Robinson powerful force as player-manager
Home run on Opening Day in 1975 was milestone moment
CLEVELAND -- It was on a bitter cold afternoon when Frank Robinson settled into his famous stance inside Cleveland Stadium. He stood tall, the barrel of his bat aimed straight up, head cocked and eyes peering forward, taking on history.
The ballpark was full for that Opening Day contest against the Yankees in 1975, when the temperature at game time flirted with freezing as Robinson's Indians embarked on a new season. This particular game provided another stage for the advancement of minorities in Major League Baseball.
Robinson stepped into the dugout on that April 8 as the first African-American manager in baseball history. Still a player at the time, Robinson quickly elevated his status as one of the game's all-time greats when he launched a home run to left field in his first trip to the batter's box.
"He was aware of the moment," said Bob DiBiasio, the Indians senior vice president of public affairs. "And in a style befitting his Hall of Fame talent, Frank hit one of the most dramatic home runs in baseball history."
During this year's Black History Month, the Indians are nearing a Spring Training that will serve as preparation for the club's 112th season. Throughout the franchise's long history, Cleveland has been at the forefront of helping break barriers both on and off the baseball field.
In July of 1947, Indians great Larry Doby joined the ballclub as the first African-American player in the American League. In January of 1968, Carl Stokes became the first African-American mayor of a major city in the United States. Robinson then followed as the first black manager in baseball history.
"The breaking of barriers," DiBiasio, "is a tremendous source of pride for the city of Cleveland and the Cleveland Indians organization."
Robinson's accomplishment is also something that Indians manager Manny Acta, who is a native of the Dominican Republic, does not take lightly. Robinson helped pave the way for future African-American managers such as Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker and Ron Washington, among others, but he also blazed a trail for other minorities.
Inside Acta's office at Progressive Field in Cleveland, he has two pictures of former managers on his wall. One is of fellow Dominican Felipe Alou, who managed for 14 years in the Major Leagues. The other photo is of Robinson, who managed big league teams for 16 seasons.
"I have always been a student of the game," Acta said. "So I knew how much Frank meant to the game and how much Frank meant to me. I've always looked up to Felipe Alou, because he comes from where I come from, but I was fully aware of Frank being able to pave the road for Felipe and the rest of us.
"The way Frank took it is the same way I try to take it -- as serious as I can -- because I really don't want to hinder anybody else's chance that is coming behind me."
Acta had the opportunity to work on Robinson's staff as a third-base coach and infield instructor with the Montreal Expos from 2002-04. The Indians manager admits to being slightly intimidated by Robinson at the beginning, but he has nothing but fond memories of his experience.
During those three seasons with Robinson, Acta discovered a caring man underneath the rough exterior seen more often by the public eye. Acta also found a great mentor, who helped shape him as a coach and future manager. In 2007, Acta actually replaced Robinson as manager of the Washington Nationals.
"He taught me the right way to do it," Acta said. "He's a legendary person in this game. He's a living legend -- the fact that he became the first African American to manage and being the first player to win the MVP in both leagues. All of that. I felt that I was extremely blessed with the chance to start my career in the big leagues working under Frank Robinson.
"I mean, come on. Could you pick somebody else greater than this guy? I had the pleasure to work with him and I learned so much from him it was ridiculous. With Frank, it's about discipline and not sweeping things under the rug. Nipping things in the bud right away.
"I learned that from him, and just caring about people. He might not look like it at times, but he's a very caring human being. The whole coaching staff felt it. Frank, numerous times, went to battle for us."
As a player, Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1956 and followed that up with Most Valuable Player honors in 1961 with the Reds and in 1966 with the Orioles. He currently ranks ninth all-time with 586 career home runs and he was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1982.
Acta laughs at the thought of being a player-manager like Robinson was for the 1975-76 seasons with the Indians. The Cleveland skipper is quick to add that Robinson was one man with the personality to pull it off.
"That's one of those things that's not going to come back," Acta said. "Confidence. If you look at his career, he played through those years where it was still rough on African Americans. He never backed down from people throwing at him.
"Nothing stopped him from becoming the first manager and obviously that had its challenges."
One of Robinson's most famous moments as a player-manager for the Indians came on June 11, 1976. In the bottom of the 13th inning of a game against the White Sox, Robinson put himself in as a pinch-hitter against lefty Terry Forster. Robinson promptly clubbed a two-run home run to send the Indians to a 5-4 win.
"That's unbelievable," said Acta, shaking his head in disbelief. "Not only being a player manager, pinch hitting with himself? That wouldn't happen nowadays with how the game is, dealing with different egos and being able to be the boss, and pinch-hitting yourself for somebody else? No way.
"He's a high-character guy who really is very confident and really doesn't care what people think of him. That's why he's had success in everything he's done."
It was Jackie Robinson's entrance into baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 that originally carved the path for others like Doby, Frank Robinson and Gaston (the first African-American manager to win a World Series) to follow. Frank Robinson never lost sight of that fact.
On the eve of officially becoming baseball's first black manager, Robinson told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that Jackie Robinson's feat carried more weight.
"I think 1947 was much more important," Frank Robinson said at the time. "It was a breaking period for black people coming into baseball, and how many followed depended on Jackie's conduct. But that's not the case now. What and how I do doesn't mean nearly as much as what and how Jackie did."
Frank Robinson's heroics on Opening Day in 1975 did matter, though.
With more than 56,000 in the stands braving the cold, Robinson -- batting second and serving as Cleveland's designated hitter -- crushed a 2-2 fastball from New York's Doc Medich. The baseball sailed out to left field to set an early tone for a 5-3 victory over the Yankees.
"At first, there was nothing running through my mind, really," Robinson told the Plain-Dealer after the game. "But, by the time I got to third base, I thought to myself, 'Wow, will miracles never cease to happen?''"
Robinson always tried to downplay that historic moment. DiBiaso said the former manager wanted people to judge him more on his ability to lead a ballclub.
That did not, however, stop others from celebrating his feat.
DiBiasio noted that Gerald Ford, the President of the United States at the time, even sent a congratulatory telegram to Robinson.
"[Robinson], in fact, did acknowledge his place in history," DiBiasios said, "when he stated, 'If I had one wish in the world today, it would be that Jackie Robinson could be here to see this happen.'"