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Roberts, Thomas unsung baseball pioneers

First black managers to face off met in the Northwest League
Mel "Pops" Roberts (l) and Derrel Thomas met in a 1987 game that "turned out to be very significant."
November 1, 2019

There was no pre-game ceremony, no frilly speeches or big-time photo ops. There wasn't any national attention, either. In fact, the local paper only had a headline and a paragraph or two about what took place on the night of June 27, 1987 in Boise, Idaho.The significance of the event

There was no pre-game ceremony, no frilly speeches or big-time photo ops. There wasn't any national attention, either. In fact, the local paper only had a headline and a paragraph or two about what took place on the night of June 27, 1987 in Boise, Idaho.
The significance of the event simply went unnoticed at the time. And now, nearly two decades later, it still seems as though what Derrel Thomas and Mel Roberts accomplished doesn't get the recognition it deserves. The pair had a history-making moment that night at Memorial Stadium when Thomas' Boise Hawks and Roberts' Bends Bucks met up in a Northwest League contest that would still be considered insignificant if not for the fact that it marked the first regular-season game in affiliated professional baseball that two African-American managers faced each other.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame records the first-ever meeting of African-American managers on March 16, 1981, when the Frank Robinson-led Giants met the Mariners, who were managed by Maury Wills, in an exhibition game. Robinson would go on to become part of the first Major League game that was managed by two African-Americans when the Orioles squared off against Cito Gaston and the Blue Jays on June 27, 1989 -- exactly two years after Thomas and Roberts' history-making effort in the Northwest League.
That game garnered much more attention than Bend's 10-9 victory before 2,477 fans, most of whom were likely unaware of what they were witnessing. The two skippers didn't even seem to understand the impact of what they achieved at the time, but are well aware of its significance now and are left wondering why the game hasn't garnered more attention.
"It turned out to be something," said Roberts, a long-time coach and manager in both the Major and Minor Leagues who spent this past season as the hitting instructor for the Appalachian League's Danville Braves. "It wasn't as big, though, when we were going through it. I don't think it got enough recognition. This was what ... 1987? And as long as baseball had been integrated, it took that long to happen. It turned out to be very significant but it's almost a Trivial Pursuit question now.
"Offhand I don't remember very much. We went in there and there were some cameras flashing and the TV followed us some, but I was just concentrating on my players. I just didn't realize the significance at the time. It was just another game to me. I did try to get a tape that the local television shot but it never aired."
It wasn't until Roberts saw the game mentioned in Jet magazine that the magnitude of the event began to sink in.
Robinson had broken the managerial color barrier more than a dozen years before the Boise-Bend game, so to some degree it was surprising that such a meeting hadn't happened earlier and in a much more prestigious setting than the tiny short-season venue. That it even happened at all was somewhat of an accident considering that Roberts wasn't even interested in managing at that point in his career.
Philadelphia had pulled out of its contract with Bend, leaving the team as a co-op. But since the Phillies still had more than a dozen of their players on the team, they decided it would be best if someone from their organization served as manager. Roberts just happened to be available when the front office asked.
"I never pursued the managing thing," said Roberts, who would manage four more seasons in the Minor Leagues before joining the staff on the parent club. "But it's a proud moment in my career, one that maybe I backed into or not. I'm proud of it and a lot of people should know about it. It's part of history, part of baseball."
Thomas' path wasn't so coincidental. He was looking to manage after his 15-year playing career -- which included earning a World Series ring with the Dodgers in 1981 -- ended in 1985. Wills was his idol growing up and when the former speedster took over as skipper in Seattle, Thomas saw his own future.
"I followed everything Maury had done," said Thomas, a Los Angeles native who played for the Dodgers from 1979-'83. "I always wanted to play for the Dodgers and wear his number. And when Maury got the manager's job, I wanted to manage just like him.
"But I never viewed myself as a pioneer. I knew there were a lot of things I wanted to do in the game, especially after I was done playing. I always thought I'd be a good roving instructor because I always got a lot of good information from all the managers and coaches I played for. I played all eight positions in the Major Leagues and I thought I could share that with others."
Boise was an expansion team in 1987, though, and Thomas' sharing time wouldn't last. He was let go as a cost-cutting measure a few weeks after his history-making event, leaving general manager Mal Fichman to run the club. Thomas managed several more teams in the years following his time with Boise, but he later had some legal troubles and even briefly served some time in prison in the early 1990s, which appears to have caused some organizations to shy away from hiring him.
But Thomas served as an associate scout with the Devil Rays from 2002-'05, and this season was working with Oakland's Scout League team in California. He remains close with Fichman, who also remembers that evening well. Like Thomas and Roberts, he remains disappointed about the lack of attention it has received.
"I think that if it happened in 1947, it would have been more significant," Fichman said. "But I think by now most normal people in the United States have no idea what color is. They just see people who can do a job. The fact that they were both African-American never crossed my mind at the time and if it did cross your mind, you were 50 years behind the times.
"You know, Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball are all part of organized ball. But there is a demarcation line. If that took place in 1987 at the Major League level, media guys would be hanging off the rafters, but it happened in Boise, Idaho. And it just happened and was over with. It wasn't like cap day where it was preconceived."
And, for the most part, it wasn't appreciated either. Then or now.