MIAMI. — Frank Robinson is making history as the first Washington Nationals manager, but he is used to making history. He hit 586 career home runs — long before the juiced player era — and was the only man to win the Most Valuable Player Award in each league.
Yesterday marked an anniversary of another historic accomplishment — his debut as the first black manager in the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He won his first game, defeating the New York Yankees 5-3.
But what is also noteworthy is what one of his players did during that game — homered in his first at-bat of the season.
That player was Frank Robinson.
His debut as the first black manager is one of the most historic moments in the game. But other black managers have followed.
What has become much rarer is that Robinson was a player-manager — one of the last in the American League. The last time a player-manager ran a club in the AL was Don Kessinger in 1979 with the Chicago White Sox, and the last player-manager in either league was Pete Rose with the Cincinnati Reds from August 1984 to 1986.
In the first half of the 20th century, it was not so unusual to have a player who also managed, and it often wasn’t a player at the end of his career. One of the most successful in baseball history was a Washington Senator — second baseman Bucky Harris. Known as “The Boy Wonder,” Harris took over as player-manager in 1924 at the age of 27 and led the Senators to a World Series championship, followed by another pennant the next season.
That worked so well that Senators owner Clark Griffith named another young Washington infielder as manager in 1933 — and Joe Cronin, 26, also won a pennant his first season.
No one even brings up the notion anymore, and the demands of the managing job may be too great now to do both.
“It can work, but it would be very difficult,” said Robinson, as he prepared for last night’s game against the Florida Marlins at Dolphins Stadium. “Managing today takes up more of your time than in the past. You have to deal with the players, the media, the reports and the paperwork. It all takes up a lot of your time, and then you don’t have a heck of a lot of time to give to the player side of it, to get yourself conditioned, focused and ready for a ballgame. And during the course of a ballgame, in the National League, you will have to be out on the field, so you won’t be managing the club completely, especially if you are in the outfield.
“It’s difficult, but not impossible,” Robinson said. “You would have to have a real good guy in the dugout on your staff that would be kind of running the ballclub, with you being involved in the decisions.”
Robinson, at 40, played 49 games for the Indians in 1975 while managing the club, coming up to bat 118 times, hitting nine home runs and driving in 24 runs (do that math over a whole season, and those are pretty impressive power numbers). He played in 36 games in 1976, batting 67 times with three home runs and 10 RBI, then quit as a player.
If it were up to him, he would not have played as much as he did. Robinson said he was pressured to write himself into the lineup by Cleveland management.
“I did not want to hit,” he said. “I had a very good designated hitter in Rico Carty. Why would I take time away from him, unless he played some first base, which was the only position he could go out and play at the time? [The Indians] got upset that I was cheating them because I didn’t play more.”
Though it has been nearly 20 years since a player has also managed, Robinson believes it will happen again.
“I think someone will do it,” he said. “You’ll have some guy at the end of his career, one of the favorite guys [of a franchise] or top hitters or whatever, who had designs on being a manager one day.”
I mentioned to Robinson that it’s not that hard being a writer-manager. We do it all the time.
“Tell me about it,” he said.