Frank Robinson: He Blazed a Trail Baseball Still Refuses to Follow

David Durochik via AP

Frank Robinson in action during his 1966 season with the Baltimore Orioles. 

Back in 1981 when I was a sports writer for Newsday, all-star relief pitcher Dave LaRoche told me about a night in the mid-1970s when he and another player on the Cleveland Indians wanted to talk to manager Frank Robinson about an issue the team was concerned about. They talked to 1 in the morning.

“Frank was the first manager who said his door was open, you found it really was,” LaRoche said. 

Robinson, who recently died at the age 83, stood out his entire baseball career. In a statement on Robinson’s passing, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said, "Frank Robinson's resume in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations. He was one of the greatest players in the history of our game, but that was just the beginning of a multifaceted baseball career.” Unfortunately, Manfred’s intended tribute encapsulates the patronizing attitudes that dominate the conversation about racial opportunity in sports. 

Robinson became the first African American to manage a major league baseball team in 1975. With Opening Day on the horizon 44 years later,  there is only one black manager in baseball. Despite Robinson’s trailblazing, a dent has hardly been made in baseball’s structural racism. Other professional sports aren’t doing much better as team owners, general managers and league commissioners still refuse to recognize the multifaceted leadership talents of African American men.

Robinson had a Rookie of the Year season in 1956. He went on to become the only player ever to win the Most Valuable Player awards in both the National and American Leagues. He won baseball’s Triple Crown in 1966, leading the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. Only two players have won the crown since.

He parlayed his Hall of Fame credentials into managing four franchises between 1975 and 2006, the Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals. He was the American League’s Manager of the Year in 1989 with Baltimore. He is the only man to receive Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player in both leagues and Manager of the Year honors.

As black coaches languish in assistant roles or in the minor leagues, team officials continue to give second chances to failed white coaches much more quickly than black coaches and they entrust franchises to young white coaches with much thinner resumes than black men who have been head coaches.

Today, Dave Roberts of the defending National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers is the only black manager out of 30 teams: Similarly, Latinos make up one out of every three players but only one out of every eight managers. Last season, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, was the first Puerto Rican manager to win the World Series. 

A similar story tarnishes other sports. The 32-team National Football League is 70 percent black. But African Americans make up only 9 percent of head coaches. The 30-team National Basketball Association is three quarters African American but only a quarter black in head coaches.  

This is despite demonstrated excellence by African Americans when they get the chance to lead. The NBA should be much farther along, given that the league had a 12-year run from 1968 to 1979 when African American head coaches took teams to five NBA finals, winning four. 

The first one to win (twice) was player-coach Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. K.C. Jones, another Celtics great both as a player and a coach who won two championships leading the team in the 1980s, told me in a 2007 interview, “Russell was such a mental giant that we thought that with his back-to-back championships, it chipped away at the idea that black coaches were a step below.” 

Black coaches remained a step below even after 1992, when Cito Gaston became the first and only African American manager to win a World Series. They are still disproportionately passed over even after 2007 when Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears became the first two African American head coaches to square off in the Super Bowl. 

In a report last year on hiring practices, ESPN’s The Undefeated found that of managers with no prior managerial experience who took over winning teams since 1972, none were black. In a curious twist, African Americans, regardless of experience, were almost exclusively handed the reins of losing teams. Former manager Dusty Baker mused to The Washington Post, “I look at my situation on a small scale kind of like Barack Obama’s. He wouldn’t have gotten nominated for president unless we were in a bad way. We were in a terrible, terrible way. It’s the same way in baseball. Most minorities inherited bad teams.”

Ironically, Baker is symbolic of how black managers are also more likely to be fired with a winning record. He was a three-time National League Manager of the Year with the San Francisco Giants but is also the only manager in baseball history to pilot three different teams (the Giants, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Nationals) to at least 90 victories in a 162-game season, and still get fired. Despite his obvious ability to motivate players, he asked The Undefeated, “What do I have to do to not get fired?”

The New York Times underscored that last point in a feature last year. Willie Randolph was fired after the 2008 season as manager of the New York Mets despite a cumulative winning record and has not managed since. The Times compared him to Clint Hurdle, a white manager who had losing records seven of his first eight seasons with the Colorado Rockies. He was fired in 2009 and then hired in 2011 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he has had a winning record four out of eight seasons. African American Ron Washington, who piloted the Texas Rangers to four straight 90-win seasons from 2010 to 2013 and two World Series appearances, has not been rehired since being fired in 2014.   

The wait by the telephone for the call that rarely comes—for either a first or second chance—remains one of the most pernicious insults in sports for qualified black candidates. And a baseball genius like Frank Robinson was not immune. I spent a day with him and his wife Barbara for Newsday in the winter of 1981, just after he became the first African American to be given a second chance to manage. 

Fired in 1977 from his first team, the Cleveland Indians, he waited nearly four years for the call, from the San Francisco Giants. As happy as he was to have the second chance, the sting of the wait was still there. His wife Barbara told me in their Ventura home, “I think that one time Frank was a little more frustrated than usual when he saw how Billy Martin (the pugnacious manager of the New York Yankees) was fired, then picked right up (by the Oakland A’s). It kind of made Frank wonder just a little, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ”

Frank himself cited two other white managers who were handed the reins of winning teams, with one of them being called a genius for carrying on his predecessor’s winning record. “Blacks haven’t made that far yet to be considered for something like that,” he told me.  

Robinson was one of Major League Baseball’s fiercest competitors. His passing is a signal: The commissioner can praise Robinson all he wants for a “multifaceted career,” but nearly four decades after that interview, baseball’s inability to recognize, promote and retain the genius-managers who followed him is hypocritical. The only way the sport can honor Robinson’s legacy is to launch a multi-faceted effort to tear down the old-boy network so more black and brown managers get the opportunity to bring out the lineup cards.

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