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When Frank Robinson took charge of the Cleveland Indians in 1975, he became the first black manager in the major leagues. Last week, almost inevitably, he became the first black manager to get fired. His dismissal came just after his fifth-place team had swept two games with Detroit; it also came at the end of a stormy stretch during which Designated Malcontent Rico Carty stood up at a booster-club luncheon and lambasted his manager, during which the team's broadcaster openly advocated Robinson's dismissal, and during which Cleveland General Manager Phil Seghi behaved in such a way that his manager could have sued him for nonsupport. Yet Robinson left quietly, after shaking hands all around the clubhouse. That must have been painful to do with at least three tomahawks in his back.
Robinson's firing was just one episode in what is rapidly becoming a memorable year in the cockeyed annals of managing. In May Atlanta's Dave Bristol was temporarily replaced by owner Ted Turner, whose previous experience at a helm had been on his yacht. At least Bristol got his job back. Four of his colleagues have not been so lucky.
The most recent victim (three days after Robinson) was Texas' Frank Lucchesi, whose team was only four games out of first when he was fired. He was replaced by Eddie Stanky, who won his first and only game, got homesick, resigned, went home to Alabama and was succeeded by Connie Ryan. Meanwhile, the Yankees' Billy Martin reportedly came within the width of a pinstripe of losing his fourth managing job.
By all accounts, including Robinson's, his dismissal was not for racial reasons. On the contrary, some Cleveland observers thought Indian owner Alva (Ted) Bonda kept Robinson around longer than he otherwise might have because Robinson is black.
"That wasn't the case," says Bonda. "There wasn't any pressure. Actually, the black fans never materialized at the park, although I know they took pride in him. It certainly had no effect on the firing."
What did have an effect was what Bonda refers to as "divisiveness down in the clubhouse" and "conditions beyond Robinson's control."
Carty, a black Latin, was the condition most beyond Robinson's control. Last season, Carty was ejected from a game for swearing at an umpire over a strike call, and Robinson chewed him out on the bench. Relations were strained thereafter. On April 25, Carty got up to accept an award at a Wahoo Club luncheon and with Robinson sitting three feet away, accused his manager of "lack of leadership."
On June 1, Carty pulled a hamstring muscle. He accused Robinson of failing to ask how he was feeling. The final straw for the manager came in Oakland on June 6, when, Robinson says, Carty loudly second-guessed him in the dugout and refused to discuss the matter afterward in the manager's office.
The Indians' and Robinson's problems did not stop with Carty. Infielder Larvell Blanks, also a black, threw a tantrum, chucking equipment out of his locker and kicking a stool that smashed into a coffee urn. Then he refused to honor Robinson's request to come into the manager's office. Two days later, for reasons that remain unexplained, Third Baseman Buddy Bell, a white player, left the stadium and went home without telling any of the brass.
Obviously, Bonda had to do something, so he fired the manager, which Seghi had wanted to do at the end of last season, after the Indians finished fourth, and again on May 23 of this year. Robinson's replacement is his bullpen coach, 35-year-old Jeff Torborg, who last week built Robinson's final two victories into a nine-game winning streak.