It was a rare moment for Frank Robinson. Although the subject under discussion was umpires, the Cleveland manager was actually smiling. Someone had just recalled the time Leo Durocher kicked Jocko Conlan in the shin guards, only to have Conlan kick him back. "Those were the good old days," Robinson said. "You kicked an umpire and he kicked you back. Now all they do is throw you out."
As much as he may have wanted to kick an umpire in his first year and a half as a manager, Robinson has not given in to the urge. Oh, he did shove Jerry Neudecker once, and that cost him $250 and a three-day suspension. Until a better opportunity comes along, the shove will have to do. But his failure to lay the toe of his spikes on an ump's epidermis notwithstanding, it is clear that Robinson does not get along with umpires very well.
With only three ejections in 19 years, Robinson never had much trouble as a player. That changed when he became baseball's first black manager. He has even said it was because he became the first black manager.
Robinson was run out of three games last year—and already has matched that number this season. American League umpires consider him a complainer, a constant arguer, a picker of nits. His feelings for them were made clear in Frank, a recently published diary of Robinson's first season as a manager: "By the nature of their job, umpires are dictators. If nobody is allowed to challenge their decisions, they soon begin to think that everything they call has to be correct, just because they have called it."
July 4, 1976
Midway through last season, Robinson resolved to muzzle himself. It did not improve his reputation among the umpires (half of whom were steaming at the low ratings he gave them in an interview with Cleveland reporter Russ Schneider), but it did keep him from being thrown out of any more games. "I decided what's the use," he says. "It wasn't getting me anywhere. And I may have been hurting the team more than I was helping it." Perhaps coincidentally, the Indians began playing much better and, with a 47-39 record over the last three months of the season, finished only one game below .500.
Robinson seemed repentant in spring training this year. "The most important thing I had to learn was patience," he said. "I think I took some of my impatience out on the umpires, but I've learned to live and let live. I know I can't be out there arguing about every little penny-ante thing. But when it's important, I'll be out there."
True to his word, Robinson has generally been cooling it this season, and his improving young Indians were one game over .500 at the end of last week. Excellent pitching, especially by the bullpen led by Lefthander Dave LaRoche, has boosted the team from fourth, where it finished a year ago, to second, nine games behind New York. And Robinson, whose managing talents were already drawing quiet compliments from baseball's insiders at the end of last season, now is gaining recognition as one of the game's best teacher-strategists. Everything would seem to be progressing very nicely except for the development of—uh, oh—more umpire trouble. Unlike last season, it is not merely Robinson vs. all the arbiters; now it is Robinson and his players and coaches vs. the four-man crew of Lou DiMuro, Richie Garcia, Bill Kunkel and David Phillips.
Cleveland has won eight of the 15 games the DiMuro crew has worked this year—no gripe there. What upsets Robinson is that 12 of his team's 13 ejections occurred in six of the games those four umpired. Ironically, Robinson considers three of them to be among the better umpires in the league. He calls crew chief DiMuro one of the worst—but it is the other three who have made all the ejections.
The Cleveland front office has reacted strongly. Referring to the "Prussian-like attitude" of the four umpires, General Manager Phil Seghi a month ago requested that they not be assigned to any more Indians games. When the league refused to cancel an assignment for the DiMuro crew to work an Indians-Rangers series in Texas, President Ted Bonda erupted, "There is no doubt in my mind they have a psychological malice against our team." Robinson ordered a $100-a-word fine for any player or coach who said anything to the umpires. He would break the silence himself, he said, only if a rules question arose. The two games were played without incident, Cleveland winning one, but the Indians felt they were put in an unfair position.
"It makes it tough when you can't get a gripe off your chest," says Third Baseman Buddy Bell, the team's leading hitter with a .315 average and one of six players to be tossed out this year. (The other ejectees were Robinson and two of his coaches.) "It's gotten so you can't even have a normal conversation with those guys. If you say anything at all they act like you're trying to show them up and they throw you out. Normally, they are a good crew, but so much has happened, it's hard to be objective anymore."
The Indians feel DiMuro's group has a grudge against them, a bias that is reflected in their attitude and their calls. Naturally, the umpires say they do not. "We're certainly not out to get the Indians, and we never have been," says Phillips. Other umpires contend it is Robinson who bears grudges. Art Frantz, who was severely criticized in Robinson's ratings last season, says, "Frank should take a lesson from Detroit's Ralph Houk and learn to put things behind him. If I carried grudges, I couldn't umpire." Robinson counters it would be even more unusual if an umpire did not react to things said and done during an argument. "Those guys are human beings, just like the rest of us," he says. "You can't tell me they can be involved in a really heated argument one night, then just forget all about it the next." Robinson charged last year that Kunkel once threatened to "stick it to" Pitcher Tom Buskey the next time Buskey pitched and he was umpiring behind the plate. Kunkel says, "Ridiculous."
Cleveland has not gotten much sympathy from the American League. Robinson lost one appeal following the shoving incident last season, and Coach Rocky Colavito probably will lose another resulting from a similar confrontation (with Garcia) this year. The league's supervisor of umpires, Dick Butler, does not dismiss the possibility of scheduling the DiMuro crew for more Cleveland games later this season, although by coincidence or judicious design the foursome has not been listed to work any Indian games during July.
Robinson believes his three run-ins demonstrate how bad the problem is. The first involved Garcia on May 3. "I was getting on him from the dugout, but I wasn't cussing him," Robinson says. "Then in the eighth inning, he looks over at me and says I'm gone. I asked him why, and he said he was tired of hearing me yell at him. Phillips threw me out in New York when I was on the field talking to DiMuro. Then Kunkel got me in Chicago when I wasn't saying anything to anybody. I was angry about some calls, but I was sitting in the dugout, waving a towel real hard back and forth. I let go—accidentally—and tried to catch it by kicking at it with my foot. Instead, it landed on the dugout roof, which can happen there because the roof doesn't extend completely over the dugout. Anyway, Kunkel ran me, because he said I was just looking to be thrown out. Not one of those ejections would have happened with another crew."
Robinson's version of the three incidents is hardly indisputable. But the fact remains that all but one of the Indians' ejections this year have involved DiMuro's crew, which has thrown out only 11 members of the 11 other American League teams. That, the manager insists, cannot be just happenstance.
Although the Indians could only split a four-game series in New York last week, they haven't given up hopes of catching the Yankees. "Last year I wanted to finish at .500, because no Cleveland team has done that since 1968," says Robinson. "But this season that won't be enough. If we get some timely hitting, we'll have a chance. I just wish we could go out and play baseball, and not have those umpires take away what we're trying to do."
This time Robinson was not smiling.