He’s widely considered the best third baseman ever.
From 1955 to 1977 with the Baltimore Orioles, Brooks Robinson was named to 18 all-star teams, won 16 Gold Glove awards, slammed 268 homers and was a two-time World Series champion (1966 and 1970). For his efforts, the gregarious Arkansas native was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.
But what few people know is that a gruesome injury Robinson sustained in Vancouver almost ended his career, well before it became Hall of Fame caliber. In 145 games with the Orioles in 1958, the up-and-coming infielder hit .238 with just three homers. Despite his modest numbers, however, Robinson felt he had established himself as a big leaguer.
After the 1958 campaign, with Robinson’s 22nd birthday looming, the Orioles encouraged the young infielder to fulfill his military obligation that off-season. So from October 1958 to April 1959, he was enlisted in the Arkansas National Guard. Although in good shape when he reported to the O’s spring camp in 1959, his timing – both at the plate and in the field – lagged behind his teammates’. And shortly after arriving at the big league camp, Robinson could see that Billy Klaus had supplanted him as the O’s top third baseman. The night before the season opener, however, Klaus slipped in his bathtub and Robinson would man the hot corner for the O’s first regular season game in 1959.
But when Klaus returned, Robinson was relegated to the bench, and by early May, with just 25 at bats under his belt, he was told by O’s manager Paul Richards that he was being shipped to the Triple-A Vancouver Mounties. Richards told the youngster that he needed to play and that if he got his game together, he would be called up by the all-star break.
Having already been up and down between the Orioles and the minors numerous times since 1955, Robinson wasn’t sure he’d ever return to the majors.
“My fears that I’d reached the end were realized,” wrote Robinson in his 1974 book, Third Base Is My Home, after being shipped to Vancouver. “I wasn’t of major league caliber. I’d been fortunate to play as much as I had. I was going down to the Pacific Coast League and I’d bounce around in the upper minors until one day, there just wouldn’t be a spot for Brooks Robinson.”
Robinson described his flight to Vancouver as “the lowest point” of his career.
Mounties manager Charlie Metro told Robinson that he would be the club’s starting third baseman, and the talented infielder was just hitting his stride, when, a week into his West Coast stint, he suffered a gruesome injury. In the fourth inning of a game against Portland on May 17 at Capilano Stadium, Robinson pursued a foul ball near the Mounties dugout.
“I went chasing a high, twisting foul near the Mounties dugout,” recalled Robinson in his 1971 book, Putting It All Together. “I moved in close, as far as I could, but it fell just beyond my reach. While trying to make the catch, I lost my balance and fell toward the dugout. As I slid back, my sweatshirt sleeve caught on a hook on the guardrail of the dugout and the hook dug into the muscle under the bicep. Caught, I hung there suspended, the blood running down my arm in a stream.”
It was Metro that pried him loose and the Mounties trainer bandaged his arm and rushed him to the hospital. The doctor told him that a tendon had been severed, but that the nerve was in tact. If the nerve had’ve been cut, his playing days would’ve been over, Robinson had been informed.
As soon as the wound began to heel, Robinson started exercising and he was back in action in two weeks and would promptly go on a hitting tear.
“I was hitting as well as I had at any time in my life,” he recalled in Third Base Is My Home.
By the all-star break, Robinson was hitting .331 with six home runs and 30 RBIs in 42 games with the Mounties. And true to his word, Richards called Robinson back up to the big leagues. Robinson would never return to the minors.
“In retrospect that brief tour at Vancouver is one of the bright spots of my baseball career,” wrote Robinson in Third Base Is My Home.