By Dan Schlossberg
My favorite memory of Brooks Robinson is playing ping-pong with him aboard the QE2 as the ship rocked and rolled in a gale off Cape Hatteras.
A treasured souvenir of that voyage, called the Queen Elizabeth 2 Baseball Hall of Famers Cruise, still hangs in my office. At the upper left, where Robinson’s likeness appears, is his signature, which reads “Dan, Best Always, Thanks, Brooks Robinson,” in large, legible black ink.
Brooks was the last survivor among the four celebrities I brought in that 1986 sailing, along with Stan Musial, Monte Irvin, and Ernie Harwell.
All four were classic examples of fine gentlemen, not only great ambassadors of the game but amiable, affable, and articulate people who related well to the Cunard ship’s audience consisting mainly of senior citizens.
“I had some talent but it was my desire that allowed me to reach the Hall of Fame,” said the modest Robinson, who passed away at 86 Tuesday.
A soft-spoken Little Rock native who spent his entire playing career with the Baltimore Orioles (1955-77), he joined the Cooperstown gallery in 1983.
Still regarded as the best defensive third baseman in baseball history, he set records at his position for seasons (23), fielding percentage (.971), games (2,870), putouts (2,697), assists (6,205), and double-plays (618).
Elected to 18 straight All-Star teams, he was American League MVP in 1964 and World Series MVP in 1970. He finished his career with 268 regular-season home runs, then an AL record for power production by a third baseman.
Although he batted and threw right-handed, he signed autographs and played ping-pong left-handed — inexplicable quirks that also applied to Hall of Fame contender Dale Murphy, a two-time MVP himself.
Maybe that’s why Brooks lost the ping-pong game in a gale, 22-20, with the ship heaving so much that his seasick wife Connie was confined to their stateroom at the time (I had been hoping for at least one witness).
On the ballfield, Brooks was rightly called “The Human Vacuum Cleaner,” or “Hoover” for short. He didn’t have any speed but relied on instinct and reflexes. He also had a strong and accurate arm. Just ask the Cincinnati Reds, his victims in the 1970 Fall Classic.
According to fellow Hall of Famer Earl Weaver, one of his managers with the Orioles, “Brooks is the only guy I know who has a farm system for gloves. He’s got gloves that are a year away. He retires the old ones when they can’t go to the left for balls hit in the hole anymore.”
Brooks was a rare breed who realized his boyhood dream of wanting to be a ballplayer.
“When I was in the eighth grade,” he said, “we had to write a booklet on our vocation – what you wanted to do – and I wrote my booklet on being a Major League Baseball player. Truly, I just didn’t want to do anything else. I loved the game, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m in the Hall of Fame.”
He always talked about playing catch with his father.
“My dad was my hero growing up,” he once said.
Robinson became a hero to legions of admirers, including fellow players.
“It was like he held class out there,” said Buddy Bell, an All-Star third baseman himself.
Rico Carty, a former batting champion, said of Robinson, “He’s more than a thief. He’s a thief three times over.”
But the best quote may have come from former umpire Ed Hurley: “He plays third like he was sent down from another league.”
Now that league has taken him back. Rest in peace, Brooks.
Here’s The Pitch weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is a former AP sportswriter and long-time author who covers the game for forbes.com, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Memories & Dreams, and other outlets. He’s also a popular speaker on baseball. See www.danschlossberg.net or write email@example.com.