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Frank Robinson - the third time around the bases

ON the day Boston Mayor Ray Flynn declared that the Democratic Party should nominate a black vice-president ``even if that means we lose the election,'' Frank Robinson was hired to manage the Baltimore Orioles. This is to say that, even though Robinson became the first black to manage a major league team 13 years ago, with the Cleveland Indians, the news still remains: He is not just a manager, he is a black manager.

At his moment of success, it is Robinson's small tragedy (and ours) that he will never know exactly why he has been given a job he thoroughly deserves on merit alone. Like Jesse Jackson - if he makes it to the Democratic ticket - Robinson is doomed to be treated as a symbol as well as a gifted person of specific capabilities, and this makes acceptance almost as ironical as rejection.

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What a cruel benevolence there is to Flynn's law of readjustment! - giving one the same job because one is black that was previously denied one because one was black.

The wary, slightly amused look in Robinson's eyes at his first press conference seemed to say: ``I got the message 13 years ago. I get the message now.''

Even in the act of reporting Robinson's appointment, the sports pages could not help speculating that he was winning the job partly because of what Al Campanis, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, infamously said to Ted Koppel on ``Nightline,'' arguing that blacks are fine as players but lack whatever it takes to be managers and front-office administrators.

The pundits explained that Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner of baseball (and a man very conscious of ``image''), has been searching for a way to bury the Campanis boner, letting the owners know they should hire more minorities. When Baltimore, after losing its first six games of the season, looked for a new manager, the Orioles owner, Edward Bennett Williams, a civil rights liberal, selected Robinson for a lot of good baseball reasons - plus Flynn's law of readjustment. Or so the hypothesis goes.

It is as sad as it is inevitable - this ``figuring the race angle'' for a man who ought to have been managing all along.

A white manager may get chosen for a lot of reasons other than pure capability. He may be a member of the Good Old Boy network from which a lot of managers come - and come again, for a second and third try. The owner's wife may think he's cute. He may tell funny stories that charm the press. But he never has to wonder if he got hired because he is white; nor when the boos start, does he have to wonder if they resonate to the color of his skin. And when he is fired - as all managers are fired - he will never have to ask himself, ``Would this be happening if I were black?'' as Robinson will have to ask himself: ``Would this be happening if I were white?''

Things have changed - but not enough. After Robinson broke the barrier as first black manager, Larry Doby followed precedent briefly with the Chicago White Sox in 1978, and then Maury Wills briefly with the Seattle Mariners in 1980. These three are the sum.

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``Once the color line was broken for managers,'' Robinson said at the beginning of this decade, ``I thought it would be a slow but steady opening up. But baseball has gone backward. It's like they said to themselves, `OK, we've had our black manager. The heat is off. Back to business as usual.'''

Racism in sports is rudely conspicuous because skills are so measurable. As a hitter of home runs - 586 - Frank Robinson was outranked only by Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.

When black men like Aaron, like Mays, like Robinson, hit a ball out of the park, the home run is colorblind. But as manager, evidently, the color returns, even though Robinson happens to be one of the purest of pure baseball men. He is a passionate classicist - a student of the total game as Ted Williams is a student of hitting. As a manager he has had a reputation as a hard man, but he speaks with real anguish, too, of the new breed of big-leaguers who never ``learn how to play baseball, I mean really learn: basics, fundamentals, hitting the cutoff man with throws from the outfield, running bases properly, sliding, bunting, tagging runners - all the things that made the game as demanding and as beautiful as it used to be.''

And so this craftsman who can talk so eloquently about his craft - this preeminently qualified man - gets another chance to manage, and still the 13-year-old question remains: Did he get the job as the most qualified candidate, or partly - just partly - as a representative? And if so, a representative of what? Of a school of baseball theory? Of a managerial style? No, as a representative of a skin pigmentation.

What a depressingly shrewd supposition!

The good news is that Frank Robinson is back. The bad news is that even a great player of games gets trapped in history, and on an April afternoon when the bleacher sun benignly promises June, history can cast a confusing shadow over the fields with neat white lines where an ever-fresh generation of young men play at their ``demanding'' and ``beautiful'' game. A Wednesday and Friday column

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