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The Last Wish of Jackie Robinson and the Search for Baseball's First Black Manager

Jackie Robinson's greatest unfulfilled baseball wish was for there to be a black manager in Major League Baseball. Three years after he died, his wish would come true.

Jackie Robinson's greatest unfulfilled baseball wish was for there to be a black manager in Major League Baseball. Three years after he died, his wish would come true.

What Was Jackie Robinson's Role in Getting A Black Manager in Major League Baseball?

A mere nine days before a heart attack would cut his life short, Jackie Robinson made his final public appearance before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. His body was ravaged by diabetes to point that he was nearly blind and could no longer enjoy watching a baseball game, but the former All-Star who broke Major League Baseball's modern color barrier 25 years earlier stood before a building crowd that would reach 53,224 at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium to express his final wish.

"I'm extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon," Robinson said in a very brief remark after receiving an award of recognition from commissioner Bowie Kuhn, "but must admit, I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball."

Robinson initially declined Kuhn's invitation to appear at the World Series because of the lack of progress the sport had made in ensuring a black manager was hired, despite a regular conversation about the topic for several years. Several blacks had been hired as Major League coaches or minor league managers by 1972, but only a handful of men had actually received serious consideration for a spot as manager. That infuriated the feisty Robinson, who had endured a very difficult season as a rookie and saw baseball 25 years later remaining stagnant in advancing blacks into decision-making roles.

"I don't think it'll be like the Jackie Robinson thing all over again," Hall of Famer Monte Irvin said in 1973. "I don't think white players would resist taking orders from a black manager anymore. . . .There are some black quarterbacks now who give orders in football, and the other guys don't quit. Bill Russell did a good job in basketball. So the thinking has changed, the old hangup is archaic" (Durso, 1973).

The owners are still wallowing around in the 19th century with their view that white ballplayers will not accept advice and guidance from black ballplayers. I think this is a fallacy. Eventually the owners are going to have to recognize this need.

— Jackie Robinson (Evans, 1968)

Among the new hangups included the fear of negative repercussions from being the first to fire a black manager—even though firing managers has been commonplace for as long as there have been managers in baseball.

"That's silly," said Elston Howard, a 14-year veteran and former MVP who retired in 1968 and wanted to become a manager. "I know if I'm ever hired to be a manager, I can expect to be fired. Every manager gets fired. You accept that when you take the job in the first place" (Pepe, 1973).

Meanwhile, society (and baseball for that matter) had taken great steps in the battle for equality between Robinson's debut in 1947 and his death in 1972. In 1954, a unanimous landmark decision was reached by the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated schools. Ten years later, the monumental 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, and African-Americans won several other court decisions during that era as they battled to be treated equally. In baseball, black players had become among the best in the game during the 1950s and '60s. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson accounted for eight of the 15 times a black player won an MVP award in the first 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Yet, proving themselves on the field wasn't enough to get blacks promoted into baseball leadership. Had Robinson not owned such a headstrong personality, it's hard to know if the search for a black manager would have lasted longer than 1974—but it's likely it could have.

"Jackie always seemed to have so much more to get done than he could do," former Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese said after Robinson died. "He was interested in his race. He was interested in people in general. Among the things he wanted was a black manager in baseball. His interest may have enhanced the chances for this to happen sooner" (Carnicelli, 1972).

Owner Bill Veeck was nearly the first in MLB to hire a black manager, but his purchase of the Washington Nationals was unsuccessful.

Owner Bill Veeck was nearly the first in MLB to hire a black manager, but his purchase of the Washington Nationals was unsuccessful.

Did Bill Veeck Hire the First Black Manager in MLB History?

Bill Veeck was never afraid of setting a trend. The eccentric Hall of Fame owner held a stake in either the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, or Chicago White Sox in most years from 1946–80, and he was known for using publicity stunts to draw in fans. Some of his most memorable moments included:

  • Signing Negro League legend Satchel Paige to the Indians in 1948 as a 42-year-old rookie
  • Hiring Max Patkin, the clown prince of baseball, as first-base coach in Cleveland
  • Signing Eddie Gaedel, who stood at 3 feet, 7 inches, to the Browns
  • Installing a large "exploding" effects scoreboard at Comiskey Park in Chicago
  • Hosting the disastrous Disco Demolition Night in 1979

A lesser-known tale than those gimmicks, however, was Veeck's more-serious desire to become a trailblazer by hiring the first black manager in Major League Baseball. Veeck had previously attempted to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942, with the intention of stockpiling the best black players. He estimated he could win the pennant by 20 games in doing so, but when Veeck told commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis about his plan as a courtesy, Landis made arrangements to have the club taken over over by the National League. Shortly thereafter, the Phillies were sold to William D. Cox, who was banned from baseball for gambling less than a year later. There had been debate about the truth in Veeck's story about his potential purchase of the Phillies, which came under scrutiny from the Society of American Baseball Researchers in 1998. Several historians since have argued that the story is true.

In his defense, Veeck was on board with the Indians in 1947 when they signed Larry Doby to become the first black player in the American League, so there is no questioning his intention to help advance the fight for black players. Twenty years later, Veeck was set to purchase the Washington Senators. He had an offer laid out for the team, but after the chairman of the board, James Johnson, died, Johnson's executor believed he could find a better offer for the team and did. That squashed Veeck's chances—and along with Veeck's purchase would have come baseball's first black manager.

In 1974, Veeck recalled a conversation he had with Elston Howard at the Jefferson Hotel in St. Louis. "I told him my plans (to buy the Senators) and asked whether he would like to try managing. He said, 'Would I like to finish this breakfast and go on breathing?'" Veeck said of the then-aging Boston Red Sox catcher. "So I told him it was a deal, but please not to say anything until I had the details straightened out and could make an announcement.

". . . There never were any social implications in what I was trying to do. In the Philadelphia case, there was this great pool of black talent, and I wanted to get there first. With Howard, I was just trying to hire the best manager possible. I've never had any doubt about the qualifications of Ellie, or Frank Robinson or Larry Doby or Bill White or Maury Wills," Veeck said. "Ellie would have been perfect for two reasons. One, it was Washington with that big population, and two, the club was so lousy nobody could blame him (if he was losing). If the pitcher on a good club hurts his arm in July, the black manager is to blame when the team loses in October. Nobody can tell me there aren't at least half a dozen (black) men, including the ones I've mentioned, who would be better managers than some of the ones have jobs today" (Smith, 1974).

"I think baseball is running a poor third for the black player. Baseball was first a long time ago, but now it's running behind pro basketball and pro football in its treatment of blacks after our playing days are over. Qualified people obviously have been bypassed. ... If a guy can do a good job, that's the guy I would want to work for me if I was running a ball club, no matter what his color.

— Hank Aaron (Rathet, 1971)

When Did Black Managers First Begin to Receive Consideration?

Despite Bill Veeck's failure, interest in promoting blacks did seem to be increasing. In 1969, former Cardinals All-Star Bill White was employed by the commissioner's office and Bill Lucas—Hank Aaron's brother-in-law—was an administrator with the Braves. Reports indicate that former players like White (Mariners, 1969); Elston Howard (Nationals, 1969); Ernie Banks (Cubs, 1972); Willie Mays (Yankees, 1973—if Herman Franks had bought the team); Roy Campanella (Padres, 1973); and Maury Wills (Giants, 1974) were all candidates for managerial positions but weren't hired. Because he was wheelchair-bound, Campanella reportedly had doubts about managing after being offered the Padres vacancy in February 1974, but by the time he had come around on the idea in August, San Diego had moved on.

"It isn't to be the first black manager," Campanella said. "That sort of stuff can't get you across the street. A man should want to manage because he loves baseball and thinks he can do the job" (AP, 1974).

That came four years after the Race Relations Information Center released a report called "Blacks in Pro Sports," which stated commissioner Bowie Kuhn had instructed teams to begin recruiting and developing minority talent for management positions. Still, no black man could get past the interviews.

"There certainly are several who are qualified," Veeck said of black managerial candidates. "In fact, I'd say that the richest and most readily available reservoir of potential quality managers today are blacks. And contrary to what people say and think, there's nothing complicated about managing. Baseball strategy is the same from Little League all the way to the majors" (Banks, 1973).

Veeck hired his first black manager, Larry Doby, in 1978. Doby was the third manager Veeck hired after making his comments in 1973.

Larry Doby was the second black manager in baseball history, but he only lasted half of a season.

Larry Doby was the second black manager in baseball history, but he only lasted half of a season.

Who Were the Candidates to Become MLB's First Black Manager?

In the years leading up to the hiring of baseball's first black manager, rumors swirled about who the best candidates would be. Newspapers often reported on which black players would make the best managers. Below, I will outline some of the players who were mentioned most frequently (this is not a comprehensive list of every player I encountered while researching).

Larry Doby

After retiring as a player, Larry Doby was interested in pursuing a coaching/managerial career. In preparation, he became involved with the minor league clubs for the Montreal Expos and also managed in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues. In 1969, Doby filled in for four games with the West Palm Beach Expos while manager Ed Sadowski served a four-game suspension for a heated exchange with an umpire. "I'm just doing a job in pinch-hitting for Ed Sadowski," Doby said. "I don't think it makes any difference because I'm a black man. I'm not thinking about race. Just about helping these kids" (Plasited, 1969). He went 2–2 in those games. Doby became a Major League coach for the Expos in the early '70s and then with the White Sox in the middle of the decade.

"Whether I'm the first black manager doesn't matter at all to me," Doby said. "You never hear anybody talk about the first Italian manager or the first Irish manager. I just want an opportunity, and I think I've demonstrated the qualifications for it" (Edlridge, 1973).

Doby became the second black manager in baseball history when he replaced Bob Lemon at the helm of the White Sox in 1978. Doby, however, only managed the final 87 games of that season before getting replaced for the 1979 campaign.

Jim Gilliam was the man Jackie Robinson thought should have become the first black manager in Major League Baseball.

Jim Gilliam was the man Jackie Robinson thought should have become the first black manager in Major League Baseball.

Jim Gilliam

Jim Gilliam had a big supporter of his case to become the first black manager in baseball—Jackie Robinson.

"Baseball long ago should have had a black manager in the big leagues," Robinson said. "It would give the black kids in the ghettos someone to look up to and serve as an example. My choice is Gilliam. He has proved, as a player and a coach, that he has all the requirements" (Grimsley, 1972).

Gilliam began coaching with Dodgers after his 1966 retirement, becoming one of the first black coaches in MLB. He continued in that capacity until his death in 1978.

"I remember when we got two bucks apiece for playing a game in the Negro Leagues, Gilliam would borrow my money to go to the stadium to see the Yankees. He would watch every move the infielders made, and he'd study the hitters by the hour," former teammate Joe Black said. "He knows as much baseball as any man I know—black or white—and he has the toughness and the faculty for demanding respect that it takes to be a leader" (Grimsley, 1973).

Gilliam managed in Puerto Rico for first time in the winter of 1973, but never got the chance to manage in the majors. He likely would have gotten an opportunity had he not died from a brain hemorrhage at age 49.

Maury Wills eventually got the chance to manage in the majors, but did not find much success with the Mariners.

Maury Wills eventually got the chance to manage in the majors, but did not find much success with the Mariners.

Maury Wills

After a lengthy playing career, Maury Wills had further aspirations in baseball. One of those was broadcasting and another was managing. He wanted to manage so badly that he required an escape clause be included in his NBC broadcasting contract that allowed him to leave that job to take a managerial role.

In preparation for managing in the Majors, Wills managed in the Mexican Winter League, gaining experience and bringing popularity to his team, the Naranjeros de Hermosillo (Orange Pickers).

"If I broke the color barrier and became a manager in the majors, I'd have to be one helluva politician to keep the boat from rocking," Wills said. "But I wouldn't hesitate to reprimand a white player if he had it coming, nor would I hesitate to reprimand a black player if he deserved it. I would want to demonstrate very clearly and very early to all parties that I was playing it straight down the middle" (Finch, 1970).

Wills eventually got his chance to manage a Major League club when he was hired by the Seattle Mariners late in the 1980 season. He was fired from his role early in 1981 after Seattle's 6–18 start was the worst in the American League, and wouldn't manage again.

Had Elston Howard not died at age 51, I believe he would have gotten his chance to manage in the majors.

Had Elston Howard not died at age 51, I believe he would have gotten his chance to manage in the majors.

Elston Howard

Elston Howard nearly became the first black manager in baseball (as discussed above). Instead, he is remembered as the first black coach in the American League when he became the first-base coach for the Yankees in 1969. He'd retain that position until 1979.

"If you can communicate, it doesn't make any difference whether you're black or white or green," Howard said. "You have to be able to work with people, no matter what your color is or their color is" (Distel, 1971).

Howard never managed in the Majors, though he died young at age 51 due to a heart condition.

Bill White

On Bill White, former Major League pitcher Joe Black said: "I remember last year I stopped (Yankees General Manager) Larry McPhail. . . . And I asked him the prerequisites. Is it a college degree? Bill White has one. Is it the ability to play baseball? Bill White played baseball. He says, 'Well, no, they should just go somewhere and manage.' So you see, they are trying to hold on to their yesterdays" (Jackson, 1974).

MacPhail was implying that a black candidate should gain experience at the minor league level, but that was never a requirement of white managers—an unfortunate reality even in the 1970s. White never managed, but after a lengthy career in broadcasting, he did become the National League President from 1989–94. In doing so, he became the highest-ranking African-American in sports.

If blacks are good enough to sweat, then surely some of us must be good enough and smart enough to manage and administer. ... I think I know as much about the game as anybody. I'm more of an authority for the jobs in baseball—on the field or in the front office—than most people I can think of. There are others like me, too ... men like Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Bill White, just to name a few. The owners had better think of that.

— Hank Aaron (Lewis, 1969)

John Roseboro

On John Roseboro, former teammate Don Sutton said: "There isn't a man around who is more qualified. I don't think I could have spent more than a couple of years in the majors if it hadn't been for Roseboro" (Pave, 1971).

Roseboro did not manage in the Majors, but did spend several seasons as a coach for various teams.

Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson was often mentioned as a candidate to become the first manager in the majors, and he fulfilled that role when he became a player-manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975. Robinson ultimately managed for four franchises and 16 years between 1975 and 2006.

If it wasn't for the Houston Astros cheating scandal, Dave Roberts would be the only black manager currently in Major League Baseball.

If it wasn't for the Houston Astros cheating scandal, Dave Roberts would be the only black manager currently in Major League Baseball.

Black Managers in Baseball Today

Going into the 2020 season, Major League Baseball faced a diversity problem with its managers. Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers was the lone black manager, while five other clubs were run by a Latino manager. Of the eight vacancies following the 2019 season, only one was filled by a minority—Carlos Beltran of the Yankees, who was subsequently replaced by Aaron Boone after Beltran's role in the Houston Astros cheating scandal was revealed. Another result from that fallout, however, was the Astros firing A.J. Hinch and hiring Dusty Baker. But still, two blacks out of 30 managers isn't enough (based upon U.S. population percentage, there should be four black managers in baseball).

MLB has seen a declining number of African-American players (from 19 percent in 1995 to 8.2 percent in 2019), and with that has come a drop in black managers. What can MLB do to fix this? That's a question above my pay grade but one that was bantered about throughout the past offseason. I do hope the league will continue to work to be an inclusive sport and take steps to cater to all audiences.


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