2. Brooks Robinson, 3B (1955-1977)
1964 American League MVP
1970 World Series MVP
Gold Glove: 1960-1975
Brooks was not a great hitter. He had some really good years (1964, most notably, and 1962, and 1965-68), and a few pretty good years, but a lot of the time he was either average or a little below. In his first full season (1958), he was really quite bad. The fact that he developed enough as a hitter to be as good as he was is kind of something, if you look at it that way.
Obviously, his greatest value as a player was as a fielder. Brooks Robinson won the Gold Glove at third base every single year from 1960 through 1975, starting the streak at age 23 and ending it at age 38. Now, did he deserve it every year? It's doubtful. But he certainly deserved it a fair enough share of the time, and to call Brooks Robinson the greatest defensive third baseman of all-time is hardly overstating anything. There are players that have their arguments -- Clete Boyer, a contemporary of Brooks' with the Yankees, was just as good by a lot of accounts, and Ron Santo was pretty great himself -- but Brooks was every bit as good as anyone has ever been.
In The New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James uses Robinson's entry (No. 7 at third base, behind Schmidt, Brett, Mathews, Boggs, Home Run Baker and Santo) to discuss the idea that great fielders tend to be nice people, and poor fielders have a tendency to be jerks, and that fielding-heavy positions (shortstop, third base, center field, second base, catcher) generally have more nice guys than do the "hitters' positions," the ones that require the least defense and are stereotypically filled with a big hitter (1B, the corner outfield spots).
I've always found that entry to be a fascinating little study. James looks at the top 20 ranked at every positions, and finds that the third baseman are "the nicest stars in history of the game."
My favorite part of it is James looking over the left fielders. "In the top thirty you've got Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson, Joe Jackson, Goose Goslin, Jim Rice, Jesse Burkett, Joe Medwick, Ralph Kiner, and Albert Belle. Boy, there's a family reunion you can leave me out of."
The point here, as James was also making, is that it's hard to write about a guy like Brooks Robinson. Brooks Robinson, as James said about Don Mattingly, was "100% ballplayer, 0% bullshit." Brooks Robinson was a supremely nice guy, remains so to this day. He was an unbelievable glove that also happened to hit 268 home runs and drive in 1357 runs over his career, which he spent in full with the Baltimore Orioles.
Brooks was signed in 1955, born May 18, 1937, in Little Rock, Arkansas. He made his major league debut on September 17, 1955, going 2-for-22 and striking out 10 times without walking once -- a fine line of .091/.091/.091. He went 10-for-44 in 1956, and 28-for-117 in 1957. He was a regular in '58, hitting .238/.292/.305 with three homers.
Over 88 games in 1959, he started to find himself at the plate a little, hitting .284/.325/.383. In 1960, it really started to click. Robinson was 23 years old, and hit .294/.329/.440 with 14 homers, 88 RBI, 27 doubles, nine triples and a 49/35 K-to-BB ratio. He had 192 hits two straight years in '61 and '62, and topped the 20-homer mark for the first time in 1962 with 23 taters. He also hit .303, the first time he hit .300, and the second-to-last time he'd ever do it.
Brooks' best season was 1964, when he was the American League MVP. He was his usual stellar self at third base, and he set career highs in pretty much everything: .317 average, .368 OBP, .521 SLG, 28 homers, 118 RBI, 35 doubles, 194 hits.
I'm talking about Brooks the hitter because everyone already knows Brooks the fielder, and how amazing he was. But Brooks the hitter is kind of more interesting to me at this point, because I've seen so many people say, "Yeah, he couldn't really hit." He could hit. He wasn't great, but he had a prime from age 27 to age 34, basically, with one bad year in there (1969).
I also find it interesting that Brooks Robinson never even once hit 30 homers, never once had 200 hits, never once scored 100 runs and played for a handful of damn great teams. Brooks was sort of like a Belanger that could at least carry his weight, though. He was there as a fundamentals guy.
Maybe the most famous quote about Brooks Robinson came from Sparky Anderson, managing the Reds in the 1970 World Series against Baltimore, where Robinson shone the brightest on the national stage. "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."
Brooks Robinson never played baseball in high school. He was playing second base in a church league when he was found. Amazingly, he became a third baseman at the major league level that caused teams to change their strategy. In the '66 Series, the Dodgers were heavy favorites. But they were afraid to bunt with Brooks at third. It's sort of the same effect that a noted right fielder's arm, someone like Vlad Guerrero or Raul Mondesi or Jesse Barfield, has on baserunning decisions. Whether accurate or not, runners think twice or not at all about going from first to third on Vlad Guerrero's arm, and they did it against Mondesi and tons of other guys (Clemente), right? Who knows if maybe they'd have made it? Who knows if the Dodgers could have won that World Series with more bunting? That's probably unlikely, but Brooks Robinson changed their gameplan.
As for his ability as a second baseman, he also happened to play some second base in the Cuban Winter League. Orlanda Pena once said, "He didn't look fast, in fact he was kinda slow, but he was always there. On double plays when he had to come a long way, he had this way of just rolling across the bag and flipping the ball under his arm. He was the best second baseman I have ever seen."
Late in his career, Brooks wasn't in good shape financially, with some bad business deals that had really hurt him. The Orioles kept him on for two seasons more than he should have played, probably, and he became a broadcaster after retiring. He never complained about the finances, and he found his way out of them himself. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983, with Juan Marichal, Walter Alston, and George Kell, the man he replaced at third base for the Orioles. He was elected in his first year of eligibility, and deservedly so.
"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.'" - Frank Robinson
"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." - Joe Falls, The Detroit News
"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." - John Steadman, The News American
"Brooks Robinson belongs in a higher league." - Pete Rose
"Brooks never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore, people named their children after him." - Gordon Beard
"Fifty years from now I'll just be three inches of type in a record book. ... I'll play out the string and leave baseball without a tear. A man can't play games his whole life."