Baseball 101 – Brooks Robinson

Whenever I played in the field, I would pretend I was Brooks Robinson and in little league I played third base because of Brooks Robinson. I loved Brooks Robinson.

1969 was really the beginning of baseball fever for me. That year, the O’s won 109 games, but lost to the underdog Mets 4-1. The 69 Mets were known as the “Miracle Mets” for 1969 was the Mets first winning season in franchise history (if you recall they were a part of the 1961 expansion draft). I remember being heartbroken. An interesting historical tidbit about this series. It had the famous “shoe polish” incident.

In game 5, the O’s were down three games to one in the series but ahead 3-0 in the bottom of the sixth, Cleon Jones of the Mets came to bat. Dave McNally was pitching for the O’s and bounced a pitch that came very close to hitting Jones on the foot and then bounced into the Mets’ dugout. The Mets’ manager, Gil Hodges, came out with the ball and argued to the umpire that the ball hit Jones on the foot and showed the umpire a black mark of shoe polish. The umpire awarded Jones first base. Go to 7:42 of this video to see the play. Eventual World Series MVP Donn Clendenon then came to the plate and BOOM, hit a home run to cut the lead to 3-2. The Mets would go on to win 5-3 and take the Series four games to one.

Interestingly, many years later in interviews with some Mets players from that team the shoe polish incident got some new life. In 1986, the year the Mets beat the Red Sox for their second World Series, Ron Swoboda, who played right field for the Mets in 1969, said that when the ball came bouncing into the dugout it hit an open bag of balls and out tumbled several batting and infield practice balls. Swoboda said you could not tell which was the game ball and that Gil Hodges quickly picked up a ball with a black streak on it and walked out to the homeplate umpire. If that’s true, it’s pretty quick thinking by Hodges. Later, in 2009, another player, pitcher Jerry Koosman, relayed that when the ball bounced into the dugout, Hodges told Koosman to rub the ball on his shoe. Koosman did and then Hodges went out to show the umpire the black mark. Fact or fiction?

Going into 1970 there were big expectations for the O’s because they had much of the same 1969 team that won 109 games. The O’s lived up to the expectations and won 108 games, taking their division by a comfortable margin of 15 games. In the National League, the Cincinnati Reds won 102 games and also comfortably took their division by 14 1/2 games. Both teams swept their League Championships series 3-0. The World Series was a good match up.

This 1970’s Reds team was the first year of what was nicknamed the Big Red Machine. The Big Red Machine cruised from 1970-1976 winning four National League pennants and two World Series titles. They averaged 98 wins per season. It was this team that took down the Sox in 1975. The Reds were stacked with Hall of Famers and near great players, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster, Ken Griffey, Sr. and Cesar Geronimo (I loved his name). They were managed by first year manager Sparky Anderson.

Anderson would go down as one of the greatest managers of all-time, retiring in 1995 after managing for 26 years. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000 – he went in wearing a Reds cap, despite having only managed for nine years in Cincinnati – he would manage the Detroit Tigers for seventeen years winning one more World Seriest title in 1984 (that Tigers team started the season 9-0 and went 35-5 over the first 40 games of the season). As a manager, Anderson won the sixth most games in baseball history, 2194 wins against 1834 losses. Here are the top five:

  1. Connie Mack, 3731-3948 (1894-1950)
  2. John McGraw, 2763-1948 (1899-1932)
  3. Tony LaRussa, 2728-2365 (1979-2011)
  4. Bobby Cox, 2504-2001 (1978-2010)
  5. Joe Torre, 2326-1997 (1977-2010)

LaRussa, Cox, and Torre were just elected this year to the Hall of Fame and will be inducted this summer. Pretty interesting that three of the winningest managers of all-time are going into the Hall together and that I lived through their managing careers. Sparky Anderson is just behind those guys.

Anderson passed away in 2010. He was a fiery manager on the field when he was younger but seemed to mellow a bit with age, as do most of us. Despite all his managerial success, he seemed like a pretty humble guy.  At his induction speech into the Hall he said there were two kind of managers:

“One, it ain’t very smart. He gets bad players, loses games and gets fired. There was somebody like me that was a genius. I got good players, stayed out of the way, let ’em win a lot, and then just hung around for 26 years.”

Anderson had these things to say about Brooks Robinson and his defensive performance in the 1970 World Series:

“He can throw his glove out there and it will start ten double plays by itself.”

“I’m beginning to see Brooks Robinson in my sleep. If I dropped a paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

Some announcers, owing to Robinson’s defensive performance in the series, nicknamed him “The Houdini of the Hot Corner.” Lee May, who Brooks robbed with his most famous defensive play of the Series, said, “Very nice play, where do they plug in Mr. Hoover in.” The reference, for those too young to remember, is to the Hoover vacuum cleaner.

Many called the 1970 World Series the “Brooks Robinson Series.” He just seemed to make play after play, shutting down any Reds’ threat. Not only did he dominate defensively, he also hit .429 with 2 homers. Here is a clip of some of the plays Robinson made during the 1970 series. I have a vivid memory watching the series and re-enacting these plays in my backyard. The O’s would win the Series 4-1. I was hooked.

Robinson got into the Hall of Fame not on the power of his bat but on his defensive wizardry. He won sixteen consecutive gold glove awards, won the MVP in 1964, and made fifteen straight all-star teams. Like Jim Palmer, he was an Orioles broadcaster for a while. To show how much he was Mr. Oriole (until Cal Ripken, Jr. came along), when they closed down Memorial Stadium (the Orioles now play in Camden Yards) they asked Brooks Robinson and another Baltimore great, Johnny Unitas (he played for the Baltimore Colts and is considered one of the greatest football players of all time) to throw out the closing day first pitch. Brooks threw out a baseball, Unitas tossed a football.


One thought on “Baseball 101 – Brooks Robinson

  1. Marc Ducharme

    From 1968-1971 I was a resident of Laurel, Maryland and avid but destitute Washington Senators’ fan. I cannot even begin to describe my loathing for the invincible O’s. I saw enough games at Memorial Stadium and watched enough O’s games during the post seasons of 69-71 that like many of my era, I can recite their starting 9 and get pretty close to the correct batting order too! And this was a team I absolutely hated! Feared and Loathed. I used to take my Oriole baseball cards and BURN them in the fire place. Especially Boog Powell. Especially Dave McNally or Booger and McLucky as I called them as a nine year old expressionist. I hated Boog Powell because he rightfully won the MVP award the year my hero Frank Howard hit homers all over the place. I hated McLucky because he always seemed to be pitching when my dad took me to see the O’s against the Senators. And…the lucky bastard always won! Couldn’t have been that he was good. That his team was the best in the majors and that the Senators were the worst! And yet, I never burned the cards of the Robinsons, Frank and Brooks. Frank was just too damn good. His swing was violent and awe inspiring. And Brooks? He was amazing at third base and clutch at the plate. In my own clairvoyant way, I recognized in Brooks and ambassador of goodness in professional sports. Very corny, I know. And yet, it’s who the guy was and still is.


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