The View From Pluto: Frank Robinson's Historic, Yet Painful, Time with the Cleveland Indians

Feb 13, 2019

The late Frank Robinson left a legacy in Cleveland as the first African American manager in Major League Baseball. But Robinson’s brief time with the Indians in the mid-1970s was tumultuous.

WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto got to know the Hall of Famer well over the years. 

In the 60s, Robinson won the National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award, led the Baltimore Orioles to the World Series, won his second MVP award in the American League and won a Triple Crown.

However, he wanted to become a manager in the final stretch of his career. He became Major League Baseball's first African American manager when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1975 — but it wasn't easy getting there and Pluto says it was a brief, painful journey. 

A place for opportunity
Robinson wasn't shy about his dreams of becoming a manager; he spent six years managing winter ball in Puerto Rico, preparing himself for the day it would happen. The Indians picked him up in 1974, and when they did, speculation began that he would replace manager Ken Aspromonte.

"I will remember him as this proud man who had been knocked down, and to come back and see him do so well, really meant a lot to me."

Once the Indians fired Aspromonte in 1975, Robinson did take over, breaking barriers.

But Pluto said this decision didn't fare well with other players, like pitcher Gaylord Perry

"Gaylord Perry finds out Frank Robinson is making ($173,000). He tells the writers, ‘I want everything Frank has and a dollar more.'”

Not only did Robinson manage, he also played for the Indians — a move that Pluto said was to help ticket sales. The Indians at the time had 40 owners and Pluto said the team was practically broke. 

In his second year as manager, Robinson led the Indians to its first winning season in nine years. But Pluto said players began resisting his leadership.

"They go into spring training, Frank wants all the pitchers to run. Then word comes to Frank: 'Gaylord doesn't run.'" 

Robinson lasted a little over two years with the Indians before he was fired. 

Capping off his career
Although he had been frustrated that no other teams were giving him a chance to manage, he got to start rebuilding his career. The Balitmore Orioles hired Robinson as an outfield coach in 1979. That's also where Pluto met Robinson when he was a rookie sports writer. Pluto said the Orioles were a stronger-led organization than the Indians at that time, putting Robinson in a good position to continue his career. 

Robinson later went on to manage San Francisco in 1981, then became a Baseball Hall of Famer the following year.  

As for his rough run with the Indians, Pluto said it took a while, but "of course Frank wanted to talk about Cleveland." Frank became manager of the year in 1989 and finished coaching with the Washington Nationals in 2006. 

“... (Robinson) always felt, that when people said you should be grateful they gave you a chance, he would say, ‘No, I earned everything I got.’”

In 2017, the Indians retired his number, 20, and built a statue in his honor. Pluto recalled a time when he walked throughout Progressive Field with Robinson several years ago, talking and looking at the plaques along the walls. 

“I will remember him as this proud man who had been knocked down and to come back and see him do so well really meant a lot to me. I’m glad that, in its own stupid way, the Indians did give him a chance.”