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Jackie Robinson and the legacy of winning

If Robinson’s success could break the color barrier for good in MLB, why can’t victories and championships do the same for Black managers?

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Each year for the last decade, I have used April 15 to acknowledge Jackie Robinson.

This is the day in 1947 that Robinson made his MLB debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, smashing for good the color barrier that kept Black players out of baseball. This is the day when players throughout the baseball universe will wear Robinson’s No. 42, when baseball owners and executives sing the praises of a pioneering Black man who died nearly 50 years ago.

This is the day when critics will point out that the problems Robinson pushed against stubbornly remain — namely, the lack of Black managers and executives.

At the end of his last public appearance in 1972 — at the World Series — Robinson said: “I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit that I am going to be tremendously more pleased and prouder when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a Black face managing in baseball.”

Robinson died nine days later.

Nearly five decades after his death there are currently only two Black managers, Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the venerable Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros.

We have been tossing this issue back and forth for decades — not only in baseball but also in professional football and, to a lesser extent, pro basketball.

I have been trying to think of something aside from appealing to the owners’ sense of fairness that would turn the resistance of white men to hiring Black men to lead their sports teams.

My thought was: Perhaps we need to win more. Perhaps we need the superstar Black head coach and manager.

Frank Robinson, pictured in 2006 as manager of the Washington Nationals, was MLB’s first Black manager in 1975.

Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

Robinson is credited with opening doors for future generations of Black players because he was so talented. Would a superstar Black manager in baseball or a superstar Black head coach in football open doors for subsequent generations of Black head coaches and managers?

And what do I mean by superstar? I mean the Bill Belichick who wins multiple Super Bowls, the Joe Torre who wins multiple World Series titles.

In posing the question, I realize this can be interpreted as blaming the victim. I can be accused of arguing that systemic racism is not the barrier to Black advancement for prospective managers and coaches. The barriers are that they haven’t won big enough, often enough.

But there are myriad reasons why this hasn’t taken place.

Hall of Fame sportswriter Claire Smith reminded me this week that Black baseball managers are often handed terrible teams to manage. “One of the major hurdles for almost every manager of color has been that you’re brought [in] to manage teams that are not quite postseason-ready,” she said. “So, it’s hard to get there and hard to pile up those championships.”

Smith pointed out that Torre was given a solid Yankees team to begin with and was given more and more resources and wound up leading the Yankees to four World Series championships.

Frank Robinson, who became baseball’s first Black manager in 1975, was always building and had only five winning seasons in 16 years of managing four franchises. Don Baylor was always building in Colorado and Chicago and had four winning seasons in nine years between the two teams.

On the upside, Roberts has won a championship with the Dodgers and been to the World Series three times. Baker has managed the San Francisco Giants and led them to a World Series appearance in 2002. He came within one win of taking the Chicago Cubs to the World Series in 2003. He has managed the Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and now the Astros, whom he led to last year’s World Series. Baker is likely to win his 2,000th career game by May — he would be the first Black manager to do so.

“The African American managers have had additional hurdles, such as not always remaining in the candidate pool, whereas you’ll see managers who’ve had losing records,” Smith said.

As I thought more about superstar managers and coaches, I came up with a name that makes a formidable argument against my contention that winning might bring about change.

Cito Gaston, the former manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Cito Gaston won two World Series titles and went 894-837 in two stints as the Toronto Blue Jays’ manager.

Harry How/Allsport

“You would hope that winning would help them to realize that Blacks are qualified to manage baseball teams. But I don’t know that. You see where we are now.”

Gaston may be Exhibit A that perhaps even a superstar Black baseball manager may not be a catalyst to force change.

When Gaston took over as manager of the Blue Jays in 1989, the team was 12-24. They ended up winning the division.

Gaston managed the Blue Jays to four division titles. In 1992, he became the first Black manager in MLB history to win a World Series title. He followed that up by leading Toronto to a second consecutive World Series title in 1993.

“And I’m still not considered to have even a chance to go into the Hall of Fame,” Gaston told me Thursday afternoon during a phone conversation. “They say I didn’t win enough games. Of course, I didn’t have a job for 10 years, either.”

In 1997, Gaston was fired after four consecutive losing seasons. Unlike most World Series-winning managers who are quickly recycled, Gaston did not receive another managerial job until 2008 — when he was rehired by Toronto.

“I stopped going to interviews at one time because they interviewed me only because they had to interview a minority candidate,” said Gaston, who went 894-837 in 12 seasons of managing the Blue Jays.

If winning is not enough, then what’s the difference between having great Black players opening the door for more players as Robinson did, and successful Black coaches opening the door for other coaches? “I don’t know, it should go without saying that they should be given a chance,” Gaston said.

Gaston said he thought I was being naive if I thought winning Black managers would have the same impact as winning Black players.

“I think you are, because it didn’t change that much for me,” he said. “You would hope that winning would help them to realize that Blacks are qualified to manage baseball teams. But I don’t know that. You see where we are now.”

He added: “I don’t think it matters that much until the owners are saying that a Black man can do as good a job as anyone else. Until that changes, it’s not going to change. I know the way things should go, but it’s not going that way at all.”

Despite the glacial pace of change in and out of baseball, Gaston also said he was optimistic for the future and ever grateful to Robinson and all he endured. It makes the slights Gaston received seem minuscule.

“He didn’t sacrifice all of that for nothing,” Gaston said.

Perhaps I was being naive to think that success would bring about the same seismic changes for Black coaches that it has for Black players. It will take more than a winning Black manager or coach to obliterate the color barrier in white-controlled sports.

Yet on a day that we celebrate Robinson, we celebrate perseverance more than anything. That’s what helps bring about change.

In some ways, that is the victory.

“We just have to keep pushing,” Gaston said. “Everything moves slowly.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.