Tuesday, September 23, 2008


In 1974, baseball superstar Frank Robinson became the sport's first black manager when he was hired to helm the Cleveland Indians's 1975 season. Robinson was already on his way to the Hall of Fame, having compiled more than 550 home runs and 2900 hits for the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, with quick stops with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Angels. "Robby" had been traded to Cleveland during the '74 season, where manager Ken Aspromonte had guided the Indians to a typically poor season. One day after the Tribe wrapped up its 77-84 season, owner Ted Bonda and general manager Phil Seghi announced Robinson would be the Indians' player-manager the following year.

FRANK: THE FIRST YEAR is a surprisingly candid account of Robinson's experiences that season. Although Jim Bouton's groundbreaking BALL FOUR was just six years earlier, books by baseball players still tended to focus on generalities and rarely entered the locker room, heeding to the old proverb that states, "What you see here stays here." Since Holt, Rinehart & Winston published FRANK in 1976, many similar books have followed, the best being Sparky Lyle's THE BRONX ZOO, which rivals BALL FOUR for honesty and humor. FRANK may be the first of its type to be written, however, by a manager (Dave Anderson is Robinson's co-writer), and as such, it comes from a different viewpoint, one authoritarian in nature.

While Robinson is often brutally honest in his assessment of players and umpires he dislikes, a failing of FRANK is that he's still too soft on the book's other "characters." It's understandable that he would be, considering that he still had to manage the same players next season. FRANK is also lacking in "Xs and Os." Considered one of the game's smartest tacticians, Robinson is reticent to reveal too much about his theories or strategy about the game, maybe in fear of giving his opponents a heads-up.

I don't wish too sound hard on the book, because it is fair entertainment. Pitcher Gaylord Perry and catcher Johnny Ellis earn Robinson's wrath for what Robinson deems attitude problems, and a fair number of umpires fall under Robby's disdainful eye. It's a book about a man who was better at baseball than almost everyone else who ever played, yet was now re-learning the game from a manager's viewpoint.

Like Bouton's 1969 Seattle Pilots, the 1975 Indians were a bad team, sometimes a brutal one, yet it also lacked the zany characters that made BALL FOUR so successful. Robinson can't be blamed for that, of course, but it does keep FRANK: THE FIRST YEAR from being as good as it could have been.

Robinson, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, has remained in the game as a manager ever since helming the Indians to a 79-80 finish his first season. He later managed the San Francisco Giants, the Orioles and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, yet despite never finishing higher than second place, is still considered a fine manager (and probably justly so). He last managed the 2006 Nationals at the age of 70.

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