In the week since he guided the Los Angeles Dodgers to a World Series title, after a bizarre, pandemic-shortened, partially-bubbled season, Dave Roberts received more than 800 congratulatory phone calls and texts from friends and distant admirers.
The messages were reminders that the win extended far beyond his personal relief of finally breaking through, or even the gratification of Dodger fans experiencing glory for the first time in 32 years. And one voice mail especially – from Cito Gaston, a man he’s never met but always respected – reminded Roberts that he had also extended a legacy for Black managers that had been stranded in the 20th century.
“To know that he was admiring or watching and supporting me from afar is pretty amazing,” Roberts said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. He said he was “doing the same thing back in 1992, ‘93,” when Gaston won back-to-back titles with the Toronto Blue Jays, becoming the first Black manager in baseball history to win the World Series. “For me to kind of follow in his footsteps, it’s a huge honor.”
Roberts also admitted to being “a little disappointed.”
“There should be others before me,” he said. “That gap shouldn’t be that vast.”
The bridge between the first and second Black managers to win the World Series required 27 years for completion. Gaston didn’t get appreciated for being the first until he went so long simply being the only.
The list of “almosts” to join Gaston isn’t much longer: Four Black managers have reached the Fall Classic. Two of them, Roberts and Dusty Baker, are the only active Black managers in the game. And with the number of Black baseball players dwindling – they made up roughly eight percent of Opening Day rosters in 2020 – the significance of Roberts’s victory only grows, because the distance from second to third could take even longer.
“I never would’ve thought it would have taken this long,” Gaston, 76, said of Roberts’s win, in a phone interview from his home in Clearwater, Fla. “I just tell him, ‘You’ve got to win another one. You’ve got to win back-to-back.’”
History collided must faster in the NFL and NBA. Tony Dungy became the first African American NFL coach to win a Super Bowl with Indianapolis in 2007, and Mike Tomlin joined him two years later with Pittsburgh. Bill Russell won back-to-back titles as player-coach for the Boston Celtics in 1968 and 1969; Al Attles joined him six years later with the Golden State Warriors.
In baseball’s “gap” period, Baker and Ron Washington came oh-so-close before experiencing heartache. In 2002, Baker’s San Francisco Giants carried a two-run lead into the eighth inning of a possible Game 6 clincher against the Anaheim Angels – and lost in seven games. Washington’s Texas Rangers made back-to-back World Series trips in 2010 and 2011. In that second run, his squad came within one out of winning it all – “Twice,” Washington sighed years later - in Game 6 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Roberts might have joined Gaston sooner but lost to the Astros in 2017 and the Boston Red Sox in 2018. Both the Astros and Red Sox were punished for malfeasance but neither was stripped of a title, and Roberts was never cleared of the blame.
“Some of these ‘geniuses’ can screw up all day long and you’ll find them making excuses for them,” Washington said in a phone interview. “You never found anyone making excuses for Dave Roberts. That’s why I admire him so much.
“If you read the pundits, every time he does something that doesn’t work, everybody wants to fire him. I just don’t get that.”
The Dodgers hired Roberts in November 2015, three weeks after the Washington Nationals hired Baker, making them the only two Black managers in baseball. Five years later, with Baker now in Houston, that’s still the case.
Roberts’ victory does keep one trend alive: The past three World Series champions were led by minorities, including Boston’s Alex Cora and Washington’s Dave Martinez, who are both Puerto Rican. Roberts also has Asian heritage. He was born in Okinawa, where his father, Waymon, was stationed as a U.S. Marine and married Roberts’ mother, Eiko, who is Japanese. (Roberts grew up in San Diego.)
“I just feel like, I don’t have the luxury to fail,” he said. “I need to succeed to potentially give other minorities an opportunity to manage and to show the industry that there’s many capable people. I’d love to think that now with my African American-Asian background, there’s others that can do the same and deserve those opportunities.
“People in the game,” he went on, “like any industry, like people of like mind and that look like them. And the people that are running the game is white America. So, I think that as a result, you’re getting hires across the spectrum of people that look the same. I think that baseball needs to continue to do a better job of not hiring in a box.”
Roberts represents the franchise that broke the color barrier, with Jackie Robinson making his debut for the organization in 1947, a seminal moment that has been credited with eventually desegregating the military and schools. But the Dodgers are also the franchise of Al Campanis, who ran the organization for nearly 20 years before being fired in shame in 1987, after telling Nightline that Blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager.”
Five years later, Gaston raised the Commissioner’s Trophy with the Blue Jays.
“We’ve got to keep persevering,” said Baker, who recalls reading the hateful letters his former Atlanta Braves teammate Hank Aaron received while chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record. “That’s what we need to do. Not to carry on with hatred, but to carry on with strength. That’s what we’ve got to do. That’s what I tell the brothers.
“I’m hoping that this isn’t the end of us, with me and Dave,” continued Baker, whose 1,892 regular-season wins are more than any Black manager in history. “There’s got to be more put into the hopper for the future. I’m also hoping that we get over being called a ‘Black manager’ and just get called a ‘manager.’”
As he basks in this moment, Roberts, a history buff, recalls Robinson’s dying wish to “look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” Those were Robinson’s words as he addressed a crowd at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, nine days before he died of a heart attack.
Roberts has befriended Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and their daughter, Sharon, and never lost sight of his mission.
“To just kind of do his legacy right and to keep his legacy moving forward, it’s one of my proudest accomplishments,” Roberts said of Robinson. “I basically feel like I’m representing everyone. And I’m trying to do right by them. Everyone has a little piece in this, which is something I hold in high regard.”
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