May 12, 2010: Brooks Robinson

Little Rock native Brooks Robinson, one of the finest baseball players to come from Arkansas, turns 73 on May 18.

Brooks Robinson, Class of 1978

Brooks Robinson, Class of 1978

Inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1978, Robinson remains a legendary figure in Baltimore, where he spent his major league career. Following his retirement at the end of the 1977 season, Robinson began a 16-year career as a television announcer for the Orioles. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983 in his first year of eligibility. He’s one of only six former Orioles to have had a number retired by the team.

Was Brooks Robinson the best third baseman to ever play the game?

Many baseball historians think so. He began playing about as soon as he could walk. Robinson’s father, a fireman, had played semipro baseball and also was a member of the 1937 International Harvester softball team from Little Rock that played in the finals of the World Softball Championship in Chicago.

“Brooks Robinson began playing baseball at the grammar school level as a catcher for the Woodruff School,” Jeff Bailey writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “He spent much of his time practicing at the facilities of the Arkansas School for the Deaf, which was across the street from his home. He also worked the scoreboard and sold cold drinks during games played at Lamar Porter Field. While a student at Pulaski Heights Junior High, Robinson played quarterback for the 1951 junior high state championship football team and was an honorable mention on the all-state team.”

Robinson played basketball and ran track at Little Rock High School. During the summer, he played American Legion baseball for the M.M. Eberts Post No. 1’s team, the Doughboys. The Doughboys won American Legion state championships in both 1952 and 1953.

As soon as Robinson graduated from high school in 1955, he signed a contract with the Orioles. Having just turned 18, he first played for the Orioles’ farm team in York, Pa., in the Piedmont League. Late in the season, Robinson earned a promotion to the big leagues. By the 1958 season, he was the Orioles’ regular third baseman.

Known as the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Robinson won an amazing 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1960-75) during his career. His best season offensively came in 1964 when he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. He was the American League MVP that year, receiving 18 of the 20 first-place votes. Mickey Mantle was second in the voting.

Brooks Robinson, Class of 1978

Brooks Robinson, Class of 1978

In 1966, Robinson was the MVP at the All-Star Game. He finished second that year behind teammate Frank Robinson in the American League MVP balloting as the Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. The Orioles would win two World Series while Brooks Robinson was playing, the second coming in 1970 when he was the World Series MVP against the Cincinnati Reds.

The Orioles had lost the World Series to the New York Mets the previous season. In 1970, however, it was almost as if Robinson willed them to a championship.

Robinson had a .583 batting average in the 1970 American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins. In the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson had a .429 batting average with two home runs and some incredible defensive plays.

“I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep,” Reds Manager Sparky Anderson said. “If I dropped this paper plate, he would pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

As the World Series MVP, Robinson was awarded a new Toyota.

Reds catcher Johnny Bench said, “Gee, if we had known he wanted a new car that bad, we would have chipped in and bought him one.”

Robinson played in his last World Series in 1971 as the Orioles lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. Baltimore would win division titles in 1973 and 1974 but lose in the American League Championship Series.

Robinson was selected for the American League All-Star team for 15 consecutive years from 1960-74. His career batting average was .267 with 2,848 hits, 268 home runs and 1,357 RBI. He led the American League in fielding percentage 11 times. He retired with a .971 fielding average, the highest ever for a third baseman.

At the time of his retirement, Robinson also had the records for a third baseman for games played at third (2,870), putouts (2,697), assists (6,205) and double plays (618). Only Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial played more games during their careers for one franchise.

Yet another Robinson record came from hitting into four triple plays during his career.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone erase my record of hitting into four triple plays,” he later said.

How popular was Brooks Robinson in Baltimore, even after he retired?

In 1982, WMAR-TV’s on-air announcers had been on strike for two months leading into the baseball season. When Robinson refused to cross the picket line as opening day approached, station managers began new negotiations. The strike ended the next day, and Robinson was on the air for the season opener.

Brooks Robinson, Class of 1978

Brooks Robinson, Class of 1978

Robinson and Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas had plaques in their honor in Baltimore’s venerable Memorial Stadium. The two men were saluted on the field when the Orioles played their last game there on Oct. 6, 1991.

In 1999, The Sporting News placed the Arkansan on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. He also was named to the All-Time Rawlings Gold Glove Team.

Veteran Associated Press sportswriter Gordon Beard was the emcee for the ceremony that marked Robinson’s last game at Memorial Stadium in 1977.

Beard reminded the crowd of Reggie Jackson’s remark: “If I played in New York, they would name a candy bar after me.”

“Around here,” Beard said, “nobody has named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson. We name our children after him.”

– Rex Nelson

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