By IAN WILSON
In the prime of his Hall-of-Fame career and fresh off a World Series championship, Brooks Robinson was serving up baseball stories in southern Alberta.
The mainstay of the Baltimore Orioles was a guest speaker in Lethbridge at a Kinsmen dinner banquet on Feb. 4th, 1967, along with teammate Dave McNally.
The third baseman was a few years removed from his American League (AL) Most Valuable Player campaign and, in a few more seasons, he would claim World Series MVP honours.
But Robinson still had plenty of fresh news to discuss, including a sweep over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1966 Fall Classic and a lucrative new contract.
“The Dodgers were the team we wanted to play,” the Little Rock, Arkansas native admitted to Lethbridge Herald sports editor Don Pilling in an interview.
“But the idea of a four-game sweep didn’t cross the mind of anybody on our club. We felt we could beat them but we never, at any time, were thinking in terms of a sweep. We had great respect for them as a team, and particularly for their great pitching staff, but we were determined to prove to ourselves and everybody else that we were the better club.”
It was the first World Series title for the franchise and Robinson was happy to share stories about it.
“Everything went right for us,” said Robinson in Pilling’s article.
“We had great pitching, our defence didn’t make an error and we got the big blows that win for you in those tight games.”
Robinson – who had the nicknames of “Human Vacuum Cleaner” and “Mr. Hoover” as a result of his stellar defensive play at the hot corner – also discussed the addition of 1966 Triple Crown winner and World Series MVP Frank Robinson to the Baltimore lineup from the Cincinnati Reds.
“We had a good ball club the year before,” said the 29-year-old.
“But Robbie gave us the big push we needed to get over the hill.”
COMPLIMENTS FOR KOUFAX
Both Robinsons were among the final hitters to step into the batter’s box against legendary Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax, who retired after the World Series due to severe arthritis in his throwing arm.
“It was the only thing he could do,” Robinson told the Herald of the decision by Koufax to hang up his cleats.
“He was told he would risk permanent injury if he continued to pitch. He realized he would have been foolish to carry on. All the money in the world cannot give you another arm.”
In describing Koufax as the best pitcher he’d ever seen, Robinson also commended him for all he did for baseball.
“He was a big man in baseball, a real gentleman who did so much to create a truly great image for the game,” said Robinson, who was an 18-time All-Star and a winner of 16-consecutive Gold Glove Awards.
Before arriving in Lethbridge for the banquet, Robinson had a busy schedule. Along with Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Harmon Killebrew and other sports celebrities, he traveled to Vietnam for a 15-day tour to visit American troops who had been deployed to the region.
“I guess you could call it a morale booster for our boys over there,” he told Pilling.
“We took along some all-star game and series films. They took us by helicopter to dozens of posts where we showed the boys the films and sat down for some good, old-fashioned baseball sessions. It was an honour and privilege to represent the Orioles.”
Robinson, who played all 23 of his Major League Baseball (MLB) seasons with the Orioles, also inked a new contract prior to his arrival in Alberta that boosted his salary from $54,000 to $75,000 for the 1967 season.
The Kinsmen event drew an overflow crowd of 1,300 people, who came out to listen to Robinson, McNally, National Hockey League player Doug Barkley and Hugh Campbell, a wide receiver with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League.
Robinson continued to hit the dinner circuit when he left, making stops in Billings and Great Falls, Montana before he got ready for spring training.
RETURNING TO ALBERTA
It wasn’t the last time that “Mr. Oriole” found himself in Alberta. Robinson was summoned to the province again in 1980, for another Kinsmen sports celebrity banquet in Lacombe, and once more in 1982 as a guest speaker at the Calgary Booster Club’s sportsmen’s dinner.
During his visit to the Stampede City, Robinson was asked to reflect on his performance in the 1970 World Series, which the Orioles won in five games over the Reds. He had a batting average of .429 and a pair of homers, but it was his amazing defensive plays that earned him the MVP award in that edition of the Fall Classic.
“It was spooky,” he told Calgary Herald columnist Larry Wood.
“You can play for weeks and never have that many chances, never mind making that many big plays.”
No. 5 displayed modesty as he continued to share memories from the series.
“You have to be lucky. When it happens in a World Series, you are. But fielding ground balls isn’t something you can teach. You’re born with the quick instinct. After that, it’s a matter of timing, and concentration,” said Robinson.
“They made a big deal of one diving catch I made on a line drive from (Johnny) Bench. Most balls hit to third base are to your left, and I had to go to my right, a good five or six feet in foul territory. But, our pitcher Mike Cuellar, liked to throw Bench those big, slow curves. Most hitters get the bat out in front of those which means the ball comes my way, and maybe right. So, I was prepared for a shot to the right and that’s where Bench hit it.”
Robinson played so well that Reds manager Sparky Anderson said he couldn’t stop thinking about him.
“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,” Anderson told reporters during the series.
When Wood listed off his achievements and MLB records, Robinson had a laugh at his own expense.
“You missed a couple … I hold the major league record for hitting into four triple plays. And only one guy has ever hit into more double plays. You know who? A man to whom I don’t mind being ranked No. 2. Hank Aaron,” noted Robinson.
Aaron now sits fifth on the all-time leaders for double plays grounded into and Robinson is 12th, but the Oriole great still holds the record for hitting into the most triple plays.
Robinson also spoke at the Calgary Booster Club dinner of his early love of baseball and how fortunate he was to play the game for so long.
“In the eighth grade, I wrote this wordy essay on how I wanted to be a big league baseball player. I don’t recall my mark, but if it was high it was for length,” he laughed.
“I was no overnight success. Actually, I was doggone lucky. There were question marks all over me. I mean, when I first signed (for $4,000 at the age of 18), the scout told me I had average speed, an average arm, average range in the field, but that I hit pretty well for a junior.”
He also had to overcome a gruesome bicep injury – which Cooperstowners in Canada author Kevin Glew wrote a detailed account of – that he sustained in 1959 while playing in Triple-A for the Vancouver Mounties.
Robinson passed away at the age of 86 on Sept. 26, 2023.
The baseball world mourns the loss of an elite player and an even better person.
“He was a model of excellence, durability, loyalty and winning baseball for the Orioles. After his playing career, he continued to make contributions to the game by working with the MLB Players Alumni Association,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in a statement.
“I will always remember Brooks as a true gentleman who represented our game extraordinarily well on and off the field all his life. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Brooks’ family, his many friends across our game, and Orioles fans everywhere.”