SABR

Brooks Robinson

This article was written by Maxwell Kates.

The stage was the fifth game of the World Series, on October 15, 1970. The Baltimore Orioles had taken a three games to one Series lead over the Cincinnati Reds. Brooks Robinson had already delivered a game-winning home run in the opener, robbed Tony Perez and Johnny Bench of base hits with a pair of diving catches in Game Three, and cracked a two-out RBI single in Game Four. Robinson had not played an offensive factor in the Orioles’ 9–3 lead in Game Five. In fact, he was called out on strikes in the eighth inning. As he returned to the dugout with his head hung, the fans “gave him a standing ovation for his dream series.”1 And why not? Robinson was batting .429 for the Series with 17 total bases and nine hits, including two doubles and two RBIs in Game Three. Meanwhile, the bulk of his 24 fielding chances occurred during key moments of the games. The Reds had one final chance in the top of the ninth, and leading off the inning was Johnny Bench, soon to be named his league’s Most Valuable Player. Bench lined a foul ball that appeared to be out of Robinson’s reach. Yet it was plays such as these for which Lee May nicknamed him Hoover the Vacuum Cleaner. Robinson dived headlong into dirt in foul territory and miraculously snared the baseball, a startling and fitting finale to an extraordinary World Series performance. Compared with his catch, throwing out Pat Corrales on a soft bouncer to end the game and win the World Series appeared almost anticlimactic.

The lasting memory of Brooks Robinson for many remains his wizardry in the 1970 World Series. But countless others will remember the man behind the statistics, records, and awards. “When fans ask Brooks Robinson for his autograph,” remembered the late Oriole broadcaster Chuck Thompson, “he complied while finding out how many kids you have, what your dad does, where you live, how old you are, and if you have a dog. ... His only failing is that when the game ended, if Brooks belonged to its story – usually he did – you better leave the booth at the end of the eighth inning. ... By the time the press got [to the clubhouse] Brooks was in the parking lot signing autographs on his way home.”2

Success did not compromise the integrity or upstanding character of Brooks Calbert Robinson. Even into his eighth decade, he remained as honest and genuine as the day he graduated from high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. He conducted himself with class throughout his 23 seasons in a major-league uniform, and fulfilled extraneous obligations with joy and enthusiasm. As of 2010 Robinson had lived most of his married life in Baltimore, where he helped raise four children, endorsed local businesses, and was active in his family’s church. Brooks Robinson continued to greet total strangers with the familiarity of childhood neighbors.

Robinson was born in Little Rock on May 18, 1937, of mixed German-English extraction. His father was instrumental in the development of his baseball skills, even at a young age. “I was hardly big enough to hold a glove up when he taught me to catch a rubber baseball,” remembered Brooks. “And one of my earliest memories is the day he cut off an old broom so the handle was about the right size for me to swing. ... Mom and the neighbors could always tell where I was by the ping of the rocks against those old broomsticks.” When he was older, Robinson developed his fielding skills with a paper route of 150 customers, including Bill Dickey, the New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher of an earlier era. Given an English composition assignment about his career ambition in the eighth grade, Robinson entitled his paper, “Why I Want to Play Professional Baseball.” More specifically, he wanted to play third base for the St. Louis Cardinals.3

Although he also played football and basketball in high school, baseball was the sport he most excelled at. One of many the scouts to observe the wunderkind and his glovework at American Legion games was Lindsay Deal, a former minor-league teammate of Baltimore manager/general manager Paul Richards. “He’s no speed demon,” wrote Deal to Richards, “but neither is he a truck horse. Brooks has a lot of power, baseball savvy, and is always cool when the chips are down.”4 After graduating from Central High School in 1955, Robinson and his parents considered several baseball offers before signing with Baltimore Orioles scout Arthur Ehlers for $4,000. The Orioles were a lowly organization at the time, just a season removed from their transfer from St. Louis. Ehlers used the organization’s position to convince Robinson that “with us, you have the chance to move up faster than with probably any other club.”5

Robinson began his professional career in York, Pennsylvania, with a reputation as a weak hitter. Even the public address announcer for the Piedmont League club did not take the prospect seriously, announcing him as Bob Robinson in his first plate appearance. Years later Robinson credited Paul Richards for seeing his “raw ability and for [refusing] to listen to the people that didn’t think I’d ever hit in the big leagues.”6 Robinson batted.091 (2-for-22) in a brief September call-up.

“I thought Paul was kidding when he had me watch the kid work out one day,” recalled teammate Gene Woodling. “He couldn’t hit, he couldn’t run, and his arm wasn’t that strong.” Robinson spent the next four years splitting time between the major and minor leagues. He was playing for San Antonio in May 1956 when he learned that the Orioles had acquired veteran third baseman George Kell from the Chicago White Sox. San Antonio manager Joe Schultz reassured Robinson that Kell was “a stopgap measure,” until the 19-year-old was ready for the major leagues.7

It took Robinson a few tries to finally stick in the major leagues. He hit .272 in 154 games for San Antonio in 1956 before another September recall (.227 in 15 games). He hit his first major-league home run on September 29 in Griffith Stadium off Senators pitcher Evilio Hernandez. Robinson was the Orioles’ starting third baseman at the start of the 1957 season but returned to San Antonio after struggling—he wound up hitting .266 in the minors and .239 in the majors for the season.

His first full major-league season was 1958, when he played 145 games but hit just .238 with three home runs. He had hit just .232 in his first 216 major-league games. He was returned to the minor leagues again early in the 1959 season, this time to Vancouver, British Columbia, of the Pacific Coast League. He hit well (.331 in 42 games) and he got back to Baltimore (for good, it turned out) in July. After one final difficult month (.183 in July), he hit over .340 the final two months and claimed the job he would hold for another 16 years.

Robinson’s Vancouver manager, Charlie Metro, later recalled a freak accident that nearly ended his career. “Our dugout in Vancouver had a screen hanging over some hooks,” said Metro. “A guy took half the screen down but forgot the hooks. Robinson came over for a foul, slipped, and threw his arm up. A hook caught his arm at the right elbow. I grabbed his arm – he had a 24-inch cut. If he had fallen, he would have been done.”8

Robinson’s finest hour in 1959 came off the field. On August 26 he and his Orioles teammates boarded a flight in Kansas City bound for Boston. After taking his seat, he became mesmerized by one of the stewardesses, and wisely asked for a glass of iced tea. After his third iced tea, possibly his fourth, Robinson followed the air hostess to the galley, offering that “all the rest [of the players] are married. So remember, if any of them try to talk to you, I’m the only single, eligible bachelor on the plane.”9 Robinson eventually collected enough confidence to ask the young lady’s name and she introduced herself as Connie Butcher from Detroit. After she accepted Robinson’s dinner invitation once the flight landed in Boston, the third baseman knew that Connie was the woman he wanted to marry.

After six noncompetitive seasons in the American League, the Orioles surprised most everyone by challenging the New York Yankees for the pennant in 1960. Baltimore was tied for first as late as September 15, but the Yankees won their final 15 games to leave the Orioles behind. Despite his tender age of 23, Robinson emerged as a leader on the very young club. He had a fine individual season, hitting .294 with 14 home runs and 88 RBIs, and hitting for the cycle on July 15 in Chicago. His fine season earned him a trip to his first two All-Star games, his first Gold Glove, and his selection as the Orioles’ MVP. He finished third in the voting for league MVP, behind only Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Although he did not get to play in the World Series, he did marry Connie Butcher on October 8 at her family’s summer home in Windsor, Ontario.

The new bridegroom picked up right where he left off in 1961, batting .287 mainly in the leadoff position as the Orioles finished well behind the Yankees. The next year, under new manager Billy Hitchcock, Robinson set career highs with 23 home runs and 86 RBIs while batting .306. New teammate Robin Roberts reflected that Robinson was “quicker than [former teammate Willie] Jones and had the fastest reflexes I’ve ever seen.”10 Robinson fell off quite a bit in 1963, hitting just .251 with 11 home runs, and the team’s poor play cost Hitchcock his job. Hank Bauer took over for the 1964 season.

Robinson had perhaps his best season in 1964, and the Orioles were part of a summer-long scramble for the pennant, again won by the Yankees. Missing only two innings of the Orioles’ 163 games played, Robinson had 194 hits, 28 home runs, and a league-best 118 RBIs. He hit a torrid .464 in September to lift his average from .294 to .317. After the season Robinson was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player, and also won his fifth consecutive Gold Glove (he eventually won 16 straight). The Yankees finally dropped back in 1965, and the Orioles won 94 games, but it was the Minnesota that took advantage of the opening and won the pennant easily. Robinson suffered a broken thumb when hit by a Hank Aguirre fastball, and played 144 games (after missing just one game the previous four seasons), batting .297 with 18 home runs.

In the following off-season the Orioles underwent some changes. Jerold Hoffberger, chairman of National Brewing Company, bought a majority stake in the team, and he hired Harry Dalton to be the general manager. As Brooks Robinson was the club’s only right-handed power threat, Dalton made a big deal with the Reds to acquire outfielder Frank Robinson. For the next six years the two Robinsons defined the franchise and led the team to its greatest run of success.

Many would have understood if Brooks Robinson felt threatened by the arrival of Frank Robinson, a great player and renowned leader. Frank was the first African-American star in Baltimore, and one of the first in the American League. Brooks, on the other hand, grew up in Little Rock, a city that had integrated its schools nine years earlier only with the help of the National Guard. Brooks was elated by the trade, declaring the new Oriole to be “exactly what we need.”11 If anything, Frank eased the burden on Brooks as a clubhouse motivator. As Hank Bauer recalled, Frank “was definitely the missing cog,” who “took away the pressure on Brooks and Boog [Powell]. He helped the young players just by talking to them.”12

More importantly, Frank’s presence greatly strengthened the Orioles’ offensive attack. On Opening Day in Boston, Frank was hit by a pitch. Brooks followed by belting a two-run homer, which proved to be just sufficient in a 13-inning 5–4 victory. Although Frank won the Triple Crown, Brooks also provided valuable contributions to the team’s runaway pennant—the club’s lead was more than eight games every day after mid-July, and they eventually won by nine over the Twins. Robinson played the entire All-Star Game in St. Louis, and though the American League lost 2–1, his triple and two singles earned him the game’s MVP award.

The Orioles’ opponents in their first World Series were the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers, champions from 1963 and 1965. The upstart Orioles did not pay attention to the doubters, and swept the Dodgers in four straight games. In Game One, both Brooks and Frank Robinson homered in the first inning to start the Orioles to their 5–2 victory. The Orioles finished the job with three straight complete-game shutouts from their pitchers. For Brooks Robinson, runner-up to Frank in the league’s MVP vote, the Series was a highly satisfying event. “You dream about signing a big league contract,” he later wrote. “You dream about getting to the majors. And you dream about getting to the World Series. I remember thinking, ‘Now if you never win anything else again, at least you’ve done this.’”13

The Orioles fell back to sixth place in 1967, beset by injuries to pitchers Jim Palmer and Dave McNally and off years from several hitters. Robinson hit .269 with 22 home runs, fine production for the mid-1960s. Although the American League lost the All-Star Game once again, Robinson was responsible for the junior circuit’s only run, a round-tripper off Ferguson Jenkins. The Orioles moved up to second place the next year, although a midsummer slump cost manager Bauer his job in favor of Earl Weaver. Brooks received a favourable first impression of his new manager, describing him as “intense and just insecure enough to have us playing out all the time.”14

While 1969 marked an off year for Robinson (.234 with 23 homers and 84 RBIs), the Orioles crushed American League opponents all season en route to a 109-53 record and a sweep of the Twins in the playoffs. Despite losing the World Series to the upstart New York Mets, the Orioles came back the next year and did it all again, this time sporting a record of 108-54 and another sweep of Minnesota. Three of Robinson’s 18 home runs were particularly noteworthy. He broke a 2–2 deadlock on May 9, hitting the 200th round tripper of his career off Chicago’s Tommy John. On June 20, he delivered a three-run blast to eclipse a 2–2 tie against Washington’s Joe Coleman for his 2,000th hit. A walk-off home run off Boston’s Sparky Lyle, though not a career milestone, was exemplary of Robinson’ grit and tenacity. Earlier in the game he had sustained minor head injuries as starter Mike Nagy beaned him. Robinson brought his average back up to .276 and drove in 94 runs in the Orioles’ cause.

Robinson’s dominance of the 1970 World Series made him more famous than he ever had been before. Along with all the formidable defensive plays, he also hit .429 with two home runs (after having hit .576 in the Twins series). However, few remember that the memorable Game Five almost did not take place that day. As Phil Jackman of the Baltimore Evening Sun reported: “It was about 30 minutes before the fifth game ... but it didn’t look as if the show would go on. It was pouring. Brooks Robinson walked into the dugout and Andy Etchebarren, sitting there, kiddingly said, ‘Brooksie, make it stop raining.’ Number 5, raising his eyes, said, ‘Stop raining.’ It did. ‘I’m getting out of here,’ Etchebarren said, scurrying towards the clubhouse.” Perhaps umpire Ed Hurley offered some validity with his remark that Robinson “came down from a higher league.”15

Teammates and adversaries alike offered their admiration of Brooks Robinson after the Series. Boog Powell provided the ultimate compliment that in the late innings of a tight ballgame, “I’d rather have him up there instead of me.” It was of little surprise to anyone that Robinson was named the 1970 World Series Most Valuable Player, receiving a new Dodge Charger. To this, Pete Rose of the vanquished Reds suggested, “If we knew he wanted a car so [badly], we’d have bought one for him ourselves.”16

How could the 34-year-old improve on his magnificent 1970? He could not, but the next year his 20 home runs, 92 RBIs, and .272 batting average were enough to earn him his fourth and final Most Valuable Oriole award. Baltimore ran away with the American League East again, racking up 101 wins and sweeping Oakland in the playoff series. Two of Robinson’s more memorable regular-season contests were against the Athletics. On July 18 in Oakland, his grand slam proved to be the difference in a 7–3 victory. On July 27 he beat Rollie Fingers with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. The following night Robinson reminded everyone that he was mortal after all, committing three errors in one inning and hitting into two double plays.

Baltimore took a 2-0 lead over Pittsburgh in the World Series, as Robinson reached base five times in an 11–3 victory in Game Two. Fans at Memorial Stadium, if they opened to page 44 of their World Series Program, could view a beautiful Norman Rockwell art print of Robinson used as an advertising piece for a sporting goods company. Entitled “Gee Thanks, Brooks,” it displayed the third baseman signing an autograph for a boy sitting in the first row of seats. Having autographed hundreds of examples of the portraits, Robinson became familiar with every detail in the painting, even identifying which of the spectators was Rockwell himself. Despite winning the first two games, the Orioles lost the 1971 World Series to the Pirates, whose star Roberto Clemente had a World Series as memorable as Robinson’s had been the year before.

Shortly after returning from an 18-game barnstorming tour of Japan, the Orioles announced a trade that sent Frank Robinson to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Without their catalyst and fearless leader in the lineup, the Orioles reverted to the middle of the division in 1972 thanks to a collapsing offense. A lifetime .274 hitter to that point, Robinson batted only .250. The Orioles returned to their divisional apex in 1973 and 1974 but could not defeat Oakland in the Championship Series either year. Robinson retained his attitude as a team player, as was evident when the Orioles overcame a 4–0 deficit in Game Four of the 1973 Championship Series to win 5-4 on a pair of home runs by Bobby Grich and Andy Etchebarren, “I remember being out in the field thinking in the sixth inning that I’ll probably be home raking leaves the next day. Instead we were playing the next day with a trip to the World Series on the line.”17

In 1975, the 38-year-old Robinson won his 16th consecutive Gold Glove Award, a fitting accomplishment for a player who committed only 263 errors in 9,165 chances. But he also hit .201, and just .211 in 71 games the following year. By the end of the 1976 season, Doug DeCinces had supplanted Robinson as the regular third baseman, and the end appeared imminent. When Billy Hunter left Baltimore to become the manager of the Texas Rangers, Robinson replaced him on the coaching staff. Before he hung up his spikes, he saved one final moment in the sun – in the rain, actually – for Baltimore’s fans. On April 19, 1977, the Orioles trailed the Indians by three runs in the bottom of the 10th inning. After Lee May singled in one run, there remained two Orioles on base as Robinson emerged to pinch-hit for Larry Harlow. Dressed in the garish orange uniform of the era, he took the count to 3-2 against Dave LaRoche, he fouled several pitches before producing a game-ending home run for a 65 victory. It was Robinson’s 268th and final home run.

The Orioles paid tribute to their retired star on September 18, 1977, as they celebrated Thanks Brooks Day. Before the game, Robinson was driven around the perimeter of the field in a 1955 Cadillac convertible as the crowd of 51,798 offered a standing ovation. Doug DeCinces ran on the field, removed third base from the dirt, and presented it to Robinson. The bitterness of losing Reggie Jackson to free agency remained a vivid memory when Gordon Beard wrote in his Associated Press column that “Brooks never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore, they name their children after him.”18 Following the season, Brooks was selected, along with Frank Robinson, as charter members of the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame.

In 1978 Robinson became an Orioles broadcaster. He also became a popular advertising representative, lending his name to products like Rawlings Sporting Goods, Mike Meagher’s All-Star Dodge, Crown Petroleum, and Esskay Hot Dogs. These were products used by families in the Baltimore area – much like his own family, which would grow to include sons Brooks David, Chris, and Michael, daughter Diana, and several grandchildren. As the autograph industry expanded in the 1980s, Robinson became a regular on the baseball card show circuit. Over the decades, Robinson has scrawled his signature on thousands of items, including some that collectors would not expect. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, he admitted that on various occasions, he has been asked to sign a pet rock, an easter egg, a photo of Frank Robinson, and even a plane ticket.19

In 1983 Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Standing before a sea of black and orange from the podium in Cooperstown, Robinson paid homage to his teachers, Paul Richards and George Kell. Of his predecessor at the hot corner, he once offered that “George Kell taught me everything he knew about playing third. He also taught me how to conduct myself as a big leaguer, to be a role model, and someone kids and all fans could look up to.” Fittingly, fellow Arkansas native Kell was also enshrined in the Hall that very day. In his own speech, Kell remarked to Robinson that he found it “almost unbelievable that we have traveled the same path for so long with the same goals in mind. And we wind up here in Cooperstown on the same day.”20

Robinson remained an Orioles broadcaster until 1993 when he and Connie retired to Southern California. In 1991 he was central to the closing ceremony at Memorial Stadium. He and Baltimore Colts’ Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas were invited to throw out the first pitches before the final game on October 6 against the Detroit Tigers – Unitas threw a football.

The Robinsons later returned to Maryland, and as of 2010 Brooks remained active in baseball as the part-owner of four minor-league teams, including the York Revolution in the independent Atlantic League. Early in the 2008 season Robinson was honored by the Revolution as a lifesize bronze statue of his likeness was unveiled. A few years ago Robinson received a surprise Christmas gift from his son – the original Norman Rockwell portrait bearing his likeness. It was hung in the family recreation room in Timonium. Robinson received a health scare in early 2009 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but early treatment was successful.21

Brooks Robinson once defined professional sports as “a good life that allows you to do what you love to do all the time, and at the same time provide support for yourself and your family. But it is important to understand what goes on in a professional athlete’s mind during his brief playing career. To us, making money is secondary – we just want to play.”22 He played for parts of 23 seasons, and for most of that time established a standard for his position.

 

Notes

1 Ted Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles: Four Decades of Magic from 33rd Street to Camden Yards (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 2000) 117.

2 Curt Smith, The Storytellers: From Mel Allen to Bob Costas – Sixty Years of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth (New York: Macmillan, 1995), 204.

3 Brooks Robinson and Jack Tobin, Third Base Is My Home (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1974), 20-29.

4 Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles, 40.

5 Robinson and Tobin, Third Base Is My Home, 54-55.

6 Rick Maese, “Yea for York,” Baltimore Sun, April 5, 2008; Patterson, xi.

7 Robinson and Tobin, Third Base Is My Home, 92.

8 Larry Stone, “The Most Wonderful Days I Ever Had,” Rain Check: Baseball in the Pacific Northwest, Mark Armour, ed. (Cleveland: SABR, 2006), 106

9 Robinson, Third Base Is My Home, 126.

10 C. Joseph Bride, Bob Brown, and Phil Itzoe, eds, Baltimore Orioles 1966 Yearbook (Baltimore: Baltimore Baseball Inc., 1966), 10.

11 Tom Adelman, Black and Blue: Sandy Koufax, the Robinson Boys, and the World Series That Stunned America (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 13.

12 Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles, 83.

13 Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles, 87.

14 Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles, xii.

15 Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles, 117, 133.

16 Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles, 117, 120.

17 Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles, 125.

18 Patterson, The Baltimore Orioles, 134; Richard Kucner, “1983: Brooks Goes to Cooperstown,” Baltimore Orioles Official 1983 Yearbook (Baltimore: FATA Inc., 1983), 33, 36.

19 “There’s Nothing Brooks Won’t Sign,” Baltimore Sun, April 19, 2009.

20 Patterson, xi; George Kell and Dan Ewald, Hello Everybody, I’m George Kell (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 1998), 205.

21 Peter Schmuck, “Brooks Robinson Was Treated for Cancer,” Baltimore Sun, May 13, 2009.

22 Kucner, “1983: Brooks Goes to Cooperstown,” 36-37.

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