Frank Robinson: The Making of a Manager
by Russell J. Schneider

Frank Robinson, in 1975, managed the Cleveland Indians to a 79-80 mark, finishing with a mad flurry of wins, yet still far behind the pennant winning Boston Red Sox. The Indians featured some talented vets, such as outfielders Rico Carty and Oscar Gamble, and promising rookies that would become major league regulars like Rick Cerone and Rick Manning. The Indians would also feature three future Hall of Famers in Robinson himself, who played in 49 games as a player, Gaylord Perry, and Dennis Eckersley. But of course, nearly any team can claim future stars, fading veterans, and enough intriguing plotlines to fill a book with stories and anecdotes.

The reason why this book was written, of course, was that the Hall of Fame player-manager was the first African-American to manage a major league baseball team. It is odd to write those words, but 30 years ago that was a newsworthy fact, if somewhat shamefully so. The New Yorker's Roger Angell put it well when he noted at the time that, “the most heavily reported news at the Indians' camp in Tucson this spring was fundamentally unreportable-the fact that [Robinson] is black.” Commissioner Bowie Kuhn noted at Robinson's hiring, “I'm not going to get up and shout that this is something for baseball to be exceptionally proud of, because it is so long overdue.”

Schneider's book is a fairly straightforward first hand account of the season, from Robinson's hiring, through spring training and the entire season, focusing on not only the wins and losses, but the conflicts, injuries and disagreements that go along with the long baseball season. In this way, the book is pretty true to form for the genre. The author admits his sympathy to Robinson, and his longtime fandom, along with the presence of Indians rookie pitcher Eric Raich in his own family(he is Schneider's son in law), does lead to natural doubts about his objectivity. But Schneider appears fair, taking Robinson to task when necessary.

The elephant in the room, Robinson's race, comes into play during the season, of course. He recieves death threats and makes vague accusations that the umpires are biased against him. There is, of course, no way to separate the pressures of managing a major league team with the pressures of being an African American major league manager, and there is no way to truly understand the troubles of another. It is unanswerable whether or not Robinson would have been treated differently if he were white, or whether or not his standards for success were artificial because of his race.

And, of course, like any manager, he is limited by the talent available. Though he does have Perry, who is traded in midseason to Texas, Robinson does not get to pencil in quality players like Carl Yazstremski every day, which limits any ability to assess his tenure. These Indians are not very good, and even though they display improved play in winning 27 of 42 to finish the year, not even Earl Weaver could win with the tools Robinson was given. “This Cleveland club is a terror to play right now...Frank has done an excellent job of pulling the Indians together,” Weaver commented as the season closed, noting the Indians' increased vigor as the season faded away.

The Frank Robinson story needed to be told, of course. Whether or not there was a better way to tell it or a better messenger for this story is not as material as the fact that, regrettably, there had to be a first black manager, and whatever his flaws or errors, Robinson was that first choice. I cannot imagine the pressures Robinson must have felt, but “The Making of a Manager” helps the reader feel a bit like they can share in Robinson's year under the spotlight.   --Michael Webb

 

Baseball Forever
by Ralph Kiner with Danny Peary.

There is a typical routine to a ballplayer's autobiography, especially one from the 1940s and 50s. There's the “up from humble beginnings” section, with details of a hardscrabble childhood and a caring mentor and first coach. Then there is the “wacky minor league” section, with long bus rides and brushes against the slowly integrating South. Then there is the “career highlights” section, followed by the “fading skills” and then the “post career.”

Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame outfielder and long time broadcaster, played in the major leagues from 1946 to 1955, still managing to hit 369 home runs. However, his autobiography is not standard issue for his era. For one thing, Kiner has lived an unusual, rich life-dating actress Janet Leigh and marrying into the Hollywood jet set during and after his career. Kiner was a companion of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and other luminaries, and, of course, went on after his career to announce New York Met games.

Kiner also manages to hold relatively modern attitudes, not dismissing modern play and players as
“not as good as DiMaggio.” He points out differences, to be sure, but his love for the game, in whatever form, is heartfelt and contagious. He manages to be honest about all the periods of baseball in his life, pointing out failings and criticisms where they are called for, and praising when it is necessary. Kiner is fair in his judgement, though still personal and passionate. Kiner's book is a fine look at a fascinating life, which supplemented a short career with full and fascinating post baseball events.



Faithful
by Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan.

World famous author Steven King has been a Red Sox fan all his life, and before the 2004 season he got together with fellow author Stewart O'Nan to cowrite a diary of the 2004 season. The two combined to write an angry, funny, satisfying look at a year in the life of two Red Sox fans, which, of course, culminated in the long dreamed of 2004 World Series championship. The diary entries are all written in the present tense, with the anger and dread of the Garciaparra trade and the 3-0 ALCS deficit all sprayed onto the page without their consequences yet known.

The two men, obviously skilled wordsmiths, mix memories of Sox seasons past with immediate reports of game action. The action is reported as fans-recorded in hotel rooms and lakeside cabins and off of morning recap shows, rather than the pitch by pitch accounting of a journalist. This makes the books less a season recap than a fan's season-the ectasy of winning streaks and taunting Yankee fans, and the agony of losing streaks, bumbling play, and self imposed exile from news of the team.

But they can't stay away, and as the book builds to the triumphant, Hollywood worthy finish, the question that now grips New England comes up. What is it going to feel like? What will it be like to break the Curse, bury the Babe and end the 86 year drought? So much of being a Red Sox fan was about the pain-the suffering of parents and the suffering of their parents, the World Series losses and always, the gleaming Death Star on the other side of Connecticut, the greatest franchise in the history of professional sport. King and O'Nan answer the question as well as any fan-good. It feels good, and so does their wild, personal ride from spring training, through the Yankees, to the promised land.   --Michael Webb


 

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