Sunday, August 30, 2015

Brooks Robinson 1964: A September to Remember

While baseball is a team sport, it also lends itself to individual achievement--the singular warrior pulling down columns to crush Philistines. Nowhere is this more appreciated than in September during a tight pennant race; that's when legends are made. Unfortunately, some of the most heroic feats are soon forgotten merely for the reason that the hero's team did not ultimately win the pennant. But often the pennant is won with the help of luck and circumstance out of control of the individual--a key September injury by an opponent's best pitcher, a surprise drag bunt for a hit by the individual's pitcher in a late inning that starts an important rally, a bad hop or a line shot that leads to a diving stab by the opponent.

The lack of a pennant should not invalidate a heroic effort. But, unfortunately, it invariably does. With this in mind, I would like to talk about one of the most fantastic pennant-run Septembers; one compiled by Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles.

The year was 1964 and the Philistines Robinson was trying to crush were from New York, winners of eight of the previous nine American League pennants, guys with names like Mantle, Maris and Ford.

The Orioles, barely out of their first decade of existence, were a team on the way up. They had recently-acquired shortstop Luis Aparicio, hulking slugger Boog Powell and great pitching from Milt Pappas, youngsters Wally Bunker (who won 19 in 1964) and Dave McNally, and future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who pitched in 13 wins as a 37-year-old.

The undisputed leader of the Baltimore team was Brooks Robinson. The  27-year-old Robinson had established himself as one of the best players in the league since finishing third in MVP balloting in 1960. He had won the past four Gold Gloves for American League third basemen (on his way to a record 16 in a row), and routinely finished in the top ten in batting average. He was already being referred to as the best fielding third baseman in baseball history. While he made spectacular, never-before-seen plays, he also rarely booted a routine chance--he was in the process of leading the league's third basemen in fielding percentage a record 11 times. Men would literally walk on the moon before the sure-handed Robinson would make three errors in one game (July 28, 1971).

In 1964, the Yankees, White Sox and Orioles battled all season for the lead in the American League and entered September with only two games separating them. And that's the way things would remain the entire month--the three teams going back and forth, never separated by more than two games. It was white-knuckle time--every game held meaning.

Brooks entered September hitting an even .300 with 86 RBIs (trailing RBI-leader Harmon Killebrew by 11), having a good, solid season.

Then, in the heart of the pennant race, he went unconscious. From September 9 through the end of the season, he hit .464 (39-84) and had 28 RBIs. He knocked in 24 RBIs in the last 17 games.

He had 4 hits against Washington September 10, 4 hits against Minnesota September 16, 4 RBIs in the first game of a double header against the Angels September 20 and added another in the second game. September 23, he had 3 hits against the Tigers. He had one stretch in which he had 14 hits in 23 at bats, including 7 hits in a row.

Moreover, he was almost single-handedly keeping the Oriole offense going. Powell was injured and out from August 20 to September 5. He returned to hit .343 in September, but no other Oriole hit over .263 for the month.

But the Yankees were the Yankees. The proud old men summoned one final September run--they won 13 of 14 from September 12-26. The Orioles could not keep the murderous pace and were finally eliminated October 2--finishing with 97 wins, two games behind the Yankees.

Robinson's September of 1964 fares well when compared to some of the more fabled pennant efforts in baseball history. One of the most celebrated, of course, is Carl Yastrzemski's 1967 season. Over the final 23 games of 1967, Yaz hit .427 (35-82) with 23 RBIs. In 1964, Robinson hit .446 (37-83) with 29 RBIs over the same period.

Robinson finished the 1964 season with a batting average of .317, trailing only Tony Oliva's .323 in the American League. He led the league with 118 RBIs and had 28 home runs.  For his efforts, he was named the American League's Most Valuable Player, easily outdistancing second-place finisher Mickey Mantle 269 to 171 points.

His season totals were nice, but it was his September that was inspiring and should be remembered. Unfortunately, it has been lost in the dust of history.

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