Robinson Becomes Baseball’s First African American Manager Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the hiring of Frank Robinson by the Cleveland Indians, baseball gained its first African American manager after a century of play and nearly thirty years after the desegregation of the players’ ranks.

Summary of Event

For many years, American baseball’s major leagues did not have a history of being kind or welcoming toward racial minorities. From the time the National League was formed in 1876, more than seventy years would pass before Jackie Robinson Robinson, Jackie became the first African American player in the modern era when he was called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson’s promotion did not open the door very wide, as witnessed by the fact that the last team to integrate, the Boston Red Sox, did not do so for another twelve years. Even when more minority players joined the league, they were often subjected to vile and racist verbal abuse, treated with sneering contempt by some white teammates, and branded as athletic but not mentally acute by a surprisingly large number of sportswriters. African Americans;athletes Sports;baseball Baseball Major League Baseball;Frank Robinson[Robinson] [kw]Robinson Becomes Baseball’s First African American Manager (Oct. 2, 1974) [kw]Baseball’s First African American Manager, Robinson Becomes (Oct. 2, 1974) [kw]First African American Manager, Robinson Becomes Baseball’s (Oct. 2, 1974) [kw]African American Manager, Robinson Becomes Baseball’s First (Oct. 2, 1974) African Americans;athletes Sports;baseball Baseball Major League Baseball;Frank Robinson[Robinson] [g]North America;Oct. 2, 1974: Robinson Becomes Baseball’s First African American Manager[01690] [g]United States;Oct. 2, 1974: Robinson Becomes Baseball’s First African American Manager[01690] [c]Sports;Oct. 2, 1974: Robinson Becomes Baseball’s First African American Manager[01690] Robinson, Frank Seghi, Phil Mileti, Nick Bonda, Ted

By the mid-1970’s, twenty years had passed since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, had struck down racial segregation in public schools, and ten years had elapsed since the monumental 1964 Civil Rights Act, yet few African Americans held leadership positions in professional sports, and not one had been named manager of a team in baseball’s major leagues. That situation, however, was about to change.

The Cleveland Indians Cleveland Indians had been a perennially mediocre franchise. Since 1920, the team had won only two American League championships, the second of which, in 1954, had been followed by the team’s losing the World Series in four straight games. In fact, the entire organization reeked of failure. The Indians played in a dilapidated, cavernous stadium in a dangerous part of town before small crowds. Also, the team’s front office was in constant turmoil, as evidenced by the frequent turnover of owners, general managers, and managers. Clearly, the Indians were a team in a dire situation and in need of a bold step to improve attendance and inspire the public to help finance a new stadium.

Phil Seghi, who became general manager of the Indians in 1973, knew Frank Robinson well. Seghi had previously worked for the neighboring Cincinnati Reds Cincinnati Reds in a variety of roles, including assistant general manager, and Robinson had spent the first ten years of his playing career (1956-1965) with the Reds. Seghi had always admired Robinson’s competitiveness and desire to win, which were coupled with an extraordinary knowledge of the game. When Reds owner Bill DeWitt inexplicably traded Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles, Seghi was confused and bewildered.

In 1974, Robinson was playing for the California Angels. His years as a player were nearing an end, but his career and accrued statistics had been truly remarkable. A tall and powerful right-handed slugger, he had smashed more than two hundred home runs in each league, and by the time he retired as a player (1976) he would trail only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Robinson was also the only player ever to win the Most Valuable Player award in both the National League and the American League, winning it with the Reds in 1961 and the Orioles in 1966. A perennial All-Star, he had also won the Triple Crown in 1966—that is, he led his league in home runs, runs batted in, and batting average.

Cleveland team owners Nick Mileti and Ted Bonda and general manager Seghi all agreed that Robinson would be a fine choice to fill their team’s manager vacancy, and a deal was struck with the Angels on October 2, 1974, to bring the future Hall of Famer to Cleveland. Robinson was not ready yet to retire as a player, and Robinson on the field was a guaranteed gate attraction for the attendance-starved Indians, so it was agreed that he would become the first player-manager in the major leagues for more than twenty years. This was a huge step on many fronts. Robinson’s presence could lead the Indians back to respectability on the field and in the front office while also perhaps embarrassing the Cleveland team’s more powerful and popular in-state rivals, the Cincinnati Reds.

Cleveland Indians Manager Frank Robinson (left) with former Brooklyn Dodgers player Roy Campanella (center) before award ceremonies to honor Robinson, baseball’s first African American manager, in New York on April 29, 1975.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Of course, the most significant impact of this move was the opening of baseball’s managerial ranks to nonwhites. Team owners had been historically slow to hire minorities in any capacity except as players, and minority players had to excel. Throughout the history of professional sports, most if not all team owners believed that African American players were superior athletes but lacked the intellect and leadership abilities necessary to hold managerial positions. Robinson would certainly be closely watched and critically judged in his new position by a diverse group of fans and social commentators.

During spring training in 1975, the new manager became keenly aware that the Indians were a team with many weaknesses. The team’s two most important player acquisitions were Robinson’s former Orioles teammate John “Boog” Powell (a home run hitter with few other talents) and Robinson himself. In fact, the entire roster was populated with mediocre and once skilled but now aged players, just the sort of talent a financially strapped team could afford. The team’s former manager, Ken Aspromonte, had run the Indians for three years and had been forty games under the break-even point when he was fired, and Robinson was managing the same basic team. A similar record generated by the new manager would provide fuel for racists who belittled an African American’s abilities to run a team.

On the opening day of the 1975 season, Frank Robinson was the designated hitter, hit a home run, and managed the Indians to victory. As the team’s manager, he demanded each player’s best effort and set an outstanding example on the field, but he could not meet the high expectations that had been set for him. Despite having a better record than his predecessor, he was terminated as manager of the Indians in 1977, a year after he retired as a player.

Significance

Frank Robinson went on to manage the San Francisco Giants San Francisco Giants (1981-1984) and thus also became the first African American manager in the National League. He later managed the Baltimore Orioles Baltimore Orioles (1988-1991) and won the Manager of the Year Award with them in 1989. After serving as the director of discipline for Major League Baseball for a number of years, he returned to managing, directing the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise from 2002 to 2006.

As is the case with every manager in baseball, some observers complained about Robinson’s managing style: He relied too much on instinct, he favored African American players, he discriminated against African American players, he played too much golf. Nevertheless, Robinson proved beyond a doubt that a nonwhite manager was fully capable of leading a major-league team. Robinson’s success also helped make it possible for minority players to have careers in baseball after their playing days were over.

By clearly contradicting malignant racial stereotypes, Robinson helped to correct a huge wrong in baseball and, by extension, in society. Proof of his accomplishment can be seen every time a minority is hired to fill a position of authority. By the end of the twentieth century, the mass media and American society rarely paid much attention to the race or ethnicity of individuals named as coaches or managers in major-league sports, in contrast to the uproar that occurred when Robinson was hired. Frank Robinson was an all-time great player and was justly elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, but his contributions to baseball, society, and social justice were even greater off the field. African Americans;athletes Sports;baseball Baseball Major League Baseball;Frank Robinson[Robinson]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mehno, John. The Chronicle of Baseball. London: Carlton Books, 2000. Encyclopedic history of Major League Baseball includes an informative article about Robinson that supplies his career playing statistics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Okrent, Daniel, and Harris Lewine, eds. The Ultimate Baseball Book. Expanded ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Good baseball reference volume covers various aspects of Robinson’s career, with a focus on his Triple Crown year of 1966.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reidenbaugh, Lowell. Cooperstown: Where the Legends Live Forever. Edited by Joe Hoppel. Rev. ed. New York: Gramercy Books, 1999. Excellent resource provides information about Robinson’s hiring and subsequent termination as manager of the Cleveland Indians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Frank, and Berry Stainback. Extra Innings. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. Memoir gives Robinson’s own point of view on the events of his career. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Comprehensive history of the sport includes discussion of Robinson that helps to explain his management philosophy, noting his extreme will to win and his hard-nosed style of play.

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