Robinson paves new path
Nationals skipper was first African-American manager
Frank Robinson will tell you that he does not consider himself a trailblazer in Major League Baseball. That title, he feels, belongs to Dodgers great Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break the sport's color line in 1947.
"I didn't open the gate for African-Americans to be in the game of baseball," Frank said. "Jackie did that. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time for someone to give me that opportunity."
Frank Robinson, 69, was at the right place at the right time numerous times throughout his 52 years in baseball. He put together a Hall of Fame career over the course of 21 seasons, hitting .294 with 586 home runs and 1,812 RBIs.
Robinson is the last right-handed hitter to win the Triple Crown and the only person to win the Most Valuable Player Award in both leagues, a feat that still surprises him. He figured free agency would cause a lot of players to win the award in both leagues.
"People probably think I'm joking that I'm surprised [that I'm the only player to win it in both leagues]," Robinson said. "People look at me and say, 'You've got to be kidding. That's tough to do.' It's not tough to do. The better players are moving around and it's mind-boggling that some players haven't done it."
Before his playing career ended, Robinson made it known that he wanted to become a manager in the Major Leagues, and it happened on Oct. 3, 1974, when Robinson was named player-manager of the Indians. It was an historic moment because Robinson became the first African-American manager in the Major Leagues.
It's also meant that Jackie Robinson's dream came true. A couple of weeks before he passed away, Jackie Robinson attended Game 2 of the 1972 World Series between A's and Reds. Before the game, Major League Baseball paid tribute to Robinson for integrating baseball 25 years earlier. When it was his turn to speak, Robinson told the 53,224 fans, "I must admit that I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at the third-base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball."
Jackie didn't live long enough to see Frank's achievement two years later. Frank, however, was proud to have Jackie's wife, Rachel Robinson, at the press conference.
"I was very thrilled and honored that she could be there," Frank said. "She was very proud of me. She felt I was the right person for the job and Jackie would have been very proud."
Frank Robinson went on to manage the Giants and Orioles before MLB asked him to manage the Expos in 2002. All three teams improved after he took over. The Giants and Orioles almost won division titles in 1982 and '89, respectively, while the Expos found themselves in the Wild Card race in 2003.
Robinson's best year as a manager came in '89, when he won American League Manager of the Year. He guided the Orioles to an 87-75 record, a vast improvement from the 54-107 mark the previous year.
Robinson also was vice president of on-field operation for MLB. One of his primary duties was to maintain order, including dealing with players who were involved in on-field brawls.
When asked why MLB has embraced him over the years, Robinson said, "I can't answer that. But I've been willing to work to get where I want to go. And I wasn't afraid to take a step backward or take a job that would maybe lead to where I wanted to go. The main thing was to stay visible in this game. I just worked hard with what I was doing."
This year, Robinson will be managing the Nationals. Gone are the days when the Nationals split their home schedule between Puerto Rico and Montreal. There will be no more 22-game, 25-day road trips, which took a toll on the club when they were in the Wild Card race in 2003.
The Nationals will have one home in Washington D.C., and Robinson believes the team will be on a level playing field with the rest of the National League.
"I hope [it will mean something in the win column]. How much difference it will make will depend on how we play on the field," Robinson said. "It's going to be less of a grind in terms of injuries. Hopefully, it will relate into wins."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.