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High flight for an Oriole
William Leggett
February 03, 1969
After three months in Puerto Rico Frank Robinson knows one thing for certain: he can manage. He may become the majors' first Negro pilot
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February 03, 1969

High Flight For An Oriole

After three months in Puerto Rico Frank Robinson knows one thing for certain: he can manage. He may become the majors' first Negro pilot

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Had it been equipped with chains and a couple of high-grade manacles at the time of construction, the manager's office in the home-team clubhouse at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico could have served perfectly as Hollywood's version of a World War II prisoner-interrogation room. Two lights, one of which works, hang from the high ceiling, sending eerie shadows across the gray cinder-block walls. There are no windows and, since the blue door cannot be locked from the inside, any attempt to accomplish a successful suicide in privacy would be, at best, an even-money bet.

When Frank Robinson, the man who used this office for the last three months as manager of the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rican winter league, entered it before games he took a rag and bore down hard with both hands trying to remove the carpet of dust that had settled on his desk. Next he folded a can of Real-Kill in one of his giant hands and sprayed it into the air, hoping the insecticide would live up to its promise to rid the premises of "moscas, mosquitoes, zancudas and cucarachas" or at least bring some of them to their knees so that he could finish off the job with his white shower sandals.

Puerto Rico is a nice place to visit and—for many—a nice place to live, but unless you really thought you had something to prove you certainly would not want to manage a baseball team there. Santurce is "the big club" of the six-team league, and Hiram Bithorn Stadium, named after the first successful Puerto Rican major-leaguer, is the palace at Versailles when compared to the stadiums in Ponce, Caguas, Mayaguez and Arecibo. A game at Bithorn, used for home games by both the Crabbers and the San Juan Senators, resembles the rumble scene in West Side Story, and when the action crackles, the fans act as if they were involved in the finals of a spitting-for-distance contest.

Although the league gets little attention in the United States, it serves as a place to either develop young players with major league potential or to breathe new life into performers who were injured during the preceding big-league season. Within recent years the Detroit Tigers used the Mayaguez club to help develop Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup and Denny McLain, and in just the past four years Managers Larry Shepard of Pittsburgh, Preston Gomez of San Diego, Cal Ermer, formerly of Minnesota, and Earl Weaver of Baltimore have all worked in the Puerto Rican League on their way to the majors.

Normally, owners in the league hire either experienced minor league managers or such popular native players as Luis Arroyo, Vic Power, Roberto Clemente or Ossie Virgil to handle their teams. Last September, however, Hiram Cuevas, the witty and iconoclastic owner of the Crabbers, signed Robinson, and if baseball people wondered then what Cuevas and Robinson were up to, they do not now. The experiment in Santurce has ended, and Robinson, the first U.S. Negro ever to manage an integrated professional baseball team, brought a pennant to Santurce while earning the title of "Manager of the Year."

At the age of 33 and one of only nine men who will enter the 1969 U.S. season as a $100,000 player (the others are Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Mickey Mantle, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and Carl Yastrzemski), Robinson brought to his work a flair that now places him in the forefront of potential candidates for appointment as the first Negro manager in the major leagues.

What makes Robinson's prominence all the more remarkable is that his playing career, both in Cincinnati and Baltimore, has always been surrounded by controversy. Robinson freely admits that when he first came up to the Reds, Detroit seemed incapable of producing enough automobiles to fill the showcase of his own mind. Given to carrying large sums of cash—as much as $2,500 at a time—Robinson bought a Beretta .25 to help protect himself and he was picked up with it on his person in 1961 after an altercation in a restaurant. Although Reds General Manager Bill DeWitt knew that Robinson had been apprehended, he let his star stay in jail overnight and Robinson was later fined $250. When Robinson arrived at spring training in Tampa the following spring, Fred Hutchinson, the Cincinnati manager, greeted him in typical Hutchinson fashion, saying, "That was a stupid thing to do." Robinson agreed, and since that time his feuds have been mostly about scoring decisions.

Certainly he has been one of baseball's finest players. Traded from the Reds to Baltimore in 1965, he left behind him in the National League a lifetime batting average of .303 and an average of 100 runs driven home per season. When he moved over to the Orioles he promptly won the American League's Triple Crown as well as its Most Valuable Player Award, thus making him the only player ever to be judged most valuable in both leagues. His reputation as a tough competitor is attested to by the black and blue marks he has left on numerous double-play combinations while sliding. His challenging batting stance, with head and arms out over the plate, has caused him to be hit more than 125 times, sometimes even unintentionally.

Recently Robinson sat in his office in San Juan making out his lineup card for the opening of the playoffs of the Puerto Rican League. Because the Crabbers have only one home and one road uniform, Robinson was faced with having to wear the same suit for 14 straight days. That possibility, unfortunately, was erased when San Juan defeated Santurce in the seventh game of the semifinals and eliminated the pennant-winning Crabbers from the playoff finals.

"I took this job," Robinson said, "because I wanted to try managing. The day is coming when baseball will hire a Negro manager. I'm interested. I got my chance after Earl Weaver took over from Hank Bauer as manager of the Orioles. A big-league manager does not have the time to work down here, so Earl was nice enough to suggest to Hiram Cuevas that he hire me. Cuevas knows almost everybody in the Baltimore organization. He looks at as many of the Orioles players as he can, trying to build a team to play for him once the season in the States is over."

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