant speculation in the press that Robinson had been acquired to supplant the fiery but likeable Aspromonte caused issues for the club, although Aspromonte had had his own issues with the team (chiefly Bob Johnson, who was fined $750 during the 1974 season for two separate incidents before being claimed off waivers by Texas, and George Hendrick, who was fined for “lethargic play” in 1973 and seemed to be at odds still with the manager).

Robinson – Bettman Archives (Getty Images)

Robinson & Seghi – Bettman Archives (Getty Images)

It helped Aspromonte little that he was a Gabe Paul hire in 1971 under the ownership of Vernon Stouffer, who sold the club to Mileti four months later (instead of the group led by George Steinbrenner). Paul resigned in January of 1973 to join Steinbrenner and the Yankees as a part owner and front office executive, and Indians vice president and the team’s director of player personnel Seghi replaced him in the Cleveland front office. Aspromonte did not appear to be Seghi’s man for the job, especially with several public comments and decisions by the GM that did not give the manager much credit in terms of votes of confidence (Hendrick’s fine from Aspromonte was reduced by Seghi, who essentially informed the manager that ‘that’s the way it goes’).

The addition of Robinson nearly fractured the front office. After the deal was made, Mileti cut short a trip to Las Vegas (said to be part business, part pleasure) to meet with executive vice president Ted Bonda and GM Seghi regarding the decision to secure Robinson a contract for the coming season that was expected to guarantee him an estimated $180,000, making him the team’s most expensive player at the age of 39, regardless of whether he was with the club or not. (Seghi ultimately got a new deal to continue his vision, days before formally completing one of the most expected transactions in Cleveland sports history by showing Aspromonte the door.)

Others in the clubhouse were reportedly concerned about how the signing of such a big check with Robinson’s name on it was going to affect roster construction for the following year. Players worried about reduced playing time, the possibility of being traded in the offseason, and how the team would be able to afford some of their contracts with more limited finances in general to spend on the roster. The Indians had just reported operating losses of $1.5 million following the 1973 campaign, and while attendance was up, the losses were expected to remain in the red with big commitments looming for the year ahead.

Clubhouse tensions mounted, at least publicly, on September 27. Star pitcher Gaylord Perry and Robinson needed to be separated short of a physical altercation following Perry’s remarks the previous day at an event in Akron that he “should get as much as Robinson, and a dollar more” for his 1975 salary. The confrontation happened minutes before Aspromonte ended months of speculation by announcing to the media that he would not be back as Cleveland’s manager after the conclusion of the third and final year of his contract that season. Perry, under the assumption that the restrictions on the purse strings at 1085 West 3rd caused by Robinson’s arrival meant more veterans would be escorted out of town, was quoted on September 28, 1974, in The Plain Dealer that “Now he [Seghi] has a good excuse to trade me, and I don’t care if he does. I’ll go to anyone who wants to pay me. I’ve been too nice for too long.”

Both parties admitted nothing physical occurred and Robinson shared that it was Perry’s remark about his own salary for the next season that had riled him up.

“I simply told Gaylord that I didn’t want my name used by anyone again in the newspapers about how much money I make, or how much money anybody else makes,” he shared in the above mentioned story.

The Indians appeared to be looking to hire an African-American manager (with a big push coming from Bonda) and there was some thought that the team had three choices in mind. Robinson was brought in from California in September. Two months before Robinson, the Indians acquired Tommy McCraw on waivers for $20,000 (similarly from the Angels; he later coached on Robinson’s staff as a player-coach). Before those moves, Doby was hired by the Tribe as a coach, leaving his position with the Montreal Expos.

Other names emerged as the season wound down, including former Indians minor league skipper Frank Lucchesi (coaching for Billy Martin in Texas) and Montreal coach Dave Bristol.

The picture seemed clear both locally and nationally that Robinson was the man and had been all along, especially given the late push by Seghi to acquire him before another club could scoop up his guy either via waiver claim or in the offseason through a trade. Those thought to be considered in the running for Aspromonte’s job, like coach Doby, saw their window closing in town.

Robinson - Focus on Sports/Getty Images

Robinson – Focus on Sports/Getty Images

“Sure, I still want to manage, but nobody has said a word to me about anything, and all I know is what I read in the papers,” said Doby to The Plain Dealer’s Russell Schneider in a September 30, 1974, column. “I don’t think it’s my place to go and talk to anybody. Everybody knows I want to manage. That hasn’t changed. If they want to talk to me, I’m here.

“When I came to Cleveland last winter as a coach, I didn’t go to them. They contacted me. I wasn’t unhappy in Montreal. I think I still deserve the same kind of respect…

“I think my chances, speaking in terms of [managerial] qualifications, are as good as anybody’s, disregarding any politics that might be involved. If I get passed over again, there must be some other reason…some reasons other than baseball.”

Robinson’s role with the Tribe was changed on October 2, when the club announced that he would become the 28th manager (and ninth player-manager) for the club entering its 75th season of American League action. Keating shared with The Plain Dealer in an October 3, 1974, story that “the only reason we accepted the deal with Cleveland was the possibility of it [Robinson becoming manager] in the future” and that other deals to Baltimore and New York had been shot down because there were no guarantees that his baseball future past his playing days would be in either location.

Doby and the other coaches were not retained from Aspromonte’s coaching staff by the new player-manager. Robinson later elaborated on the split with Doby in his book, Frank: The First Year. There was some speculation of racial discord in the Cleveland clubhouse under Aspromonte’s leadership when Robinson arrived to town, per his observations. Robinson noted a team split down the lines, with white players siding with Aspromonte and black players siding with Doby. Aspromonte had, at least privately, claimed that he believed Doby was undermining him and causing the split, to which Robinson agreed on some level.

That belief led to Doby’s dismissal.

“I didn’t keep any of Aspromonte’s coaches because I wanted to clear the air. In particular, I did not keep Larry Doby because he had shown me that he wasn’t loyal to the manager,” Robinson said in his aforementioned book. “Doby wanted to be the first black manager, but splitting the team racially wasn’t the way to do it.”

Doby, after a couple of seasons back in the Expos organization in a variety of roles in 1975 and 1976, headed back to Chicago (a home for him several times both before and during his playing days) when old friend Bill Veeck came calling. A polarizing figure and innovator in baseball himself intrinsically tied to desegregation, Veeck had been pulling for Doby to get the vacant Cleveland managerial job.

“I was hoping Larry Doby would get the job but that is completely understandable because he is equally competent and we are close friends,” Veeck shared in The Plain Dealer on October 3, 1974, when asked about the hiring of Robinson. “Both are very qualified. I’m delighted somebody is finally becoming intelligent enough to select a manager on his ability rather than his color. I’m glad to find a club where an unknown doesn’t frighten them to death. That is the only reason for the hesitancy in hiring a black manager. Frank is equipped because of his managing in the winter. He was the leader of the Baltimore club, albeit unofficial.”

Veeck brought Doby home to Illinois to coach with the White Sox in 1977. He later made him the second African-American manager in Major League Baseball, hiring him as the manager in Chicago on June 30, 1978, to replace longtime friend and former Indians teammate Bob Lemon.

Doby’s club went 37-50 in the second half of the schedule and he was let go by Veeck, never getting a second look as a skipper.

Aspromonte, who lost favor with Seghi and was nearly bumped from his position earlier in the ’74 season before turning things around to temporarily stay his execution, was excluded from a lot of the moves being made by the front office (including the acquisition of Robinson that placed a target squarely upon his back, a move which he was reportedly notified of five minutes before the news went public). Despite getting 77 wins out of the Tribe and a fourth place finish (both bests of his managerial stint in town), the infant 43-year-old skipper was given the boot and never managed again. Aspromonte tried briefly to get a few other gigs in baseball, but was on to working in Las Vegas as a greeter by the following January. Later, he and his brother (and former big leaguer) Bob Aspromonte began long careers as distributors of Coors Beer, bringing a rapid end to a playing and coaching career in professional baseball that spanned more than a quarter century.

Robinson helped lead the Tribe to a 79-80 record in his first season at the helm. Most memorably, he was told to be in the starting lineup for the first game of the season and homered off of New York’s Doc Medich in his first at bat of the season. It was to be one of the final homers of his big league career, as milestone homer #575 of 586 total made for one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Indians franchise.

Robinson - Cleveland Memory Project

Robinson – Cleveland Memory Project

“Any home run is a thrill,” shared Robinson after the game in quotes in the April 9, 1975, edition of The Plain Dealer, “but I’ve got to admit, this one was a bigger thrill.

“[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.’”

The pomp and circumstance did not last for long, as Robinson dealt with growing pains in his role and literal shoulder pains while suffering a decline in his own abilities on the field. That surreal first game of the season marked the only time in 1975 that the team was above .500, as a 7-8 record in April, a 12-16 effort in May, and a 13-17 result in June left the team nine games below even after three months and six games under at the All-Star break at 40-46. Robinson got a little extra effort from his team in the final three months of the season, earning a .500 record in July before 15-13 and 18-12 marks in August and September, leaving the Indians one game below .500 at 79-80 and in fourth place in the AL East, 15.5 games in back of Boston at season’s end. His name made it onto the lineup card just 49 times (37 as a starter) and always as either a designated hitter or pinch-hitter. He contributed a .237/.385/.508 slash with five doubles, nine homers, and 24 RBI.

Robinson continued in the role as player-manager in 1976, playing sparingly in 36 games (.224/.329/.358 with three homers and ten RBI). His reduced playing time while serving as the figurehead in the dugout ultimately cost him his chance for the milestone 3,000 hits (he finished at 2,943 with just 53 in his Cleveland playing career). The Indians finished 81-78 (the team’s first winning record since 1968) and things seemed to be trending in the right direction, but a 26-31 start in 1977 with Robinson retired from playing the game and public criticisms from Rico Carty (who blasted Robinson for a “lack of leadership” while at an April Wahoo Club luncheon honoring Carty with the Golden Tomahawk Award as the 1976 Man of the Year) and announcer Joe Tait, plus other clubhouse discord, helped lead to his dismissal. He was replaced by bullpen coach Jeff Torborg.

His removal was not believed to be racially motivated and led to a response from the now owner Bonda, once one of Robinson’s biggest supporters.

“That wasn’t the case,” said Bonda in the July 4, 1977, edition of Sports Illustrated when asked if race played a role in keeping Robinson around as long as he did as manager. “There wasn’t any pressure. Actually, the black fans never materialized at the park, although I know they took pride in him. It certainly had no effect on the firing.”

Bonda later noted “divisiveness down in the clubhouse” and “conditions beyond Robinson’s control” as things that did have an effect on his employment status with the Indians. Seghi reportedly had desired to fire Robinson after the previous season. Robinson felt the lack of front office support and said it factored in him losing the team, stating in the July 4, 1977, SI article that “the thing that made it difficult was that the players knew I did not have support at the top. If the players sense that a manager does not have front-office support, he’s not going to have full control. And once he doesn’t have full control over the players, the situation becomes very, very difficult on the field.”

Robinson went on to other coaching and managerial opportunities, with mixed results along the way. He led the San Francisco Giants from 1981 through the first 106 games of 1984 while being named a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1982. He replaced Cal Ripken Sr. in Baltimore in 1988 after seven games and brought the Orioles back to contention in 1989 (winning the AL’s Manager of the Year Award) before fading out in 1990 and 1991. A decade later, he returned to help out the Montreal Expos, leading the club for three years and accompanying them in their move to DC in their first two seasons as the Nationals before being let go in 2006. He kept working for baseball and was honored multiple times by his former clubs, with the Orioles, Reds, and Indians (in 2017) all erecting statues in his honors while retiring his number 20 before his death on February 7, 2019.

And as for Perry, he was the Tribe’s Opening Day starter for Robinson’s historic game, scattering three runs on nine hits with a walk and six strikeouts in a complete game victory before giving the ball from the final out to the new manager. Perry’s comments about his pending salary which began his conflict with Robinson did not net him the payday that he hoped for from Seghi (his $150,000 for 1975 was well short of a dollar more than Robinson was scheduled to make) and likely helped punch his ticket out of town. By the third month of the season, both he and his older brother Jim Perry were dealt away, as were former All-Stars Dave Duncan and Blue Moon Odom and pitcher Dick Bosman, less than a year after his own error cost him a perfect game for the Indians (he still completed the no-hitter).

Strapped for cash, Cleveland brought back more than $100,000 from Texas in the younger Perry trade, who played eight more seasons with six different clubs, earning a second Cy Young Award with San Diego in 1978 before joining Robinson in Cooperstown in 1991.

Photo: Tony Tomsic/Getty Images

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