I am a lifelong fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers who, over the years has developed a fondness for the New York Yankees. I realize that seems strange in light of the fact that the Yankees are the sworn enemies of all things Dodger Blue, however as I get older I have become more of a fan of baseball and the game’s rich history than any one team, and the New York Yankees are obviously baseball royalty.
That doesn’t mean that Yankee-inflicted pain doesn’t still ache my rickety bones.
For every memory that exists of Reggie Jackson slamming World Series home runs into the dark night or sticking his butt in front of a thrown ball, the most vivid and painful Yankees versus Dodgers memories I have are those of New York third baseman Graig Nettles from the 1978 Series in which he single handedly propelled the Yankees past the Dodgers with some amazing glove work at the hot corner.
There’s Nettles snagging a line drive off the bat of Davey Lopes that was destined for the left field corner for a sure double. And there he is again diving to his right to take a base hit away from Reggie Smith. Is it possible that he once again robbed Lopes of a run-scoring double? Yes, yes it is. What a nightmare.
But for as much as I fret about the what-ifs had Nettles not existed, envisioning the Dodgers winning the 1978 World Series rather than falling to the Yankees two years in a row, I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a fan of the Cincinnati Reds in 1970 and witnessing Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles working some fielding wizardry of his own in that year’s World Series.
If it is possible, Robinson’s play in the 1970 Series was actually more incredible than the amazing work of Nettles in 1978. And coming from a heartbroken Dodgers fan of that era, that’s saying something.
Brooks Robinson is today’s Topps 1975 card selection, as his card number 50 is on a page with some other interesting players:
-Card 49 is Larry Dierker of the Astros
-Card 51 is Bob Forsch of the Cardinals
-Card 52 is Darrell Porter of the Brewers
-Card 53 is Dave Giusti of the Pirates
-Card 54 is Eric Soderholm of the Twins
-Card 55 is Bobby Bonds of the Yankees
-Card 56 is Rick Wise of the Red Sox
Brooks Robinson played his entire 23-year career with the Orioles, making his debut in 1955, and as a kid in 1975, looking at the back of a card for a player who had played in the 1950s was like taking a journey on a time machine. How is it possible that Brooks Robinson’s career started when Jackie Robinson was winning a World Series with the Dodgers, and was around at the same time that Steve Garvey and Ron Cey were with Jackie’s same club, only now in Los Angeles instead of Brooklyn?
That always blew my mind.
The thing about Brooks Robinson’s 1975 card that forever intrigued me as a kid and still does today is the helmet that he is wearing. What was with the smaller brim? So it turns out that in the early 1970s, major league baseball made it mandatory that all new players had to wear helmets with an ear flap for added protection. Veterans were exempted. Robinson, a veteran who had been hit in the head by pitches a few times in his career, opted to wear the helmet with the flap over his left ear because he wanted the extra protection, but these new helmets featured a longer brim and he could not see the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand as well. So Robinson had a decision to make: Does he go back to the older helmet without the ear flap, continue with the flap helmet but with impaired vision, or is there another option?
How about I let Brooks Robinson tell you.
From his own personal blog that he penned in 2006:
“When I got the helmet with the flap and put it on, it seemed like the bill was a little longer than my normal hat. The flap was a little longer and consequently when I went up to hit I could see the brim and part of the flap. It made me lose my concentration. I took care of it by taking a hacksaw blade and cut off about 1 ½ inches off the brim and about ½ off the flap. That’s how I got my short brim.”
But as much of an innovator of baseball equipment that Brooks Robinson was, he was also quite a baseball player. In a career that spanned three decades, Robinson slammed 268 home runs, drove in 1,357 runs and amassed 2,842 hits. Selected to 18 American League All Star teams, Robinson was the AL Most Valuable Player in 1964, a season that saw him post career highs in hits (194), home runs (28) and runs batted in (118) while putting up an impressive slash line of .317/.368/.521.
And as much as his respectable career batting statistics are, Brooks Robinson may very well have been a borderline Hall of Famer instead of a slam dunk, first ballot induction in 1983, named on 92% of the ballots cast. It was because of Robinson’s famous and consistent glove work at third base that ensured that the Orioles’ great got into the Hall.
Robinson’s range at third base was consistently way above the league average, and while fielding percentage may be an antiquated measure of a player’s efficiency on defense it is still safe to point out that his career .971 fielding percentage at the hot corner far exceeds the league average of .953. Robinson won 16 consecutive Gold Glove awards, and as noted previously, his exploits with glove and arm in the 1970 World Series were vitally important to the Orioles taking the championship in five games.
Asked prior to the start of the Series if he would be ready to play on the hard artificial turf of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Robinson shrugged and said, “I’m a major league third baseman. If you want to go play in a parking lot I’m supposed to stop the ball.”
And stop it he did.
In pivotal Game 3, Robinson snared a Tony Perez grounder in the first inning, stepped on third and threw to first to complete the double play. He made an amazing play on a slow hit grounder by Tommy Helms and threw out the speedy infielder, and then made a diving play to rob Johnny Bench in the sixth inning.
Robinson’s Orioles prevailed in the Series four games to one and the great third baseman took home the Most Valuable Player award after batting .429 in the Series and totaling 17 bases in the five games, but it was his fielding prowess that had the Reds players and manager Sparky Anderson talking at the conclusion of the World Series. Anderson said of Robinson, “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.” Bench, when advised that Robinson had been named the Series MVP that entitled him to a new Toyota quipped, “If we had known he wanted a car that badly we would have chipped in and bought him one.”
Nicknamed “The Human Vacuum Cleaner” for his amazing abilities on defense, Brooks Robinson isn’t merely respected for his contributions as a player. His leadership qualities are frequently cited by his former teammates, and his genuine warmth and good nature both on and off the field remind us all that behind the player is an actual human being, and in Brooks Robinson we have one of the truly good ones.
Journalist Roy Firestone tells the story of serving as the Orioles’ batboy one spring and talks about how impressed he was by Robinson not just for his physical abilities, but for his warmth and his kindness to the fans. “How many players had their portrait painted by the legendary Norman Rockwell,” Firestone asks. “Brooks Robinson lived that portrait.”
Firestone saw up close and personal just how hard Robinson worked to become the player he was and then maintain the excellence of that high bar he set for himself. But always, Firestone recalls, it was about the team and it was about the fans.
“He was generous and humble, and as great as he was at his position, he always understood his role as a baseball player,” Firestone recalls. “Give the team, the fans everything you have, and then when it’s over, give them more.”
That is the type of player Brooks Robinson was for 23 amazing seasons as a Baltimore Oriole, and that is type of person Brooks Robinson continues to be today.