An Indian tomahawked

Frank Robinson, the first black skipper, got the ax in Cleveland after a few players, the general manager and even the play-by-play announcer had their cuts at him
July 03, 1977

When Frank Robinson took charge of the Cleveland Indians in 1975, he became the first black manager in the major leagues. Last week, almost inevitably, he became the first black manager to get fired. His dismissal came just after his fifth-place team had swept two games with Detroit; it also came at the end of a stormy stretch during which Designated Malcontent Rico Carty stood up at a booster-club luncheon and lambasted his manager, during which the team's broadcaster openly advocated Robinson's dismissal, and during which Cleveland General Manager Phil Seghi behaved in such a way that his manager could have sued him for nonsupport. Yet Robinson left quietly, after shaking hands all around the clubhouse. That must have been painful to do with at least three tomahawks in his back.

Robinson's firing was just one episode in what is rapidly becoming a memorable year in the cockeyed annals of managing. In May Atlanta's Dave Bristol was temporarily replaced by owner Ted Turner, whose previous experience at a helm had been on his yacht. At least Bristol got his job back. Four of his colleagues have not been so lucky.

The most recent victim (three days after Robinson) was Texas' Frank Lucchesi, whose team was only four games out of first when he was fired. He was replaced by Eddie Stanky, who won his first and only game, got homesick, resigned, went home to Alabama and was succeeded by Connie Ryan. Meanwhile, the Yankees' Billy Martin reportedly came within the width of a pinstripe of losing his fourth managing job.

By all accounts, including Robinson's, his dismissal was not for racial reasons. On the contrary, some Cleveland observers thought Indian owner Alva (Ted) Bonda kept Robinson around longer than he otherwise might have because Robinson is black.

"That wasn't the case," says Bonda. "There wasn't any pressure. Actually, the black fans never materialized at the park, although I know they took pride in him. It certainly had no effect on the firing."

What did have an effect was what Bonda refers to as "divisiveness down in the clubhouse" and "conditions beyond Robinson's control."

Carty, a black Latin, was the condition most beyond Robinson's control. Last season, Carty was ejected from a game for swearing at an umpire over a strike call, and Robinson chewed him out on the bench. Relations were strained thereafter. On April 25, Carty got up to accept an award at a Wahoo Club luncheon and with Robinson sitting three feet away, accused his manager of "lack of leadership."

On June 1, Carty pulled a hamstring muscle. He accused Robinson of failing to ask how he was feeling. The final straw for the manager came in Oakland on June 6, when, Robinson says, Carty loudly second-guessed him in the dugout and refused to discuss the matter afterward in the manager's office.

The Indians' and Robinson's problems did not stop with Carty. Infielder Larvell Blanks, also a black, threw a tantrum, chucking equipment out of his locker and kicking a stool that smashed into a coffee urn. Then he refused to honor Robinson's request to come into the manager's office. Two days later, for reasons that remain unexplained, Third Baseman Buddy Bell, a white player, left the stadium and went home without telling any of the brass.

Obviously, Bonda had to do something, so he fired the manager, which Seghi had wanted to do at the end of last season, after the Indians finished fourth, and again on May 23 of this year. Robinson's replacement is his bullpen coach, 35-year-old Jeff Torborg, who last week built Robinson's final two victories into a nine-game winning streak.

Without mentioning the general manager by name, Robinson makes it clear that he thinks Seghi was at least partly at fault for the mini-mutinies. "The thing that made it difficult was that the players knew I did not have support at the top," he says. "If the players sense that a manager does not have front-office support, he's not going to have full control. And once he doesn't have full control over the players, the situation becomes very, very difficult on the field."

There was trouble in the broadcast booth, too. Announcer Joe Tait rapped Robinson on a local talk show, then repeated his criticism in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

"I don't think Robinson has the mental or emotional capacity to manage well," said Tait. He added, "It's tough for a superstar to communicate with guys of less talent. I just don't think Frank knows how to stir them up the way he stirred himself up when he played."

The old, volatile Robinson might have tried to perform oral surgery on Tait with a microphone, but the calmer, more congenial 1977 model at first refused to comment. However, after he arrived at his home in Los Angeles last week, Robinson decided to defend the brotherhood of superstars.

"In baseball they hang on to clichés," he said. "This old saying has been around for years—that superstars don't make good managers. Let's take a little deeper look into this. How many superstars have been given an opportunity to manage in the major leagues, and what has been the caliber of talent on their teams? Usually they give a superstar a ball club where the talent is not outstanding, because they feel that his name will attract people to the ball park.

"They say catchers or .200 hitters or minor league players make the best managers, because they are 'students of the game' and are understanding of difficult situations. I've heard just the opposite from top players. 'How can that guy tell me what to do?' they say. 'How can he understand me when he has never been at the level I'm at?'

"I'd like to see an outstanding player step off a big-league roster or wherever and be given a team with talent. Then we'd see what he could do."

Right now Robinson is back at his lovely house in Bel-Air that overlooks a tennis club. He was at the courts for five hours last Friday, but made sure he got home in time to watch Cincinnati play the Dodgers on television.

"I hope someone will call today and want me to be one of their coaches for the remainder of the season," he said. "A hitting instructor or a special type of coach. Next year I'd like to get back into managing, but I'm not going to sit here hoping someone loses his job."

There's no hoping about it, Frank. At the present pace, the rest of the season figures to include one tomahawked manager after another.

PHOTOHome in California, Robby unwound with his daughter.