Towards the end of a Hall of Fame-worthy career as a player, Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in the major leagues in 1974, when the Cleveland Indians hired the then-39-year-old as their 28th manager and ninth player-manager in franchise history. Robinson, while recognizing the importance of the position he was in, said at the time that it was just the first step.
“I just hope baseball people don’t say, ‘All right, Frank Robinson is the first black manager, we have one, that’s it.’” he told the New York Times in October of 1974.
“In my heart, I don’t think I was hired because I was black. I hope not. I think I’ve been hired because of my ability.”
Robinson finished his playing days with a combined .294/.389/.537 line, 528 doubles, 586 home runs, two MVP awards (one in each league), and one Triple Crown, which he won in 1966 in Baltimore, leading the American League with a .316 AVG, 49 home runs, and 122 RBIs. He also led the AL in OBP (.410), SLG (.637), and runs scored (122) that season.
As a manager, Robinson spent 16 years on the bench in the majors, the final five with the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise.
His final two season as a skipper were in 2005-2006, when he led the Nats to an 81-81 mark in their first season in D.C. and a 71-91 record in ‘06.
When he returned to the nation’s capital in 2012, Robinson talked about the ‘05 season, how much fun it had been, and how he’d hoped to bring postseason baseball to D.C.
“We’d like to have done it and we thought we had a good chance of doing it in ‘05, the first year,” Robinson said.
“We had a terrific first-half and someone turned the switch off when we went to break and a different team came back after the break, but it was fun the first half of the season.”
He came back again in 2015, when the Nationals added his name to the Ring of Honor on the facade above the first deck in Nationals Park.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” he said of his time as the Expos and Nats’ manager.
“The players were great,” Robinson said. “We were excited about it. It was a good situation for us coming away from Montreal although it was kind of bittersweet leaving those fans up there because those 5,000 die hard fans were great. But it was good to be coming to an exciting team and fans that were ready to support their team coming to this [city].”
The recognition from the Nationals, he said, meant a lot to him.
“It’s important to to me because it makes me feel ... wanted a little bit. Appreciated,” he said.
“I’ll always have a special place in my heart [for this team]....I watch a lot of the Nationals games and I have a little stake in it with [Ryan] Zimmerman still here and Ian Desmond was in our Spring Training our first year, then he disappeared on me for about six years. I was thinking he was out of baseball then all of a sudden I’m watching the game and there he is in the lineup here. I think he’s one of the nicest kids I’ve ever had to manage, and I’m really happy for him.”
”It was very touching,” he said of the reception he received from fans and former players of his. “I’m always glad to see those guys, because they’re very outstanding people. Not just good baseball players, but they’re outstanding people. I appreciate them thinking about me and keeping me alive in their lives. I feel very special about them and they have a very special place in my life.”
Robinson has a special place in D.C. baseball history, as the first manager for the Nationals when they returned to Washington.
Robinson passed away today, at 83 years old, after a long, tough battle with bone cancer.
“Frank Robinson’s resume in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told MLB.com today.
“He was one of the greatest players in the history of our game, but that was just the beginning of a multifaceted baseball career.
”We are deeply saddened by this loss of our friend, colleague and legend, who worked in our game for more than 60 years.
On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Frank’s wife Barbara, daughter Nichelle, their entire family and the countless fans who admired this great figure of our national pastime.”