Friday, August 12, 2022

The Human Vacuum Cleaner – Baseball Commentary

As this virulent contagion continues to spread to every corner of the world, it is a virus that kills without discrimination, and we all collectively lose what is dear to us. We bicker, squabble, and lose sight of politeness as an invisible pathogen murders us daily. It is fear, I would say, that makes us impolitely ugly. One blessing, which is actually many, I have experienced is being able to talk to a host of wise people during all of this loss. What a gain that has been of late.
Focus on the good, I have been told, focus on the indiscriminate good that has been given to you over a lifetime. Buy a new mirror, it was said to me kindly, one that works, and use it daily to learn to appreciate the good that has been freely given. The mirror teaches you to learn how to give it back, this wise one who spoke to me said. Good is what we all should give when something scares us to death.
I bought a new mirror; one that works and does not flatter. And it got me to thinking about a mirror episode that gave me a dose of goodness at just the right time. It was August 1982, a fearful time for me and by a longshot, more so than now. It was my first day of college. As an introvert and non-people person, a dorm full of strangers was a panic attack, not an opportunity for anything good.
I went off to college with my things packed in a little duffel bag. I wasn’t staying, wanted nothing to do with learning more, and when my roommates’ mom made the comment about packing for an overnight trip, I headed for the bathroom. Plenty of mirrors in there for vain young adults, but the one I was looking into was working the way mirrors should work. My face was sweaty, flushed with terror, my eyes looking for any escape available. And it is just then that a smiling face caught my eye in the mirror beside me.
In a southern drawl came, “How ya doing?” I gave eye contact in the mirror and lied and said, “Okay.”
I replaced the sweat with water as I rinsed my face and the 50-something man gave me a towel and asked me, “Where y’all from?” Since I was the only other person in there, it struck me funny and awestruck me when I figured to whom I was talking to.
“I am from the Hershey area,” I said.
“Oh right down the road,” he said. “Well, I am from Baltimore.”
“Mr. Robinson,” I stammered, “What an honor to meet you.”
“Call me Brooks,” he said. “What room are you in?”
“Room 350,” I replied.
“Come on down and meet my son, Michael, he’s in 348.”
If not for a mirror, I am not sure I would have made a great friend in Michael 10 minutes into a raging panic attack.
So when the pandemic struck – baseball was a loss, a profound one really, because baseball has brought me so much that is good in my life – I began to lament. April means baseball, it means winter is over, life begins, things are hopeful, and there is brightness coming. One of the first things that I did was watch the 1970 World Series on YouTube. It’s a special World Series in several ways. It was the first one that I ever remember watching. As a six-year-old, my love of baseball was already mature, so I distinctly remember walking home from school and turning on our black and white television set to catch the afternoon games. The Series, featuring the perennial American League champ Baltimore Orioles against the rising Big Red Machine, Cincinnati Reds of the National League, was a battle of titans. The Orioles and Brooks Robinson were favorites to win, but they had been so the year prior and were stunningly upset by the New York Mets. It had been 50 years since I had seen any highlights from that classic series, but the memories came flooding back as I watched those five games this past spring. Baseball at its best in every way.
What strikes you is the amazing series that third baseman Brooks Robinson had. He made several key defensive plays, one gem was of him diving into foul territory to snag a bullet down the line by Lee May. He robs Johnny Bench of a key hit late in Game 5 to seal it for the O’s. Arguably these remain the best defensive plays ever made by a player on the biggest stage baseball has to offer. It is this post season where Brooks Robinson earns the sobriquet “The Human Vacuum Cleaner.” What, though, is often forgotten is that he clubbed three homeruns during that series and hit over .500 in the 1970 post season. He was named Series MVP deservedly so, and it validated his place as the game’s best all-time third baseman (sorry Mike Schmidt). He won the 1964 American League MVP also, so it is not as if the 33-year-old was not a great player prior to the ’70 series.
Brooks Robinson was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his father (Brooks) was a city firefighter and his mother (Ethel Mae) worked at Sears, Roebuck and Company. He attended racially segregated Little Rock Central High School where racial tensions were about to explode when he graduated in 1954. In the eighth grade he penned an essay about what he wanted to be in life. “Why I want to be a professional baseball player,” was the title, and it struck his teacher as one of the most earnest essays to ever cross her desk.
Just a year out of high school, Brooks made his professional debut with the Baltimore Orioles in September 1955, after playing several months of minor league baseball for the York White Roses – a team that had been around since 1882. In his first game with the White Roses in July, he got a chance to pinch hit. He was 18-years-old and was the only teenager on the squad. The young Brooks was not nervous or overwhelmed by the moment. “I was just so thrilled to be playing professional baseball that the excitement never let me be nervous,” he said.
On the team’s roster, the newbie was listed as B. Robinson, so when he came up to bat in York’s Memorial stadium, the public address announcer decided that his name had to be Bob, so that is how he introduced him for his first professional at bat. When George Trout, the young announcer and devout baseball lover, was made aware of his mistake after a batboy ran up to the press box, he went down to the humble clubhouse post-game to apologize to Brooks.
“He was like a kid who had just looked under the Christmas tree and found every gift he ever wanted,” George Trout remembered. “All he ever wanted to do was play baseball and just having a dingy professional baseball uniform on made him not care about anything else.” Brooks laughed at Trout’s mistaken name announcement and put Trout at ease with his genuine good nature.
When I returned to my new dorm room in Gaige Hall at Millersville University that long ago August day, I had a smile on my face instead of terror. My roommate’s mom, Mrs. Chi Chi Trout said, “So you met Brooks Robinson, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, wow,” I said. “Really cool. He was just in the bathroom and….”
“He is a wonderful person,” Mr. George Trout said in his distinct public address radio vintage voice as he shook my hand.
My fear was gone, for good.
Author’s Note:
Mrs. Frances “Chi Chi” Trout passed away earlier this spring and was a longtime parishioner at St. Joseph’s in York. George Trout passed away several years ago, and his son George Jr., my college roommate, is a high school teacher today. And he was a great roommate 38 years ago.
Brooks Robinson met his wife Constance (Connie) on a team charter flight in 1959 – she was a flight attendant, and he was so smitten by her that he kept ordering iced teas from her until he got the nerve to talk to her. “If anybody else on this team asks you for a date,” he told her. “Say no. They are all married. I am the only single guy on this team.”
Robinson married cradle Catholic Connie in 1960 in Windsor, Ontario, her hometown. Just prior to the 1970 baseball season, Brooks Robinson converted to Catholicism citing that he thought that it was important to attend church with his three sons and daughter.
“I could not be happier being a Catholic,” he said in a 2012 interview. “It has had a great impression on my kids.”
Robinson played 23 seasons for the Baltimore Orioles – the longest tenure ever by any professional ball player with one team. He was elected (93 percent vote) to the Baseball Hall of Fame in July 1983. His fielding percentage of .971 remains the game’s highest mark for any third baseman. He played 2,780 games, had more than 2,800 hits, and belted 268 homers, many out of the big ball park, Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, and knocked in 1,357 runners. He appeared in 18 consecutive All-Star games
Brooks Robinson still lives in the northern suburbs of Baltimore and just turned 83 years old. His son Michael just turned 56 this past spring. The author says thank you to Michael for those late night stick ball games in the dorm hallways, which impressed upon me what a fantastic athlete and human being he is also.
His 1974 autobiography, Third Base is my Home, is one of this author’s favorite all-time books that I read in the seventh grade. Robinson’s humility and earnest goodness is shared in this classic book. Doug Wilson’s Brooks is a great read, and it chronicles the Trout and Robinson 1955 announcing story beautifully.
Brooks Robinson’s salary in 1957 was $6,000 and in his 23 years he never made more than $120,000 – this information is available at www.baseballreference.com.
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness

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