Nicknamed The Human Vacuum Cleaner for his uncanny ability to gobble up virtually everything hit in his general direction with amazing regularity, Brooks Robinson is widely considered to be the greatest fielding third baseman in baseball history. The winner of a record 16 Gold Gloves at his position, Robinson set the standard against which all other third basemen are judged. Playing the hot corner with style and elegance throughout his 23-year major-league career, Robinson holds almost every lifetime record for third basemen by a wide margin. He played the most games at the position (2,870), compiled the best fielding percentage (.971), accumulated the most putouts (2,697) and assists (6,205), fielded the most chances (9,165), and participated in the most double plays (618). Robinson led American League third basemen in assists eight times and in fielding percentage 11 times. A solid hitter as well, Robinson hit 268 career home runs, knocked in a total of 1,357 runs, amassed 2,848 hits, and posted a lifetime .267 batting average. He had his greatest season in 1964, when he captured A.L. MVP honors by establishing career highs with 28 home runs, 118 runs batted in, and a .318 batting average. Robinson also placed in the top five in the balloting on four other occasions.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas on May 18, 1937, Brooks Calbert Robinson attended Little Rock Central High School, where he didn’t even play baseball. In fact, Robinson was playing second base in a church league when he was discovered. After signing with the Baltimore Orioles as an 18-year-old amateur free agent in 1955, Robinson moved directly to the big leagues. He spent his first few seasons sitting on the Orioles bench, watching future Hall of Fame third baseman George Kell wind down his career with the team. Robinson received his first serious playing time in 1958, after Kell retired at the conclusion of the previous campaign. The 21-year-old third baseman played well in the field, but he failed to impress at the plate, batting only .238, hitting just three home runs, and driving in only 32 runs in just over 500 plate appearances. Injuries limited Robinson to only 88 games the following season, but he began to show promise as a hitter, raising his batting average to .284.
Robinson developed into one of the American League’s most prominent players in 1960, earning the first of 15 consecutive trips to the All-Star Game and winning the first of 16 straight Gold Gloves. In addition to leading all league third basemen in putouts, assists, and fielding percentage for the first time, he batted .294 and knocked in 88 runs, to earn a third-place finish the MVP balloting.
The following year, Robinson began a string of four consecutive seasons during which he appeared in every game for the Orioles. Throughout that period, he led a young and improving team that relied primarily on pitching and defense. While Robinson served as the poster boy for Baltimore’s strong defensive play, he also put together some very solid offensive seasons, performing particularly well in 1962 and 1964. In the first of those years, he hit 23 home runs, drove in 86 runs, batted .303, and finished among the league leaders with 192 hits and 308 total bases. Two years later, Robinson led the Orioles to a close second-place finish, en route to edging out Mickey Mantle of the pennant-winning Yankees for league MVP honors. In addition to placing near the top of the league rankings with 28 home runs, 35 doubles, 194 hits, 319 total bases, and a .317 battingaverage, Robinson scored 82 runs and topped the circuit with 118 runs batted in.
Robinson finished in the top five in the league MVP voting in each of the next two seasons as well, continuing his stellar play in the field, while also compiling some of the best offensive numbers of his career. He batted .297 in 1965, hit 18 homers, and drove in 80 runs, to earn a third-place finish in the MVP balloting. Robinson finished runner-up in the voting to teammate Frank Robinson the following year, helping the Orioles to the American League pennant and world championship by hitting 23 home runs, knocking in 100 runs, and scoring 91 others.
As a hitter, Robinson possessed decent power and performed extremely well in the clutch. He surpassed 20 homers six times and drove in more than 100 runs twice, also topping the 90-RBI mark another two times. An excellent post-season performer, Robinson hit five home runs, knocked in 22 runs, and batted .303 in 145 official playoff and World Series at-bats.
However, Robinson’s greatest claim to fame was his extraordinary defense. Although he was slow afoot and possessed a rather mediocre throwing arm, Robinson’s quickness and superb reflexes enabled him to turn in spectacular plays in the field with amazing regularity. Whether reaching towards the foul line to snare a ball that seemed headed towards the left field corner, or diving into the shortstop hole to rob an opposing batter of an apparent single, Robinson made plays that caused onlookers to shake their heads in amazement.
Frank Robinson said of his longtime teammate, “He was the best defensive player at any position. I used to stand in the outfield like a fan and watch him make play after play. I used to think WOW, I can’t believe this.”
Although Robinson’s offensive numbers fell off somewhat between 1967 and 1969, his stellar play in the field continued. He led all A.L. third basemen in assists and fielding percentage all three years, continuing his string of leading the league in the first category six straight times, and topping the circuit in the second category four consecutive times.
The Orioles won the first of three consecutive American League pennants in 1969, but they were subsequently upset by the New York Mets in the World Series. Returning to the Fall Classic in 1970, Baltimore faced Cincinnati’s imposing Big Red Machine, a star-studded lineup that included righthanded sluggers Tony Perez, Lee May, and N.L. MVP Johnny Bench. Robinson, who had a solid year at the plate during the regular season with 18 home runs, 94 runs batted in, and a .276 batting average, set an early tone for the Series by winning Game One with a seventh-inning solo homer. He hit another home run in Game Four, ending the Fall Classic with two homers, six runs batted in, and a .429 batting average, en route to being named Series MVP. Despite Robinson’s offensive heroics, which helped the Orioles defeat Cincinnati in five games, it actually was his defense that left the Reds players talking to themselves. Robinson’s Gold Glove thwarted Cincinnati rallies time after time, as he performed his own personal brand of magic before a national television audience.
After Robinson was named Series MVP and received the brand new Toyota that went along with the honor, Johnny Bench remarked, “Gee! If we had known he wanted a new car that bad, we’d have chipped in and bought him one.”
Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson quipped, “I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep. If I dropped a paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”
Even umpire Ed Runge found it difficult to conceal his admiration for Robinson,
commenting after the final game, “That kid plays third base like he came down from a
Robinson had one more good year at the plate following his extraordinary performance in the World Series, before his offensive skills began to erode. He helped the Orioles to their third straight pennant in 1971, earning a fourth-place finish in the league MVP voting by hitting 20 home runs, driving in 92 runs, and batting .272. However, he played six more years, never again finishing in double-digits in homers or knocking in more than 72 runs, and batting higher than .257 only once. After losing his starting third base job to Doug DeCinces in 1976, Robinson assumed a back-up role his final two seasons, before finally announcing his retirement at the end of the 1977 campaign.
It didn’t take the members of the BBWAA long to elect Robinson to the Hall of Fame once his playing career was over. He was inducted into Cooperstown in his very first year of eligibility, in 1983. Yet, Robinson’s first few years away from the game were difficult ones. Poor business investments left him heavily in debt, and it took a second career as an Orioles broadcaster to help him solve his financial problems. He has since become involved in numerous charitable organizations, including serving as president of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, an organization that assists players and fans to interact off the field, and that also helps former players who need financial assistance.
Robinson’s involvement in such charities would not come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows him well. Admired and respected by everyone around the game for his generosity and graciousness, Robinson epitomized professionalism throughout his career.
Write Joe Falls of the Detroit News once wrote, “How many interviews, how many questions – how many times you approached him and got only courtesy and decency in return. A true gentleman who never took himself seriously. I always had the idea he didn’t know he was Brooks Robinson.”
John Steadman of The News American echoed those sentiments when he said, “There’s not a man who knows him who wouldn’t swear for his integrity and honesty and give testimony to his consideration of others. He’s an extraordinary human being, which is important, and the world’s greatest third baseman of all time, which is incidental.”