Only race involved in firing was AL East

John Steadman

May 24, 1991|By John Steadman

Racial serpents who wanted to maintain the status quo, keeping everything lily white, always insisted the reason you couldn't dare hire a black baseball manager is because it would be difficult, eventually, to fire him. The same with old heroes.

Frank Robinson was representative of both segments of society to the Baltimore Orioles. He was black and a Hall of Fame member, after making profound contributions as a player to two world championship teams. He broke new ground, becoming the Orioles' first black manager and also was a hero-turned-manager.

Now he surprisingly has been removed from the job and assigned to another. There's deep regret that it came to this but, black or white, it's the nature of the business.

The only black/white issue that entered the consideration was the black/white story as related in the standings. The losing Orioles, last but hopefully not dead, are the worst team in the American League, according to the record. When that happens, the manager is usually told to clean out his desk and enjoy the rest of the season from afar.

Robinson paid the price that managers, whose teams had the misfortune of failing, have been asked to accept since the days of Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright. They are requested to move aside and give a fresh new name, or one that's recycled, the same chance.

In Robinson's place will be Johnny Oates, who has some professional similarities to Earl Weaver in that he coached first base before getting his new job and has background as a manager in the Orioles' minor-league structure. This is not a new experience for Robinson since he has been down the same road before, deposed as manager of the Cleveland Indians -- with whom he became the major leagues' first black manager in 1974 -- and San Francisco Giants.

The one thing different, which wasn't the case in those two other places, is the luxury of an insurance policy few other managers in history -- excluding Connie Mack, who owned his team -- have ever had. It is in his contract if he left the dugout, he would have the opportunity to rejoin the front office. That's where he was when the Orioles asked him to replace Cal Ripken Sr., who got fired after only six losing games into the nightmare that was 1988.

It does seem, if there's a criticism to be leveled, the Orioles could have waited longer on Robinson. However, making a change is often an intuitive thing, as it was with general manager Roland Hemond, who, to his credit, took responsibility for the decision. Hemond is stand-up-and-be-counted, a gentleman personified, who realizes that when a club fails to perform to its capabilities that the procurer of the talent draws heat, too.

"When you're in my position, you're rooting for the manager," he said. "It makes it easier on everyone. You watch the game and hope every ball hit off your pitcher stays in the park. And when you lose, the fervent wish you have is the players don't get too used to losing."

The mood at Memorial Stadium, as the Orioles made the announcement, seemed even more depressing than the usual down atmosphere that prevails when a manager is requested to step aside. President Larry Lucchino had witnessed such moves in the past but this was the first time he had been personally involved in granting authorization for such a change, along with Eli Jacobs, chairman of the board.

Lucchino, no doubt, was reflecting on Robinson's heroic past and even went so far as to say, "We aren't going to sit here and focus on the specifics of what went wrong." That would have been inappropriate and unfair because if Frank was going to be painted with the brush of criticism then Lucchino and Hemond would have had to have been dealt some of the blame, too.

The worst thing, which was predicted at the time, occurred in 1989 when the Orioles made a surprising turn-around and weren't eliminated in the race until the second-to-last day of the season. The public and the Orioles lost touch with realism. Goals were not as imminent as anticipated. False hope prevailed. Why? Because we human beings, by nature, are optimistic.

Now the Orioles and thoughts of grandeur have been thrown for a loss and put into perspective. For the first time, the club had a black manager, who happened to be one of their most popular and productive former players. He was in charge. But Robinson didn't turn out to be an untouchable. Not that he should have been.

He got fired, to use his interpretation, for the same reason white managers have been terminated for more than 100 years. The team didn't win. The Orioles took themselves down; certainly not the manager. To have this said is small emotional compensation for the disappointed man walking out the door.

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