High flight for an Oriole

Feb. 03, 1969
Feb. 03, 1969

Table of Contents
Feb. 3, 1969

The Crosby
The Bruins
College Basketball
Horse Racing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

High flight for an Oriole

After three months in Puerto Rico Frank Robinson knows one thing for certain: he can manage. He may become the majors' first Negro pilot

Had it been equipped with chains and a couple of high-grade manacles at the time of construction, the manager's office in the home-team clubhouse at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico could have served perfectly as Hollywood's version of a World War II prisoner-interrogation room. Two lights, one of which works, hang from the high ceiling, sending eerie shadows across the gray cinder-block walls. There are no windows and, since the blue door cannot be locked from the inside, any attempt to accomplish a successful suicide in privacy would be, at best, an even-money bet.

This is an article from the Feb. 3, 1969 issue Original Layout

When Frank Robinson, the man who used this office for the last three months as manager of the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rican winter league, entered it before games he took a rag and bore down hard with both hands trying to remove the carpet of dust that had settled on his desk. Next he folded a can of Real-Kill in one of his giant hands and sprayed it into the air, hoping the insecticide would live up to its promise to rid the premises of "moscas, mosquitoes, zancudas and cucarachas" or at least bring some of them to their knees so that he could finish off the job with his white shower sandals.

Puerto Rico is a nice place to visit and—for many—a nice place to live, but unless you really thought you had something to prove you certainly would not want to manage a baseball team there. Santurce is "the big club" of the six-team league, and Hiram Bithorn Stadium, named after the first successful Puerto Rican major-leaguer, is the palace at Versailles when compared to the stadiums in Ponce, Caguas, Mayaguez and Arecibo. A game at Bithorn, used for home games by both the Crabbers and the San Juan Senators, resembles the rumble scene in West Side Story, and when the action crackles, the fans act as if they were involved in the finals of a spitting-for-distance contest.

Although the league gets little attention in the United States, it serves as a place to either develop young players with major league potential or to breathe new life into performers who were injured during the preceding big-league season. Within recent years the Detroit Tigers used the Mayaguez club to help develop Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup and Denny McLain, and in just the past four years Managers Larry Shepard of Pittsburgh, Preston Gomez of San Diego, Cal Ermer, formerly of Minnesota, and Earl Weaver of Baltimore have all worked in the Puerto Rican League on their way to the majors.

Normally, owners in the league hire either experienced minor league managers or such popular native players as Luis Arroyo, Vic Power, Roberto Clemente or Ossie Virgil to handle their teams. Last September, however, Hiram Cuevas, the witty and iconoclastic owner of the Crabbers, signed Robinson, and if baseball people wondered then what Cuevas and Robinson were up to, they do not now. The experiment in Santurce has ended, and Robinson, the first U.S. Negro ever to manage an integrated professional baseball team, brought a pennant to Santurce while earning the title of "Manager of the Year."

At the age of 33 and one of only nine men who will enter the 1969 U.S. season as a $100,000 player (the others are Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Mickey Mantle, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and Carl Yastrzemski), Robinson brought to his work a flair that now places him in the forefront of potential candidates for appointment as the first Negro manager in the major leagues.

What makes Robinson's prominence all the more remarkable is that his playing career, both in Cincinnati and Baltimore, has always been surrounded by controversy. Robinson freely admits that when he first came up to the Reds, Detroit seemed incapable of producing enough automobiles to fill the showcase of his own mind. Given to carrying large sums of cash—as much as $2,500 at a time—Robinson bought a Beretta .25 to help protect himself and he was picked up with it on his person in 1961 after an altercation in a restaurant. Although Reds General Manager Bill DeWitt knew that Robinson had been apprehended, he let his star stay in jail overnight and Robinson was later fined $250. When Robinson arrived at spring training in Tampa the following spring, Fred Hutchinson, the Cincinnati manager, greeted him in typical Hutchinson fashion, saying, "That was a stupid thing to do." Robinson agreed, and since that time his feuds have been mostly about scoring decisions.

Certainly he has been one of baseball's finest players. Traded from the Reds to Baltimore in 1965, he left behind him in the National League a lifetime batting average of .303 and an average of 100 runs driven home per season. When he moved over to the Orioles he promptly won the American League's Triple Crown as well as its Most Valuable Player Award, thus making him the only player ever to be judged most valuable in both leagues. His reputation as a tough competitor is attested to by the black and blue marks he has left on numerous double-play combinations while sliding. His challenging batting stance, with head and arms out over the plate, has caused him to be hit more than 125 times, sometimes even unintentionally.

Recently Robinson sat in his office in San Juan making out his lineup card for the opening of the playoffs of the Puerto Rican League. Because the Crabbers have only one home and one road uniform, Robinson was faced with having to wear the same suit for 14 straight days. That possibility, unfortunately, was erased when San Juan defeated Santurce in the seventh game of the semifinals and eliminated the pennant-winning Crabbers from the playoff finals.

"I took this job," Robinson said, "because I wanted to try managing. The day is coming when baseball will hire a Negro manager. I'm interested. I got my chance after Earl Weaver took over from Hank Bauer as manager of the Orioles. A big-league manager does not have the time to work down here, so Earl was nice enough to suggest to Hiram Cuevas that he hire me. Cuevas knows almost everybody in the Baltimore organization. He looks at as many of the Orioles players as he can, trying to build a team to play for him once the season in the States is over."

Cuevas talked to Robinson in Baltimore, liked what he heard and signed him. Cuevas, who bought the Crabbers from his father some years ago, is the only independent owner in the league. While most of the other teams are made up of a couple of very young minor league prospects and a few guys named Jose, the Crabbers are strong, thanks to the Baltimore connection. From Cuevas' standpoint, his team has to be. Baseball is his sole source of revenue.

The Santurce roster, like all the others in the league, consists of 23 players, eight of whom make up the maximum number of "imports." Examining the team Robinson managed, one would get the idea that it was far and away the league's best. It was, but to handle it was something else. One of his pitchers was Juan Pizarro, a problem to every manager he has worked for in the United States. Another is 41-year-old Ruben Gomez, the man Joe Adcock once chased off the mound at Milwaukee's County Stadium with a bat after Gomez had thrown at him too closely too many times. The first and third basemen, George Scott and Joe Foy, spent most of the 1968 season in Manager Dick Williams' rather expansive doghouse in Boston. Shortstop Leo Cardenas once pulled an ice pick on Pitcher Jim O'Toole during the 1964 Cincinnati pennant drive. And Second Baseman Julio Gotay is a fine hitter but bedeviled by the specter of evil spirits. Robinson had to stop one game and race out to see why Gotay would not go near second. Gotay pointed at two crossed sticks that were spooking him. Later, when Robinson was bounced out of the game, Gotay blamed the voodoo rather than the umpire.

"As a player," Robinson says, "I never took the game home with me. When slumps came up I figured I was a good enough hitter to ride them out. As a manager I took things home with me night after night, replaying the games and the situations. Once we pulled a squeeze play in a very unlikely spot and messed it up but I know the play was right. Nobody on the opposing team anticipated it.

"The idea of managing first got into my head in 1964. I always studied the game best I could, but sometimes it is hard to do that from the outfield. The manager is the guy who has to die with the team, and unless you try it once you never know what it is like. You must learn all the different personalities and get each of the players involved. I played for a lot of different managers—Joe Schultz, Birdie Tebbetts, Fred Hutchinson, Dick Sisler, Hank Bauer and Earl Weaver are some. In the last couple of years I've started to ask questions about why certain moves were made and that has helped.

"Hutchinson, of course, you had to remember. He was a remarkable guy. Lord, could he get mad. We lost a doubleheader one day to the Mets in New York and we were terrible. We trotted off toward the Polo Grounds clubhouse in center field, and I kept looking around to see where The Bear was. I finally saw him back in the dugout walking up and down and kicking. From the clubhouse I peeked out the windows and Hutch was still down in that dugout and he was burning. In a few minutes the phone rang and it was him. He said he would be up shortly and when he got there he didn't want to see anyone in the clubhouse. Did you ever see a baseball team shower and dress and get out of a place in less than five minutes? It can be done, because we did it! Sometimes when things went wrong or he got bounced from a game he would break every light bulb he could find. Hutch was a man's man."

With the Puerto Rican season now over, Robinson will get ready for spring training with the Orioles. Bothered in the last couple of seasons by a bout with the mumps and a severe head injury, he feels that he is healthy at last and ready to help Baltimore back toward a pennant. The team finished a distant second playing without him for a good part of last year.

Robinson is an intent, aggressive manager who seems capable of concentrating for an entire game on all of the nine men on the field. Even though the costs of living are high in Puerto Rico (Robinson did little more than break even in his first season as manager), he may return next year. "It was a great experience," he says, "and I learned a lot from it. I like the idea of managing. I want to play for as long as I can, but I think the day is very close when an Ernie Banks, a Willie Mays, an Elston Howard, a Jim Gilliam or a Frank Robinson will get the chance to manage in the majors." Of those mentioned, Frank Robinson is the only one with the wins to go along with the hopes.