Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Brooks Robinsonby Bruce Markusen
April 19, 2013
Of all the cards that Topps produced of Brooks Robinson during his long career, this is the only one that shows him taking a defensive position in an actual game. Oh, his 1976 card shows him holding a glove and a ball, but it is clearly a posed sideline shot, and not one taken from game action. All of his other cards are posed shots, many of them showing him holding a bat, while only a couple show him at the plate in a game.
But the 1973 Topps card is the best, since it shows him, ever alert in the field, about to take his defensive stance. He is perched on his toes, his arms at the ready. He is preparing to do what no one could do any better—and that is to play the position as if it had been tailored to suit his athletic skills.
Brooks Robinson has become synonymous for elite fielding at third base. Yet, it almost didn’t happen. When the Orioles signed him in the mid-1950s, he was playing second base in a church league. Paul Richards, the Orioles’ general manager, received conflicting reports on Robinson’s talents. “I do recall sending a couple of scouts to watch him in high school,” Richards told the Baltimore Sun. “One of them said he couldn’t run, throw, or hit, and couldn’t play. The other scout said he could play. We took a chance on the scout who said Robinson could play—fortunately.”
Robinson’s lack of foot speed remained a concern, but Richards felt that his slowness afoot did not detract from his other abilities. Baltimore’s original intention was to play him at second base, but the Orioles quickly realized the error of such a plan. They moved him from the keystone, where he lacked the requisite range, and made him a third baseman, where his quickness and arm strength seemed like a better fit.
At the end of his first minor league season at Class-B York, the Orioles promoted Robinson to Baltimore, but he was clearly not ready. He earned two more cups of coffee in 1956 and ‘57, but he struggled each time.
In 1958, the Orioles ignored his major league foibles and made him their starting third baseman. They hoped he would be a fulltime replacement for George Kell, the future Hall of Famer who had retired in 1957. Given a grand opportunity, Brooks hit only .238 and showed almost no power, hitting a mere three home runs. Though he was only 21 years old, Robinson had already reached the first crossroads of his career.
The Orioles assigned Robinson to Triple-A Vancouver in 1959; he proceeded to tear up the Pacific Coast League, hitting .331 in 42 games. His performance in Canada earned him a mid-season promotion to Baltimore. Playing most of the time at third base, Robinson hit a respectable .288, but without power or patience.
A breakthrough finally occurred in 1960. Starting the season at third base, Robinson proceeded to hit .294 with 14 home runs, improving his OPS to .769. More impressively, he played like an acrobat at third base, fielding everything within range. For his efforts, he won the Gold Glove, earned selection to the All-Star team, and placed an impressive third in the American League MVP race. At the age of 23, after so many fits and starts, Brooks Calbert Robinson, Jr. had arrived.
He also happened to be the All-American boy, a hard-working player who was polite to reporters, friendly with his teammates, and considerate to his fans. Those searching for character flaws with Mr. Robinson were sure to be disappointed.
Although Robinson played all 163 games for the Orioles in 1961 and continued to field his position like no third baseman in franchise history, his power dipped considerably. He hit only seven home runs, making him an offensive liability. But the sudden absence of power didn’t prevent him from making the All-Star team or gaining some consideration for league MVP.
Again playing in all of the Orioles’ games, Robinson put together his best season to date in 1962. He reached career highs with 28 home runs and a .486 slugging percentage, and also won his third consecutive Gold Glove. After a downturn in 1963, Robinson pushed his offensive talents to the optimum level in 1964. He batted .317, hit 28 home runs, and drove in 128, leading the American League in the latter category. Robinson raised his power hitting to the same level as his defense, which had already achieved elite status. Impressed with his all-around game, the writers voted him the league’s MVP.
Robinson was now a full-fledged star. Although he would never again match the offensive highs of 1964, he remained an effective offensive player throughout the rest of the decade. He was rarely the best hitter on the Orioles, but he qualified as an offensive helper, a man who could hit 20-plus home runs, draw the occasional walk, and consistently put the ball in play.
By the middle of the 1960s, Robinson was also cutting a distinctive pose on the field. Early in his career, he suffered a beaning when he failed to pick up the flight of an errant fastball on its way to the plate. Robinson felt that the bill of his helmet blocked his vision of the ball. So he made an unusual change to his equipment. He took his helmet and cut off the outer edge of the bill. The adjustment not only cleared up his line of vision, but it also left him with a distinctive and unusual short-billed helmet, which became the trademark of every one of his subsequent at-bats.
In 1966, Robinson received national attention when he was named to the All-Star team, collected three hits in the Midsummer Classic, and earned the game’s MVP Award. Even more significantly, he hit well during the regular season, reaching the 100-RBI plateau for the second time in his career. His performance coincided with the arrival of another Robinson, a certain outfielder named Frank. Rejected by the Reds for being “an old 30,” Frank Robinson batted third for the O’s, giving Brooks additional RBI opportunities.
After taking the American League pennant by a tidy margin of nine games, the 1966 Orioles faced the Dodgers in the World Series. Spearheaded by a middle of the order that featured the two Robinsons and the lefty-swinging Boog Powell, the O’s swept the Dodgers. Brooks didn’t hit for much of an average during the Series, but did hit a home run against Don Drysdale in Game One, helping the O’s to a 5-2 victory. His presence at third base also discouraged the Dodgers from employing their bunting game throughout the Series. The Orioles captured the first world championship for the franchise since making the move from St. Louis in 1954.
Now that Robinson had appeared on the national stage, both in the All-Star Game and the World Series, his reputation for defensive prowess had grown. Some observers dared to compare him to an all-time fielding great like Pie Traynor. On the surface, Robinson provided a deceptive look. He didn’t look particularly athletic and his arm lacked the sheer strength of other third basemen. Yet, no one in either league had the lightning-quick first step on ground balls, the shortstop-type range, and the pillow soft hands of Brooksie.
“His ability is to move five feet, one way or another, faster than anybody,” observed Boog Powell, who witnessed much of Robinson’s mastery from the other side of the infield, in an interview with Jimmy Cannon. “He doesn’t anticipate. He plays the ball. The ball is hit, he reacts.” Robby played the position so efficiently and so brilliantly that he earned the nickname, “The Human Vacuum Cleaner.”
If ever a nickname made perfect sense, it was this one. Robinson gobbled up ground balls as if his hands were suction cups. Robinson believed in keeping his glove low to the ground, theorizing that it was easier to bring his glove up than to put it down again. He played the position like no one before or since, with the possible exception of Clete Boyer or Graig Nettles. Or to be more modern, Adrian Beltre or Scott Rolen. The debate can certainly rage on this one, but until further notice, I’ll stick with Robinson.
Robinson continued to corner the market on gold gloves, winning the award in 1967, ‘68, and ‘69. His fielding helped the Orioles advance to the World Series in 1969, before being done in by the upstart and pitching-rich New York Mets. Robinson was as confounded as the rest of the Orioles’ batters; he managed only one hit in 19 at-bats against Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and company.
Robinson would more than redeem himself in the 1970 World Series. After dominating the American League East, the Orioles steamrolled the Twins in three straight Championship Series games. That set the stage for a World Series matchup between the Orioles and Sparky Anderson’s Reds. With a stack of right-handed pull hitters that included first baseman Lee May, third baseman Tony Perez, and catcher Johnny Bench, the Reds figured to test the left side of the Orioles’ infield.
As expected, the Reds put the challenge to the Baltimore third baseman, but he turned the World Series into the Brooks Robinson Flying Circus. In Game One, Robby made a backhanded snatch of Lee May’s hard-hit grounder. With his body falling into foul territory, he spun himself completely around and threw to Powell at first to complete the play.
In Game Three, after Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan started the game with back-to-back hits, Perez hit a high-hopper that appeared destined to bounce over Robinson’s head and make it to left field. Robinson leapt, grabbed the ball at the peak of his jump, and stepped on third base to start a 5-3 double play. The next inning, Robinson charged a slow roller off the bat of Tommy Helms and then made an off-balance throw to first base. And then in the sixth, Bench rifled a drive down the line, only to watch Robinson make a diving catch. When Robinson came to bat in the bottom of the sixth, the fans at Memorial Stadium rewarded him with a standing ovation.
By now Sparky Anderson had seen plenty of Robinson. “I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep,” Anderson told reporters while dining on a pre-game snack. “If I dropped this paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.” Anderson’s frustration was shared by Rose, the Reds’ right fielder, who groaned to Time Magazine, “That guy can field a ball with a pair of pliers.”
Robinson’s fielding alone would have made him the Series’ key contributor, but he added to his ample accomplishments by swinging the bat ferociously. For the Series, he batted .429, hit a pair of home runs, and set a record for most total bases with 17 (in only five games). The writers made Robinson the logical choice to win the Series MVP. The Hall of Fame asked for Robinson’s glove, which he gladly donated to the Cooperstown museum.
As Robinson put on his one-man fielding extravaganza, the opposition Reds began calling him “Hoover,” a reference to the leading vacuum cleaner manufacturer of the early 1970s. It was a natural way to shorten his usual nickname of The Human Vacuum Cleaner. Perhaps if Robinson played in today’s game, he would be referred to as “Dyson” or “The Shark.”
At the age of 33, Robinson had become a household name. He had one big season left in him, which he turned in the following summer. He hit 20 home runs in 1971, reached base 34 per cent of the time, and executed another Gold Glove performance, winning his 12th consecutive award for fielding excellence.
Robinson’s final premium season coincided with the end of the Baltimore dynasty, which was derailed in a disappointing seven-game World Series loss to the Pirates. Robinson remained the Orioles’ starting third baseman for another four years, but he never again reached double figures in home runs. His range in the field also declined, though he continued to win the Gold Glove Award on an annual basis, finishing his career with 16 fielding trophies.
After hitting only .201 in his final season as a regular, Robinson might have been tempted to call it a career. Unfortunately, he had severe financial problems that motivated him to keep playing. Nearly bankrupt because of the failings of his sporting goods business, Robinson had to dip into most of his life savings to pay off his debts. He needed the salary of a major league player. No longer able to hit and now overweight, he endured two miserable seasons in 1976 and 1977 as a role player and backup, and as a tutor to his third base replacement, a young and underrated Doug DeCinces.
By the time the 40-year-old Robinson retired in August of 1977, he had put in 23 seasons, all in a Baltimore uniform. That tied him with fellow Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski for the most seasons played with one major league team.
Six years after his retirement, Robinson entered the Hall of Fame. An extremely popular player with fans, he drew thousands to Cooperstown, with many making the trek up the coast from Baltimore. It was through his election to the Hall of Fame that I eventually became fortunate enough to meet Robinson.
When people learn of my connection to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame, they often ask me, “Who is the nicest guy among the Hall of Famers?” That question has become easy to answer. Though there are many agreeable sorts among the Hall of Famers, from the late Harmon Killebrew and Robin Roberts to the still-living Don Sutton and Billy Williams, none is any nicer than Brooks Robinson.
Whether it is merely saying hi as he enters the front door of the Hall of Fame, or conducting a full-length interview in the Grandstand Theater, Robinson always makes me feel as if he knows me well, as if I were one of his lifelong friends. I’m not alone in that sentiment. Just about anyone who comes in contact with Robinson during Hall of Fame Weekend will share similar thoughts.
That is why I have become especially concerned to hear about Robinson’s healthy problems in recent years. He has successfully waged a battle with prostate cancer, survived a nasty fall, and fought off an infection that required a hospital stay. It’s safe to say that he has had a rough time of late, though he has proven to be remarkably resilient.
Robinson is now 75. I hope we have him for another 20 years. He is still active as the president of the MLB Alumni Association. More importantly, he has become an American treasure, not only as the standard bearer for third base play, but as the standard bearer for how a Hall of Famer should conduct himself. We need to keep Brooks Robinson around for as long as possible.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
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