Frank Robinson sat looking pensive in the Cleveland Indians' dugout at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson as a multitude of cameramen, broadcasters, newspaper reporters and assorted functionaries stood at a respectful distance. It was the moment of silence before Robinson would carry a lineup card to home plate as the first black man to manage a major league baseball team. Not one of the media persons seemed disposed to interrupt his historic ruminations; no one, that is, save Joe Garagiola, the television luminary, resplendent this bright day in pink slacks, sweater and scalp.
"Just think about it, Frank Robinson," said Garagiola, addressing the solitary figure with mock solemnity. "Managing is a lonely job."
Robinson's mobile face exploded into laughter. He had found managing anything but a lonely job, and, in fact, he seemed to revel in the tumult thrust upon him, answering endlessly repetitive questions with courtesy and restraint, posing graciously for photographs, signing autographs with dogged good cheer.
He had done his level best to make his managerial debut an occasion more joyous than solemn. All that morning he had exchanged japes with players, clubhouse attendants, reporters, even the television technicians who were wiring him for sound so that his every utterance during this epochal game might be preserved for posterity on a Garagiola sports special. Robinson was setting the style for his day, and he wanted to keep it light.
March 23, 1975
"Has anybody asked you a new question?" Russell Schneider of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had inquired of him.
"That's it," answered Robinson.
The Robinson good humor was infectious. Gags abounded, many of which, in a less buoyant atmosphere, might have been considered in questionable taste.
"How does it feel," the San Francisco Examiner's Bucky Walter asked Cleveland newsmen, "to be the first white baseball writers to cover a black manager?"
There was no edginess to this day, no tension. It was the way Robinson wanted it. The exhibition with the San Francisco Giants was, as he put it, "only a rehearsal."
Robinson was as prepared for his day as a previous Robinson was for his nearly three decades ago. But there was no one to relieve the pressure for Jackie Robinson; Frank Robinson took much of it off himself.
Dribbling a ball off his bat while hitting pregame grounders to Shortstop Frank Duffy, he quipped, "Well, at least I know how to pitch to myself."
Even his closest associates are astonished by the ease with which he has stepped into history. Frank Robinson the player was frequently controversial, a grim competitor, a suspected clubhouse lawyer, a superstar who, unlike others of his station, had been traded four times. That Robinson was hardly the jovial man of affairs he seemed to be last week. Can it be that he has grown in office?
"I think I can look at Frank Robinson with an open mind and still say he's fantastic," said Maury Wills, the old Dodger hero who was himself a prime candidate to become the first black manager. This spring he has helped coach Robinson's base runners and infielders. "Frank has really done his homework. I've seen a lot of baseball camps, but I've never seen one run better than this one. I sat in on his very first meeting as manager. He didn't make any opening statements. Not once did he say anything about black or white. He didn't start off by defending himself, like some guy on stage apologizing for having a sore throat. He just took charge. People know when you're playing a role. Frank just naturally projects a sense of toughness—toughness with fairness. Players appreciate that."
Robinson's toughness and fairness were challenged early in spring training by Gaylord Perry, the pitcher from North Carolina who, until Robinson's arrival, had been the team's star and highest-paid player. The two had clashed in the Indians' clubhouse last season over remarks Perry had made about Robinson's high salary. Afterward, Perry had said he had no objections to Robinson becoming his new manager. But when Robinson chastised him for not adhering to the training regimen this spring, Perry complained to General Manager Phil Seghi that in the past he had always gotten himself into shape his own way and that if Robinson disapproved of his methods, perhaps it might be better for all parties if Seghi arranged a trade. Instead, Seghi, wary of losing a 21-game winner, called the disputants in for a conciliatory talk.
"There is no problem now," says Seghi optimistically. "It was merely a misunderstanding."
"I can only speak for myself," says Robinson, "but it's over as far as I'm concerned. I am not going to have individuals going their own way in my camp. Gaylord is now doing what everyone else is doing."
"It was something between the two of them," says Duffy, one of the team co-captains. "It didn't cause any dissension. You don't hear guys talking about it. In fact, there is a closeness in this camp that we haven't had in the past. You can feel it. I'm really happy about it."
The evening before the opening exhibition with the Giants, Robinson went to the greyhound races in Tucson with Bob Quinn, the Indians' scouting and minor league director. The only tension Robinson appeared to be experiencing there was created by the indifferent performances of the dogs upon which he so improvidently wagered.
"All the attention I've been getting is only what I expected," he said between races. "Naturally, I would like more of this attention to go toward the team, but that just won't be happening right now. I hope everyone understands that. My ambition is someday just to be considered the Cleveland manager, period. I've been thinking about managing since 1961, seriously since 1967 when I got hurt and had double vision. I give thanks for the six years I managed in Puerto Rico winter ball. I'm prepared."
The spring weather in Tucson had been, as the natives insist, unseasonably overcast, but on Thursday, March 13, it was brilliant and warm. It was a festive occasion, the opener for both the Indians and the Giants. A Goodyear blimp was overhead. The Sunnyside High School band was in the stands, along with 4,071 spectators. By mayoral proclamation, Robinson was made an honorary citizen of Tucson. City Manager Joel Valdez tossed out the first ball and Gaylord Perry threw the first pitch.
Robinson, who will appear as a designated hitter this season, his last as a player, benched himself for the opener. In fact, he did not appear on the field during the game, exhorting his charges from the seclusion of the dugout, where even his occasional profanity was recorded by NBC soundmen.
Gaylord Perry pitched three scoreless innings and so did his less truculent brother, Jim. Boog Powell, the ponderous first baseman, who under old Oriole teammate Robinson is hustling as he seldom has, was thrown out at the plate trying to score from second on a single to right field. But the Indians moved smartly out to a 3-0 lead after five innings. The Giants tied the score at 4-4 in the ninth and had the winning runs on base in the 10th when Robinson dispatched his pitching coach, Harvey Haddix, to the mound to replace righthander Tom Buskey with lefthander Dave Laroche. It was a percentage move by the new manager, since the next hitter, Ed Goodson, was, for all Robinson knew, a left-handed batter. What he did not know was that this spring Goodson has been experimenting with switch-hitting. So when the lefthander entered the game, Goodson, who had been hitting left, stepped up swinging right-handed and, in his first official at bat from that side, doubled in the winning runs. Manager Robinson was 0-1 for the exhibition season.
He seemed undismayed in his office after the game, conceding that though it would have been nice to win, at least he got to see his players in game situations. The Goodson gaffe was merely "one of those things you can get caught with in the spring."
So much for the game. What of that little ruminative session before it? What was on his mind? Robinson looked serious for a moment.
"I was thinking, 'Hey, this is it. Now it's official.' And I thought about Jackie Robinson and about the many people, both black and white, who helped me in my lifetime, who made this thing happen. That's all."
That is quite a bit.