Becoming Manager Was Sacrifice For Frank Robinson


If Frank Robinson hadn’t become the first African-American manager in Major League baseball history, his lifetime statistics would have been meatier. He almost surely would have hit more than 600 home runs. He possibly would have amassed 2,000 RBIs.

But from the standpoint of nearly 40 years later, what Robinson chose to do at the expense of his final career numbers was to commit to a more worthy cause. Although discussion about Jackie Robinson being the majors’ color-barrier-breaking star in 1947 is common, I hardly ever hear anyone talk about the other Robinson’s breakthrough.

You would not think that would be so, but memories dim and modern-day fans don’t remember how huge it was when Frank Robinson broke the managerial barrier. That’s understandable perhaps since it is routine for a black or Latino to be named manager of a big-league team these days and no one blinks or suggests it is anything unusual.

That is called progress. Black managers have been been fired and rehired for other jobs. When African-American team leaders are in the mix as recycled team leaders, you know that the managerial playing field pretty much has been leveled. Just for starters Dusty Baker has managed the Giants, Cubs and Reds. Ozzie Guillen moved directly from the White Sox to the Marlins this year. Ron Washington is so esteemed as manager of the Texas Rangers he even survived what would seem to be a job-killing flaw–testing positive for cocaine.

Let’s just say the world was not either as friendly to or sympathic to black managers in the 1970s when Robinson, the only man to be named Most Valuable Player in both leagues, was coming to the end of his playing career.

Robinson already had Hall of Fame credentials–he finished with 586 homers, 1,812 RBIs, and a .294 average and won the American League Triple Crown for the Baltimore Orioles in 1966. His playing career was starting to wind down in 1974 when the Cleveland Indians asked him to become player-manager starting in 1975.

Player-managers were once very popular, especially during the Depression years when baseball owners were trying to save money any way possible and combining the two jobs seemed like a convenient way to do so. Over the years the dual title has evaporated and the last time any team employed a player-manager was Pete Rose with the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-1980s. Now such an idea seems almost quaint.

In October of 1972, nine days before he died, Jackie Robinson scored baseball for not yet having hired a black manager and making inroads with opportunities for African-Americans in the front office.

Two years later, when Frank Robinson was offered the player-manager job with the Indians, he didn’t really want it. He wanted to finish out his playing career in style and then pursue a managing job, but he realized he had to accept the offer.

“I wanted to further the cause for African-Americans and minorities in baseball,” Robinson said during a recent baseball forum at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. If he turned the chance down, Robinson said, “When will that door open again?”

Robinson said he was due $180,000 for playing and the Indians offered $200,000 to handle both jobs.

“You’re only going to pay me $20,000 to manage the club,” Robinson said he asked.

Yes, that was the deal, take it or leave it, he was informed.

“I wanted to be a manager one day,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to be a player-manager.”

But he became one. Robinson the manager had so much to do working with players, dealing with the media and front office, he did not often use Robinson the player. Robinson’s games played dwindled and so did his numbers. His teams did not do terribly well, so he might have been better served by inserting himself into the lineup more often, but overall he believed there was too much to worry about without playing, too.

Like so many other managers who came before him and came after him, Robinson inevitably was fired. His turn to be axed came after three years at the helm (though he later managed other teams). Robinson’s place in history was secure both as a player and a pioneer. He simply did not get the opportunity to write that history on his own terms.