Brooks Robinson

Setting the standard by which all who followed him are judged, Robinson played third base with style, class, and an uncanny ability to turn in spectacular plays with startling regularity for 23 seasons. In 16 of those seasons, he was the Gold Glove award winner. For 15 straight seasons, he was the American League‘s starting All-Star third baseman. He led AL third basemen in assists 8 times and in fielding 11 times. He holds almost every lifetime record for third baseman by a wide margin: most games (2,870), best fielding percentage (.971), most putouts (2,697), most assists (6,205), most chances (9,165), and most double plays (618). After he almost singlehandedly won the 1970 World Series for the Orioles, Reds manager Sparky Anderson quipped: “I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep. If I dropped this paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.” Robinson is also one of the kindest, gentlest, and most generous ballplayers ever to make a diving stop.

Robinson didn’t play high school ball, and was playing second base in a church league when he was discovered. He worked in slowly as a replacement for Hall of Famer George Kell, who was finishing his career at third base for the Orioles. The Oriole dynasty that developed in the 1960s was built on pitching and defense, but Brooks was head and shoulders above all his smooth-fielding teammates. Wearing his trademark short-billed batting helmet, he was a fair hitter with some power, winning the 1964 MVP award on the strength of his only .300 season (.317), with 28 HR and 118 RBI. He was named MVP of the 1966 All-Star Game after getting three hits and scoring the AL’s lone run in a 2-1 loss.

But it was his glove that regularly won games. In the 1966 World Series, his presence at third discouraged the heavily favored Dodgers from employing their bunting game. The Orioles won four straight close games. In the 1970 Series, the Reds nicknamed him “Hoover,” expanding upon the “human vacuum cleaner” tag he had been known by. After Robinson won the Series MVP award with a .429 average, two home runs, and a slew of dazzling defensive plays, Reds catcher Johnny Bench noted that “if he wanted a car that badly, we’d have given him one.” On one unbelievable play, Brooks fully extended to backhand a sharp grounder by Lee May behind third and a full body length into foul territory, whirled off-balance, and threw a perfect one-hopper off the Riverfront Stadium Astroturf to Boog Powell at first for the out. He won Game One with a seventh-inning solo homer, and homered again in Game Four.

Robinson also holds the dubious distinction of playing on the most All-Star losers, 15 in all, including both 1960 games. Toward the end of his career, his finances were in rough shape. Some naive business deals had gone sour, and he was heavily in debt. The Orioles kept him on, without asking, for two seasons more than Robinson would have realistically played. The balding and slightly paunchy veteran never complained about his problems, and ultimately solved them with the help of a new career as a popular Orioles broadcaster. A classy legend in his own time, Robinson’s Hall of Fame induction in 1983 drew one of the largest Cooperstown crowds ever.