Listen to Indians player-manager Frank Robinson’s 1975 debut

On April 8, 1975, Frank Robinson broke the color barrier for managers in MLB by becoming a player-manager for the Indians. During the game, he crushed a home run that can be heard as the youthful Herb Score and Joe Tait make the call just after the 13 minute mark during this historic game. Thanks to the late (and great) Joyce Lammers1 , we get to share the audio of this historic game.

Frank Robinson was a 14-time All Star who had been MVP in both leagues. He won the American League Triple Crown in 1966. It’s hard to believe that such a player is underrated, today. Once Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth on the career home run list, a full generation of fans could recite the top four. Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and Frank Robinson. His career was one for the ages.

Over the previous six winters, the major league veteran Robinson had managed Cangrejeros de Santurce (the Santurce Crabbers) of the Puerto Rican winter league. Second generation owner Hiram Cuevas’ sole source of income typically turned a profit. The Puerto Rican league had served as a training ground for several major league ballplayers and managers, including Cuevas’ friend, Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver. When Weaver had moved on from Santurce in the late 1960s as he transitioned to managing the Orioles, he recommended Frank Robinson as his replacement.

By 1975, the 39-year-old Robinson was about to again follow in Weaver’s footsteps, this time ascending to a major league managerial role. The Indians had signed him off waivers at the end of the 1974 season, from the California Angels. The follow-up move to ink Robinson to a player-manager contract was not surprising, even as it was momentous and historic. Following through on his commitment to Cuevas, Robinson managed the Santurce club one last season in 1975, after he signed with Cleveland.

Fast forward to the final days of spring training, 1975. The previous few weeks had seen a national media crush in Tucson, Arizona, covering the start of the first black major league manager’s first season. Robinson had already navigated through struggles with grumpy, passive-aggressive veteran pitchers. He’d shared publicly some of his managerial philosophies, such as the way he would like to handle umpires and player curfews. And by this late juncture, the roster was basically set.

Frank Robinson was now manager, the first black manager in the big leagues. Besides the challenges he found between the foul lines, he inherited a team that separated itself along racial lines. (Upon his arrival in 1974, he noted the self-segregation of the team, which even extended to the coaches. This included Larry Doby, the player who’d broken the AL color barrier with the Indians, back during the same season Jackie Robinson debuted in the NL.)

A pattern emerged. The manager set the rules and outlined his expectations. The influential veteran quietly undermined his authority. An example was their views of the team’s conditioning program. Perry (not exactly the picture of physical fitness) had his own way of getting into playing shape. He preferred to run sprints, and work on fielding ground balls. Robinson had the entire team running 15 times from foul pole to foul pole, with some backwards running thrown in for good measure. Also, pitchers were forbidden to take infield practice.

Phil Seghi eventually did trade Perry. He actually traded both brothers, prior to midway through the season. Sure, personality conflicts contributed heavily to this, but the fact was neither pitcher had been effective. The team was in last place when Gaylord was traded in late June, at 23-32.

Leading the way after the purge were veterans such as Buddy Bell, Rico Carty, and newcomer Boog Powell. Also, relief pitcher and Indians Man of the Year Dave LaRoche. The big story, however, was the infusion of exciting, confident, youthful players who began making the move from the minor leagues: pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Eric Raich, catcher Alan Ashby, second baseman Duane Kuiper, and center fielder Rick Manning. Their energy and their eagerness to please their manager were contagious.

Overall, the season was rough, despite some notable highlights. The Indians’ record was 55-41 after June 21, and they ended up 79-80 for the year. Frank Robinson was rehired for the 1976 season.

  1. yes, Kirk’s grandma was cool enough to preserve the audio of this historic game. []