Hall of Famer better known for glove holds record for ultimate rally killer
By Marty Noble
Earl Weaver was an astute and sly baseball man. He played the percentages or, on some occasions, took a deep drag on his cigarette and trusted his gut. Weaver's appreciation of three-run home runs is legendary. He made sure his rosters always included players who could provide them and strategized to create situations that might produce them.
As much as Weaver embraced the three-run blast, he hated double plays when they were executed against his Orioles teams. He urged his players to avoid them whenever possible, advising them to search their souls whenever they batted in a double-play situations. Weaver told them: "If you think you might hit into a double play ... I mean, if you're really convinced a double play is likely, if you're sure you're gonna to pound one into the dirt and they're gonna turn two ... there's one thing I want you to do ...
Not surprisingly, the warnings of Weaver applied to triple plays as well. He wanted no part of them. And evidently, Weaver's players took the heart his aversion to them, for once the Hall of Fame manager-to-be took over as the Orioles' manager in 1969, the O's became significantly less triple play-prone. Double plays happened of course, but the number of triple play turned against the Orioles dropped dramatically. He was a happy man.
MLB.com, using data compiled by SABR (The Society for Baseball Research), has determined that the Orioles hit into 12 triples plays, more than any other team, in their first 15 seasons playing in Baltimore (1954-68). And beginning with Weaver's rookie season in the dugout and running through Monday night, their opponents produced merely five.
Now, that disparity certainly might be attributable to the randomness of the game, a randomness that can't be readily digested or believed at times. But in this case, a curiously common factor has been identified. It is Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson who, remarkably, hit into four triple plays in a sequence of 10 seasons before Weaver replaced Hank Bauer.
Not only does four in 10 seasons seem to be stunningly frequent, four in any number of season is unmatched. Indeed, no player before or since has hit into triples plays as often Robinson. You could look it up.
He need not; Robinson is quite aware of the distinction that is likely to be his forever. "I wouldn't mind seeing someone erase my record of hitting into four triple plays" is his standard line. "But I did have the touch," he said from his home outside Baltimore on Tuesday afternoon.
Robinson's propensity to end rallies with one swing comes to mind because Tuesday is the anniversary of his first three-out swing. Fifty-seven years ago, Brooksie batted with runners on first and second and -- of course -- none out in the sixth inning of a home game against the usually neighborly Senators. He smacked a line drive to Rocky Bridges, the late Senators shortstop. Bridges stepped on second base to double off Lenny Green and then threw to first baseman Julio Becquer to eliminate Jim Marshall.
A triple play, the fifth triple play against the Orioles in five years.
There were many more, it turned out, where that came from. And Robinson did more than his share. Beginning with that play that day and through Aug. 6, 1967, the date of his final TP episode, all of big league baseball hit into 37 triples plays. The Orioles were the victims seven times, and Robinson was the hitter in four of the seven occasions. No other team was tripled up as much as Brooksie. Moreover, O's hitters hit into six of the 26 triple plays -- or 23 percent of the triple plays in the big leagues -- in a period of five seasons, from 1964-68. And three of the six plays began with swings by Robinson.
Robinson seldom missed games, batted right-handed and was a pull hitter who played for 23 seasons for teams that were not offensively challenged and, hence, had a lot of runners on base. All that contributed to his career triple-play total. And despite his quickness at third base, he hardly was known for his foot speed. Only 10 players -- among them former Orioles Eddie Murray and all-time leader Cal Ripken, much to Weaver's dismay -- hit into more double plays that Brooksie.
"I guess we did hit into a bunch of 'em. We weren't much of speed team," Robinson said. "Over the years, we had only a couple of guys who could run. You know they had Jesse Owens come talk to us one spring to teach us how to get out of the box quicker. I don't think it helped me too much. ... It must be in our blood, Orioles blood. I know Cal hit into a lot of double plays. It's his record now. But I told him he needed to hit into some triple plays too, just to take the heat off me."
It is remarkable that a man renowned for his defense so often was such a triple (play) threat. But Robinson was not solely to blame. It wasn't as though he ground balls directly at infielders and ran to first base at Ernie Lombardi speed.
Robinson was only partially guilty of one GITP, in 1964 against another team named Senators, but these were the expansion Senators who became the Rangers in 1972. And the third out was achieved at the plate. Louie Aparicio had tried to score from second base on the play. Hardly Robinson's doing.
Robinson batted with the bases loaded and hit a ground ball to shortstop in the fifth inning of what became a lopsided Orioles victory in Washington Sept. 10, 1964. (It was his MVP season, incidentally.) Shortstop John Kennedy to second baseman Don Blasingame to first baseman Joe Cunningham to catcher Mike Brumley. Your basic 6-6-4-3-2 triple play.
Robinson's third episode happened Aug. 18 the following season at home against the Red Sox. It was of the rare 5-4-4-3-5 variety (Frank Malzone to Felix Mantilla to Tony Horton to Bob Tillman) the Sox turned in the first inning. Paul Blair was the third out at third base. He'd been on second when the ball was hit. Robinson reached and rounded third while the first two outs were happening, but he slipped after he had rounded third. Tillman chased Blair and tagged him after taking Horton's throw.
That one wasn't entirely Robinson's fault either.
With that piece of baseball misfortune, Robinson became the fourth player to hit into three triple plays. The other three -- George Sisler, Deacon McGuire and Joe Start -- played before 1930 when triple plays were more prevalent. There were 342 triple plays from 1876 through 1929, when far fewer games per season were played than have been played per season since the first expansion in 1961, and 358 in the 85-plus subsequent seasons.
The play that distinguishes Robinson from all other players happened on Aug. 6, 1967, in the fifth inning of the second game of a home doubleheader against the White Sox. It was a more the type of play envisioned when triple plays are mentioned, a 5-4-3 that killed a rally but hardly mattered. The O's won, 4-0.
For that matter, the Orioles won three of the four games that included Robinson's triple plays. And he produced exceptionally well in his other at-bats in those games. Eliminate the four triple plays, and Robinson had 10 hits in 13 at-bats (.769), scored four times and drove in four runs. "I must have felt guilty," he said.
Nary one three-run home run came in those 17 turns at the plate, but Weaver probably would have accepted those performances nonetheless, particularly from his defensive third baseman.
Incidentally, Robinson, a 16-time Gold Glove winner, did have a hand in three other triple plays. The hand was covered by a glove in each instance.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.