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Jackie Robinson’s last plea to MLB: ‘Wake up’ and hire Black managers

Jackie Robinson, shown in May of 1952, became increasingly frustrated with baseball's hiring process. (AP)

MLB this week will mark the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut with typical pomp: anniversary patches and players wearing Robinson’s number in Dodger blue, a new tribute video and a campaign for mayors across the country to “tip their caps” to the trailblazer. But if Robinson’s debut as a player is widely celebrated, his frustrations with baseball’s underwhelming Black hiring practices are less noted.

A quarter-century after he brokebaseball’s color barrier, Robinson was frustrated that the sport still hadn’t hired a Black manager. And in what turned out to be his dying wish, Robinson used an appearance on baseball’s biggest stage to urge a team to break that barrier.

On Oct. 15, 1972, before Game 2 of the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds, MLB honored Robinson on the field to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his historic 1947 major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The event included a tribute from President Richard M. Nixon.

“I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon,” Robinson said, “but must admit I am going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a Black face managing in baseball.” Suffering from diabetes and blind in one eye, Robinson would die just nine days later, at 53.

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Two years passed before baseball fulfilled Robinson’s wish. In October 1974, on the eve of the baseball playoffs, the Cleveland Indians named Frank Robinson the sport’s first Black manager.

“I thank the Lord that Jackie Robinson was the man he was in that position,” Frank Robinson said at a news conference. “If he wasn’t, it would have set back the whole idea of signing more Black players. The one wish I could have is that Jackie Robinson could be here today to see this happen.”

And as MLB celebrates this Jackie Robinson Day, Black managers remain woefully underrepresented. Just two of the sport’s 30 managers — Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros and Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers — are Black.

Jackie Robinson had been waging a campaign for a Black manager for years and often in more pointed language than his polite plea at the 1972 World Series. Earlier that year, he told the Los Angeles Times that baseball owners “are still wallowing around in the 19th Century, believing that Blacks and Whites cannot work together if the Black guy is a manager or if the Black guy is in the front office.”

In a 1965 column in the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, he responded to a prediction by columnist Walter Winchell that the New York Mets would make him the sport’s first Black manager in 1967.

“I wrote a letter to Mr. Winchell expressing my thanks for this kind and — for me — fantastically optimistic thought,” Robinson wrote. “I believe it is extremely optimistic — as I said in my note — because I am not convinced that baseball is ready to allow Negro players or ex-players to enter the executive suite. In fact, I feel that there is as much resistance on the part of the top brass of baseball to the idea of letting Negroes get to the top as there was in the early forties to allowing Negroes to play.”

He wrote that baseball owners are willing to “exploit the talent of Negro and other colored players,” but after their playing careers are over, they have nowhere to go. “Because the owners don’t have the courage or decency to think in terms of the contributions these players have made to their fortunes, they just let them go,” Robinson wrote.

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In a 1968 column in the same publication, he lamented that baseball didn’t have anyone like Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers president who had signed him back in the 1940s.

“I have yet to meet a white owner brave enough to hire a Negro manager,” Robinson wrote. “I guess when God made Branch Rickey, some devil sneaked in and broke the mold.”

The following year, he refused an invitation to participate in a Yankees old-timers game in protest of the lack of hiring progress, citing “my pride in my blackness.”

In his 1972 autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” Robinson recalled how he started to think about a post-baseball career in 1954, when he was 35 and reaching the end of his prime. But he realized the chances of getting a job as manager or in the front office were slim.

“Had I been easy-going, willing to be meek and humble, I might have had a chance,” he wrote. “But in fact this has not changed much even today. There are many capable black athletes in the game who could contribute greatly as managers or in other positions of responsibility but it just isn’t happening.”

Responding to his own question of why there weren’t any Black managers, he wrote, “I say that the answer is discrimination, bigotry, and racial prejudice on the part of the same kind of men who bitterly fought Branch Rickey and who do not want to see black men in power.”

Even though Robinson didn’t live long enough to see the first Black manager, he did discuss Frank Robinson as a potential candidate with the Dodgers’ then-34-year-old president, Peter O’Malley. “I told Peter I was disturbed the way baseball treated Black players after they were through with the diamond,” Robinson told the Sporting News in June 1972, just a few months before he died.

But Robinson also said he was impressed with the young executive’s attitude, relaying that O’Malley “said he felt Frank Robinson has tremendous ability and that the club also recognizes the talents of Maury Wills and Jim Gilliam.”

Had things gone a bit differently in the 1960s, the Washington Senators could have been the first team to hire a Black manager. As New York Times columnist Red Smith reported in 1974, Bill Veeck thought he had a deal to buy the Senators in 1967 and planned to hire as manager Elston Howard, who had been the New York Yankees’ first Black player. But the deal fell through when Senators board chairman James M. Johnston died.

“Ellie would have been perfect for two reasons,” Veeck, a former and future team owner, told Smith. “One, it was Washington with that big black population, and two, the club was so lousy nobody could blame him.”

When the Indians hired Frank Robinson, he was taking over a pretty lousy team, too, coming off six straight losing seasons. The Indians had acquired Robinson, 39, a star player at the end of his career, in a trade the previous month, and they named him player-manager after the season.

At the introductory news conference, Cleveland General Manager Phil Seghi read a telegram from President Gerald Ford, calling Robinson’s selection “welcome news for baseball fans across the nation” and a “tribute to you personally, to your athletic skills and to your unsurpassed leadership.”

“We got something done that we should have done before,” said Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who had been on the field with Jackie Robinson at the 25th anniversary event.

“The only reason I’m the first Black manager is that I was born Black,” Frank Robinson said. “That’s the color I am. I’m not a superman, I’m not a miracle worker. Your ballplayers determine how good a team you have.”

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The next year, Robinson seemed like Superman on Opening Day, hitting a home run in his first at-bat and winning his first game as manager, 5-3, over the Yankees in front of a home crowd of 56,000 that gave him two standing ovations. In a striking coincidence, the Dodgers had won Jackie Robinson’s first game by the same score. Before the Indians’ opener, Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, threw out the first pitch — 2½ years after her husband had thrown out the first pitch at his 1972 World Series tribute.

The Indians improved a bit in Frank Robinson’s first year, finishing 79-80 in 1975. The following year, he led the team to its first winning season since 1968 (81-78), but the Indians fired him two months into the 1977 season after a 26-31 start. The dismissal left the sport again without a Black manager.

Robinson went on to manage the San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals. In Baltimore, Robinson was named American League manager of the year in 1989 a year after the team started the season with a record 21 straight losses.

“The day of the black manager is coming, but only because it is inevitable,” Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography. “It will get here when an owner finally realizes that the argument that white players will not accept advice and orders from a black is phony.”

He expressed admiration for Bill Russell, who became the NBA’s first Black coach when he took the Boston Celtics job in 1966.

“Baseball had better wake up,” Robinson wrote. “You can’t keep taking all and giving practically nothing back.”

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