Memo: This is an excerpt from the chapter "One Swing of the Bat" from the book "The Top 20 Moments in Cleveland Sports," written by the Beacon Journal's Bob Dyer and published by Gray & Company in Cleveland.
The hiring of Frank Robinson as the first African-American manager in baseball history was the worst-kept secret in sports.
The speculation began as early as August 1971, when New York Daily News columnist Dick Young predicted that Robinson would get the Cleveland job the following season.
He didn't. Instead, the Tribe hired yet another white guy, Ken Aspromonte. But the buzz wouldn't die.
The rumors really began flying on Sept. 12, 1974, the day the Indians acquired Robinson as a player from the Angels. In its story announcing the deal, the Beacon Journal waited only two paragraphs to predict that Robinson would become a player-manager. The Plain Dealer waited three.
Nothing wrong with that — as long as you weren't the current manager, Aspromonte, who had instantly become the lamest duck since Daffy.
Everybody said the right things. General Manager Phil Seghi announced that Robby was on board simply to help the Indians make a run at the pennant with his bat.
Robinson dutifully proclaimed, "I'm here as a player to do whatever the manager asks me to do to help him and us win the division."
But then he went on to talk at length about how the two-year-old designated-hitter rule would make it far easier to be a player-manager, and how the hiring of a black manager was long overdue, and how plenty of blacks had the "know-how" to do the job.
Adding to the speculation was the fact that Robinson's resume boasted plenty of offshore managerial experience: five seasons at the helm of the Santurce Crabbers in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
Let's just say Aspromonte wasn't about to take on any new home-remodeling projects.
Another problem was brewing that would undermine the '74 squad.
The day before the trade, Gaylord Perry had won his 19th game. Two years earlier, he had taken the Cy Young Award. A salty 6-foot-4 veteran of 13 major-league seasons, Perry was the undisputed leader in the Indians clubhouse.
That was a problem because Robinson had been the undisputed leader in every clubhouse he had ever set foot in. He had been around even longer than Perry — 19 seasons — and had been even more successful, winning the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues.
The relationship between Robinson and Perry didn't get any smoother when Perry immediately popped off about their salary disparity. Perry was making $100,000 to Robinson's $172,000.
The pitcher told reporters, "I want what he's getting and a dollar more."
That soon led to a full-volume clubhouse confrontation. Perry was sitting at his locker when Robinson suddenly loomed over him, holding a newspaper. "Keep me out of your negotiations and out of the paper," he barked.
Perry barked right back, saying he had a right to say anything he wanted. Robinson challenged Perry to stand up and vowed to "knock you on your ass."
We're not sure whether Perry would have reacted differently had he already been standing up, but he wasn't going to take a chance that Robinson would unload on him as he rose from his stool. So he just sat there.
Aspromonte heard the commotion and came out of his office. But at that point, he couldn't have cared less. He wanted everyone to quiet down so he could announce that he would no longer be managing.
When the official announcement of Robby's elevation finally came on Oct. 3, it was, as more than one writer described it, not so much an announcement as a coronation.
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was on hand, along with American League President Lee MacPhail. How often do you see the commissioner hanging around at a press conference to announce the hiring of a manager?
When Frank Robinson finally trotted out to home plate to hand his lineup card to umpire Nestor Chylak, the crowd gave him a lengthy standing ovation.
Fittingly, the opponent was the Indians' all-time biggest rival, the New York Yankees, wearing their classic gray road uniforms.
The Tribe unveiled new uniforms for the occasion, outfits that were easily the loudest, gaudiest in team history: bright red jerseys over bright red pants, with "Indians" across the chest in a font best described as "Caveman."
When it came to uniform styles, Robinson had been a trendsetter. He was the first to wear the high stirrups that left a ribbon of colored sock over the white sanitary hose worn beneath.
Now, he was strolling out to home plate wearing a heavy red jacket over the big, white No. 20 on his back. In the style of the day, he wore a moderately long afro and sideburns two-thirds the way down his ears.
On his first lineup card, Robby had written his own name in the second spot. For the record, the first four batters were black; the next five and the pitcher — Perry — were white.
When Robinson's clubhouse nightmare threw the first pitch at 2 p.m., the temperature was 36 degrees. But Perry came out hot, setting down the first three batters without anyone hitting a fair ball.
As he walked to the dugout, Robinson walked to the on-deck circle carrying a weighted bat — and the weight of the world.
Months earlier, a black Cleveland utility player named Tom McCraw had proclaimed:
"Frank is not just managing a ball club. He isn't managing for himself, either. He is managing for all black people. And the future of all blacks as managers depends on how good a job he does. If he succeeds, the door will be open for other qualified black managers. If he fails, it may set back this thing for a number of years."
No pressure there, eh?
The build-up to this single at-bat had lasted six months and five days. In a broader and more important sense, the wait had been far longer — hundreds of years.
This black man was not just playing alongside the white folks; he was their boss. He was the guy who determined which players sat and which players played, what time they would go to bed and how much they would be fined if they were late.
Things just hadn't worked that way in America. And to overturn the longstanding order of things in this very public business was truly groundbreaking.
The pressure facing the aging superstar was far subtler than the crush that enveloped Jackie Robinson 28 years and 51 weeks earlier, when he became the first African American to play in a major league game. Since then, all but the most racist elements of society had toned down the rhetoric, if not the ill feelings.
The Tribe's leadoff hitter, Oscar Gamble, was retired on a pop foul to third base. The crowd buzzed as Robinson made his way to the right-hand batter's box and dug in against Doc Medich, a 6-foot-5 righty.
Robby's batting eye was not exactly at its peak: He had stepped to the plate only nine times all spring.
Medich and Robinson managed to prolong the drama for eight pitches. Then, finally, the legendary swing. Here's the call by Joe Tait on flagship station WWWE (1100-AM):
"Two balls, two strikes, one out, first inning at the stadium. No score. Pitch to Robinson . . . line drive to left field, well back . . . it is gone!"
Fireworks exploded above the scoreboard as the crowd roared in amazement and delight.
Tait: "Frank Robinson just hit a home run in his first at-bat as a playing manager of the Indians! How about that! Boy, that goes down in the baseball storybooks right now."
Neither Tait nor partner Herb Score mentioned anything about race. Perhaps they didn't have to.
But race was everything on this day. Race is why the attention of the nation was focused on Cleveland. Race is why tales of this otherwise-routine homer would be told and retold for decades.
"The most dramatic home run in the history of the Indians," wrote Bob Sudyk of the Cleveland Press.
Even Perry was caught up in the moment: As Robby crossed the plate, the pitcher gave him a hug.
All that emotion apparently knocked Perry out of synch in the top of the second. The Yankees ripped four hits to take a 3-1 lead. But they couldn't touch him after that, and the Indians chipped away to notch a 5-3 win.
In his tiny office after the game, Robinson was mashed into a corner by 50 members of the media. "Right now," he said, "I feel better than I have after anything I've done in this game. Take all the pennants, the personal awards, the World Series, the All-Star games together and this moment is the greatest. The greatest."
The racial component would never go away, but it began to recede. The primary issue for all concerned became winning and losing. And, unfortunately, Cleveland was doing nearly equal amounts of each.
The Indians finished Robby's first season at 79-80, in fourth place, 15 1/2 games out. The following year, they were only two games better.
The malaise continued into Year Three and after 57 games, the Tribe's deep thinkers had seen enough. Robby was replaced by Jeff Torborg.
By that point, Frank Robinson had become exactly like every other manager in baseball history: hired to be fired.