Cooperstown gets a gold shipment today.
Brooks Robinson, owner of 16 Gold Gloves and one golden heart, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this afternoon.
When, someday in a different century, an old man tries to explain to a small boy the power of Brooks Robinson's lasting fame, he may have a hard time translating the Baltimore Orioles hero's statistics and honors into a portrait of the man that seems consonant with his legend.
To say that Robinson was the greatest defensive third baseman in history doesn't touch the heavenly quality of his play. More than any other star of the 1960s and early '70s, Robinson created plays that inspired gasps of disbelief. Then, as now, other men made difficult and acrobatic plays, even--a favorite baseball non sequitur--"impossible plays."
Robinson made unthinkable plays.
He dove into foul territory to grab line drives; he turned perfect bunts into such routine outs that Boog Powell didn't have to stretch for his throws. Above all, Robinson dove for, and speared, balls in positions where it should not have been humanly possible.
And he never missed.
Well, that's how it seemed. Year upon year went past and, always, it seemed that Robinson stopped every ball that he could conceivably reach, plus hundreds of others. In the ballpark, you couldn't take your eye off Robinson. On teams that had slick fielders like Luis Aparicio, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, Bobby Grich and Dave Johnson, I never watched anyone but Robinson.
From the time I was 11 until I was 30, I studied Brooksie--made him a special project. Man and boy, fan and press-box pro, I never saw--still have never seen--another defensive player who carried with him such a capacity to thrill and surprise. To take your eye away from him was to risk missing the only play that would make your night at the park special. Of all the players so far in my baseball lifetime, only Willie Mays had the same capacity to create a moment of pure wonder with a glove, although I wonder what I would think if I saw Ozzie Smith 50 times a year.
As a hitter, Robinson was clutch. Not great, but tough when it mattered. He drove in 75 runs 10 times, hit .280 seven times and had 20 homers six times. His 268 homers and .267 career average are a fair measure of his bat: useful, occasionally powerful, but not cause to lose your place in the hot dog line.
In time, that modest bat may cost Robinson a place on the sport's all-time celestial nine. Mike Schmidt, or some other, may eventually amass the 500-plus homers and the double-figure Gold Gloves that it will take to supplant him.
But not for now. When Robinson enters the Hall of Fame today--along with Juan Marichal, Walter Alston and George Kell, who, ironically, was the player Robinson replaced at third for the Orioles as a rookie in 1957--he will have the satisfaction of knowing that, should those plaques climb down off the wall and come to life, he would be picked for the varsity along with Ruth and Wagner.
The part of Robinson that will be hardest to transmit to posterity will be his upright character, his manly gentleness, his constant consideration for others, his knack of blending candor with kindness. In an age seemingly committed to exposing every foible of a public figure, Robinson--almost alone among baseball players--was accepted as a kind of natural nobleman. "People love Brooks because he deserves to be loved," said Manager Earl Weaver.
When Robinson was close to financial ruin in 1976, being sued by creditors, he met that disaster with sorrow, with seriousness, but also with equanimity. He took the blame for his share of the business mismanagements that had him in serious trouble. He never declared bankrupcy, as so many other athletes have. He paid every cent of his debts. Needless to say, he took no charity, although, to his embarrassment, fans came forward with gift offers of as much as $10,000.
Robinson never used his 23 years of service with the Orioles to ask for a loan, or a pay-me-for-the-past contract. As his talents went down the drain, he never politicked for more playing time. "Every player I've ever managed blamed me at the end, not himself," Weaver once said. "They all ripped me and said they weren't washed up. All except Brooks. He never said one word, and he had more clout in Baltimore than all of them. He never did anything except with class. He made the end easier for everybody."
Now, those bleak money days are long past. Robinson is a successful, and first-rate, local baseball telecaster bringing homespun tales and perceptive analysis to Orioles TV broadcasts. He brings no sense of crass ambition or ulterior motives or ax-grinding to his job; he isn't after the manager's seat and he carries no grudges against anyone. He just tells it as straight as he can, as long as he doesn't really have to hurt anybody's feelings. No job would be worth that to Robinson.
Robinson also has executive positions with a petroleum company and with a business management firm that specializes in helping pro athletes avoid just the sort of problems that so stunned Robinson when he was on the verge of retiring.
This past week, when he wanted to be home getting his Cooperstown speech ready and making arrangements for 60 relatives to attend the induction, he had to be in Minneapolis because he made an appearance appointment more than a year before, not knowing how the date would fall.
"It was a firm commitment, so Brooks wouldn't think of breaking it," said his wife of 22 years, Connie. "He's really been running all over this year . . . so many charity appearances. He looks wonderful, but I've told him he just has to cut back. He's promised that, starting next year, he's going to settle on a more sensible travel schedule and spend more time with me and the (four) kids."
In recent months, Robinson, 46, has made sure he is in shape for Cooperstown. As a warmup, in an old-timers game July 18 in Washington, he hit a home run into the left-field bleachers on his only swing. Asked about how he felt on the verge of becoming a Hall of Famer, Robinson immediately turned the question, just as those who know him might have expected.
"I wasn't sure I would get in, so I didn't count on it too much. I didn't want to be disappointed," said Robinson, who received 92 percent of the ballot, the ninth-highest percentage in the history of Hall of Fame voting. "You know, a lot of great players, players as good as me, still haven't gotten in.
"Harmon Killebrew played almost the same years that I did, and he hit 586 home runs. He's still waiting. How can a man with 586 home runs not be in the Hall of Fame?
"What about Luis Aparicio and Hoyt Wilhelm?" said Robinson, incredulous that his old mates aren't on this new team with him.
Someday, those three, for whom Robinson is so glad to lobby, will probably be in the Hall of Fame.
When they finally do get through the doors at Cooperstown, that secular shrine will be much the richer for the presence of Brooks Robinson. In its century, baseball has had few finer players, and no better men.