Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 10, 2019

The Right Way To Honor Frank Robinson

When he was terrorizing opposing pitchers throughout almost all his twenty-one-year major league career, Frank Robinson was known to have great timing. That’s a basic requirement of successfully swinging a bat at the highest level of the Great Game, and few players in history have been more accomplished at doing so than Robinson.

Through extended stretches with the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles, and shorter stays in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Cleveland, Robinson led his league in slugging percentage and OPS four times. He was a 14-time All Star who batted over .300 nine times, slugged 30 or more home runs in eleven different seasons, and at the time of his retirement as a player in 1976 ranked fourth in career home runs with 586, sixth in total bases and tenth in runs scored. Robinson remains the only player to be voted the MVP of both leagues, winning the National League award with the Reds in 1961 and the junior circuit honor with the Orioles five seasons later.

Elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1982 for his exploits as a player, Robinson became the first African-American to skipper a big league club when he served as player-manager in Cleveland in 1975. He eventually managed four different franchises, adding stints with the Giants, Orioles, and the Expos/Nationals to his resume. Robinson also served off and on in multiple front office roles, first for Baltimore and later for Major League Baseball until as recently as 2015.

Whether on the field or in the dugout Robinson was known as a fierce competitor who gave no quarter. That attitude, along with the likelihood that many pitchers concluded it was better to hit Robinson and limit him to one base before he hit one of their offerings out of the park, might explain why he also led the league in being hit by pitches seven times.

A fan couldn’t help but think that even at the end Robinson displayed that same exquisite timing when he passed away last week at the age of 83, finally losing a lengthy battle with bone cancer. For Robinson died in February, celebrated annually as Black History Month, and in 2019, the year in which throughout the coming season Major League Baseball will honor the one hundredth anniversary of the birth in a little city in southwestern Georgia of Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

Jackie Robinson, no relation to Frank, ended the long and ugly legacy of segregation in the Great Game in 1947. His too-brief career with the Brooklyn Dodgers ended in 1956, at the end of the season in which Frank Robinson played his first major league game for the Reds. A decade and a half later, and just days before his death, Jackie Robinson was honored prior to the start of Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. While he graciously accepted a plaque commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his major league debut, in his remarks Robinson also pointedly said, “I’m 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.” Those words, and Frank Robinson’s eventual role in opening the managerial door to African-Americans, will forever tie the two together in ways far more important than their common last name.

While the lives and legacies of these two men are celebrated as symbols of how far baseball has come, Robinson’s passing in the days just before memories of last season are finally set aside in favor of the beginning of a new campaign as marked by the first days of spring training, should also remind fans and, more important, front offices, how very far the Great Game still has to go.

Last season concluded with a World Series contested between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Managing the victorious Sox was Alex Cora, just the second native of Puerto Rico to manage a big league club. In the opposing dugout was Dave Roberts, son of an African-American father and Japanese mother. That two men of color should take their ballclubs to the longest season’s final series in the same year should be proof enough that race or ethnicity has no bearing on managerial ability.

But as equipment trucks arrive at spring training complexes in Florida and Arizona, with pitchers and catchers soon to follow, Roberts is the only African-American in charge of a major league franchise, and Cora is one of just four Latino managers. And while Hispanic countries, especially the Dominican Republic, have supplied a steadily increasing share of players, the story on the field for blacks is every bit as dire as in the managerial ranks. From a high of more than 18% of players on major league rosters, African-Americans now account for less than 8% of players.

Three decades ago Major League Baseball began Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), to reconnect the game to urban minority youth. What started as a local effort in Los Angeles has grown to over three hundred programs in more than two hundred cities across the country, and recently a Junior RBI program was initiated to reach kids as young as five. A 2017 study by the Sport and Fitness Industry Association showed baseball surpassing football and taking second place for participation by African-American young people. It will take time to fully see the impact on the field, but recent amateur drafts have regularly seen RBI alumni chosen among the top picks.

But fulfilling Jackie’s dream, and keeping the door that Frank opened ajar has proven more difficult. Last year’s Racial and Gender Report Card, released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, gave an overall grade of C+ for the hiring practices of clubs, with a slightly better mark for racial hiring practices and a slightly worse one for gender. But both scores were worse than they had been two years earlier. At best the Great Game’s hiring practices are stuck in neutral.

Even when people of color are given a chance to manage, it’s often for an inferior team. The Cleveland franchise that Robinson skippered had not had a winning record in seven years, though he gave it one in his second season at the helm. As of the start of last season, Robinson and just fifteen other black men had been given the opportunity to manage, for a total of twenty-seven different jobs, ten interim and seventeen permanent. Only two of those twenty-seven openings were for teams with records above .500 in the previous season. The numbers are better for Latino managers, but still noticeably worse than for white hires.

With owner’s suites and front offices overwhelmingly white – Derek Jeter in Miami being a rare recent exception – it will take a concerted effort to go beyond the familiar circle and institute meaningful change. But as Roberts and Cora demonstrated last fall, failing to do so doesn’t just cost clubs on a report card. In the past few days there have been many words of praise written and spoken about Frank Robinson. On his birthday in January there were eloquent tributes, which will surely multiply during the coming season, to Jackie Robinson. But were they still here, is there any doubt that both Frank and Jackie would demand that we dispense with the words? For the Great Game, it is long past time for action.

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