Jackie Robinson’s last stand: To see blacks break into the MLB managerial ranks
When Robinson’s integration of baseball is discussed, the other cause he brought attention to just nine days before he died is forgotten
Jackie Robinson went to the grave with his final request of Major League Baseball unfulfilled. The Los Angeles Dodgers legend died discouraged and frustrated with big league teams because of the way they dragged their feet on hiring black managers and front-office employees.
Some opined that black managers hadn’t been hired in the 25 years since Robinson integrated baseball because white players weren’t ready to take orders from a black man and white fans would be exceptionally cruel to them. Others speculated that the crop of black players who would eventually be hired as skippers were learning the ropes as coaches and working the minor leagues.
That, of course, is a puzzling explanation, considering Buck O’Neil broke the color barrier for black coaches in 1962 with the Chicago Cubs and in the 10 years after O’Neil did so, nine black men — Gene Baker (Pittsburgh Pirates), Jim Gilliam (Dodgers), Ernie Banks (Cubs), Larry Doby (Montreal Expos), Elston Howard (New York Yankees), Satchel Paige (Atlanta Braves), Luke Easter (Cleveland), Ozzie Virgil (San Francisco Giants) and John Roseboro (Washington Senators, California Angels) — had risen to the coaching ranks by the time Robinson used his silver anniversary to call out MLB on its biggest stage.
“I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon,” Robinson said before the start of Game 2 of the 1972 World Series and nine days before he died, “but must admit, I am 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.
“It is a shame baseball does not have a black manager. Frank Robinson has had managerial experience in the Caribbean. Jim Gilliam would make an ideal manager. There are Elston Howard and others.”
Robinson, who played his entire career in Brooklyn, longed for a league that would provide black men an equal playing field in relation to managerial, front-office and executive jobs, but the issues Robinson called out just before his death persist 46 years later. As Jackie Robinson Day and the 71st anniversary of Robinson’s integration of baseball draw near, The Undefeated and ESPN’s Stats and Information Group undertook a four-month project exploring Robinson’s last wish to see black men enter MLB’s managerial ranks before he died.
Since Oct. 15, 1972, when Robinson spoke out in front of 53,224 people at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, there have been 469 managerial openings. Black men have filled just 26 of those positions. Managers of color have been hired for 59 of the 469 vacancies.
MLB did not have a full-time black manager until two years after Robinson died, when the Cleveland Indians named Frank Robinson in 1974. Ernie Banks technically was the first African-American to manage an MLB game when he filled in for Cubs manager Whitey Lockman after he was ejected on May 8, 1973.
“As long as they keep digging down and hiring guys who have already failed in one city, I’m not encouraged,” Robinson told the Baltimore Afro-American on Sept. 16, 1972.
Robinson had been invited to Game 2 to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, but the 53-year-old decided he didn’t want to do so because he was annoyed with the league for its lack of black managers.
So he told commissioner Bowie K. Kuhn that he wouldn’t attend. Kuhn asked if the fact that baseball was working on it would help change Robinson’s mind. Robinson relented and said that he would come.
Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, recalled her father gathering the family and telling them that he needed them all to trust him and to come out to this event. Unbeknownst to them, this would be the last time the entire family would be together. He wanted his family on the field with him because he knew that they were going to be the ones to carry this torch.
The former Brooklyn Dodger, a 10-year veteran, six-time All-Star, 1947 Rookie of the Year, 1949 NL MVP and batting champion, 1955 World Series champion and Hall of Famer, died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1972, in his North Stamford, Connecticut, home.
“It was going to be part of our legacy as well,” Sharon said in Biography.com’s Jackie Robinson – Last Words segment. “Baseball has a responsibility. They helped change America, now you just make sure that you remain active in that role and supportive in that role.”
A coordinated effort of calling out the hypocrisy of the majors had been well underway before Robinson and his family stepped to the middle of the field.
The black press started beating the drum for change in the late 1960s with first-persons, columns and features tackling their grievances with how slow change was coming in off-the-field opportunities. Players vented about baseball’s lack of understanding for their plight to be more than their athletic abilities.
“I am proud and satisfied with the gains that the Negro has made in baseball,” the Chicago Daily Defender‘s Joe Black wrote on July 20, 1968, “but personal integrity compels me to admit that these progressive strides have been restricted primarily to on-the-field performances and pay increases. I believe that the time has now come for the Negro to be offered managing, coaching and front-office jobs.
“I am disappointed that baseball has failed to realize its responsibility to the Negro athlete. When the Negro ends his playing career, he stops functioning in baseball. This is not because he wants to, but rather it is the result of baseball not having a place for him. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not advocating that Negroes should be hired for baseball jobs just because they are Negroes.”
Maury Wills talked frequently about his desire to become the first black manager in the big leagues. Howard, who turned down a managerial job with the Yankees AA team to become a coach with the parent organization, had to be prodded by the media to admit he wanted a shot at being New York’s manager.
Gilliam, Roseboro and Frank Robinson all discussed how they didn’t want to wait for an owner to finally decide he was ready to hire a black manager when their résumés qualified them in the now. At some level, maybe these men felt if they talked about it enough they would talk a black manager into existence faster.
“Darn right I want to manage a big league club,” Wills told the Philadelphia Tribune‘s Claude E. Harrison Jr. on May 27, 1969. “But I don’t want to wait four or five years. I don’t see any reason why I should be afraid or lack confidence. I’m sure no one is going to hire Maury Wills just because he would be the first Negro manager.”
On Aug. 9, 1970, the Race Relations Information Center released its two-part report called The Black Athlete – 1970, which predicted “Major League Baseball’s first black team manager is likely to be named within the next three years, possibly as early as 1971.”
Bernard E. Garnett and Frye Gaillard, two former black press reporters, wrote the expansive piece for the private, nonprofit journalistic research agency. Willie Mays, Banks, Howard, Wills, Doby, Gilliam, Bill White and George Crowe were all name-dropped as having the best chances to break the color barrier for black managers.
“The fans would break the gates down just to see how a black manager would handle himself under pressure,” Paige told the Philadelphia Tribune on April 8, 1969. “Look how attendance leaped when black players were hired by the big league clubs. The same thing would happen if a black manager were hired.
“The biggest barrier is the owner. He is afraid of what the white fans will say. What can they say that hasn’t been said in days gone by? I don’t think the fans would be any rougher on a black manager than they are on white managers.”
Garnett, who used to cover professional sports for the Washington Afro-American and Jet magazine, reported that Kuhn was spearheading a behind-the-scenes drive that would address the lack of black coaches and managers, but also scouts and executives.
“They note that the white players get jobs in the power structure when they cannot hit or run any longer, but black players like George Crowe and Gene Baker and — yes — Jackie Robinson have been allowed to drift out of baseball never to return,” wrote George Vecsey of The New York Times. “If blacks are good enough to sweat, then surely some of them must be smart enough to scout or manage or administer. Paid well for their bodies, they want to be loved for their brains, too.”
Former New York Giants outfielder Monte Irvin, a member of the commissioner’s staff, was the highest-ranking African-American in baseball at the time of the 1970 report. Olympic gold medal sprinter Jesse Owens was handling public relations for the American League in New York City; Bill Lucas, Henry “Hank” Aaron’s brother-in-law, was an administrator for the Braves; the Philadelphia Phillies’ Bill Yancey was one of a dozen or more black scouts; while Emmett Ashford was the lone black umpire.
Kuhn, according to Garnett’s sources, had instructed all 24 ballclubs to recruit and train minority candidates and to then report their findings to him by the following spring.
“I figure it’s time for Negroes to be more in baseball than merely players,” White told Harrison on May 27, 1969. “But it will take an owner with guts to name a Negro manager. He can’t call a board meeting of the other owners. He might lose.
“And it shouldn’t be a showcase job. The first should be picked because he’s the most qualified man. Not as a Negro, but as a man who can win.”
Said White in an April 6, 1969, interview with the Times: “Take a look around the ballpark. Do you see Negro ticket-takers? Ushers? Scouts? Publicity men? Road secretaries? As a matter of fact, do you see many Negro reporters? Managing is just one job. There’s lots of others, too.”
Two years ago, former New York Times columnist William Rhoden, who is now with The Undefeated, recounted a time he spoke to Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow and the founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, about how discouraged Jackie was at the end of his life because he didn’t believe change would come and be expansive or permanent.
Jackie wasn’t bitter with the league, she told Rhoden, he was extremely disappointed that the league had only made advancements in ways that benefited the sport — “the procurement of black players.” The same issues that players and journalists were calling out as issues 50 years ago still needed to be addressed today.
Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, cited the lack of progress as one of the reasons he proposed the Career Preparation Project, which focused on getting more African-Americans into the game and increasing the number of Spanish-speaking players who transition into non-playing jobs.
“Despite incremental progress, there remains a lack of diversity in the ranks of the management of baseball,” Clark said in his proposal.
“The fact that the business of baseball fails to reflect the diversity of those who play or even the social diversity of the United States is undermining the growth of the game and creating the impression that those in charge are increasingly isolated from players and the fan base.”
Forty-six years later, Robinson’s family still marches on, reminding people of what Jackie genuinely wanted: long-lasting and society-altering change. He knew better than anyone else that sports is a vehicle for wide-ranging progress, and in his final public comments, he used his platform to demand them.
“The fundamental questions that faced Jack in 1947 are abounding today,” Rachel wrote in an essay. “We’ve got to go beyond celebrating the past and use our emotions, sentiments, ideas and analysis to move forward. This would be the greatest tribute to Jackie Robinson.”