Former Cleveland Indians manager and player Frank Robinson stands with his new statue commemorating his career. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, Ohio – When Frank Robinson was 81, the Indians unveiled a statue of him at Heritage Park behind the center field wall at Progressive Field. It was located in the middle of the team’s Hall of Fame with Robinson holding a lineup card as the first African American to manage a major league team.
The date was May 27, 2017. Robinson, an MVP in both leagues who played like a clenched fist, had mellowed with age. He was thin and his hair was white, but the embers inside were still smoldering.
Manager Terry Francona, his coaching staff and players, were seated behind him for the unveiling. Robinson, a Hall of Famer, thanked Francona and his players. “I’m sure you guys would rather be sitting in the air conditioning in the locker room getting ready for your game,” he said.
He spoke about what the statue meant to him and his days in Cleveland. Mostly he talked about how baseball still needed to do a better job of bringing people of color into management, coaching and front office positions.
Robinson, who had spent his life in the game as a player, manager, and an MLB executive, was still trying to clear the way for others.
“There are people out there in the minor leagues and at the big-league level as coaches, and they have earned their way up,” said Robinson. “But they just don’t seem to be able to break that barrier as often. All I can tell them – don’t give up. Do not give up. If you want to manage one day in the big leagues, continue to do it. Continue to do it.”
Of all the things that were said by and about Robinson that day, that is the what I remember the most. Robinson, who died on Thursday at 83, was still fighting the fight for equality long after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke baseball’s color barrier.
“That was a passion of his and he fought for it until the day he died,” said Indians announcer Rick Manning, who played center field for Robinson’s Indians. “It was a passion because he experienced (racism and prejudice) as a player when he came up.”
The Indians formally announced the hiring of Robinson as player-manager on Oct. 3, 1974. Ken Aspromonte, who managed the team the three previous seasons, was fired the day before.
The late Plain Dealer baseball writer Russell Schneider, in his history of the team, quoted then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn as saying, “Now that it has happened, I’m not going to get up and shout that this is something for baseball to be exceptionally proud of, because it is so long overdue.”
Schneider credited Ted Bonda, Indians CEO, and GM Phil Seghi for hiring Robinson.
“He managed like he played,” said Manning. “He was a hardnosed player and a great player. I watched him growing up on TV playing with Baltimore and Cincinnati. I idolized the guy. When they called me up in May, he told me I was there to play. I was just thrilled to be in the big leagues.”
In those days the Indians would play an exhibition game against their Class AAA team during the regular season. The top minor league club was in Toledo. Bullet Bob Reynolds, who had failed to make the Tribe out of spring training, was pitching for Toledo in 1975. He apparently was upset with Robinson and threw a pitch over his head.
Robinson popped out and after that went to the mound and knocked out Reynolds. The next day the Indians players hung a pair of boxing gloves on the manager’s door at the Municipal Stadium.
“I’m up in there for the first time and watching this stuff go on and thinking, ‘Holy smokes, is this what the big leagues is like? There’s something new every day,’” said Manning.
Manning wasn’t kidding.
In Robinson’s first at-bat as player-manager, against the Yankees on opening day, he homered. It was one of nine homers he hit that year and one of 586 during his career.
Robinson was a 14-time All-Star, a Triple Crown winner, Rookie of the Year, World Series MVP, batting champion, the judge in Baltimore’s famous Kangaroo Kourt, manager of the year, a Gold Glove winner and a man who knew how to seize the moment and never give up the fight.