Born to Play Ball - Third Basemen
Mike Schmidt (1972-1989)
"To have his body, I'd trade him mine and my wife's and I'd throw in some cash."
- Pete Rode
Mike Schmidt was not "one of" the greatest third baseman in history-he was the greatest. It's been said that Schmidt combined the power of Eddie Mathews and the Gold Glove ability of Brooks Robinson. He spent his entire career with the Philadelphia Phillies, and in 1983, on the team's 100th anniversary, the Phillies named Schmidt the club's greatest player. When he retired five seasons later, the Phillies also retired his uniform number and erected a statue of Schmidt outside their new ball park.
Schmidt was selected by Philadelphia in the second round of the draft, just after the Kansas City Royals chose another future Hall of Fame third baseman, George Brett. Schmidt breezed through the minors and was the starting third sacker in 1973 for the Phils. He struggled early, batting only .196 with 18 home runs, striking out every third at bat. Schmidt worked hard to improve all aspects of his game, however, resulting in a .282 average, 36 homers and 116 RBIs the following year. He regularly took extra fielding practice and by 1976 won his first of 10 Gold Gloves.
No one worked harder than Schmidt to be the best. As he said, "If you could equate the amount of time and effort put in mentally and physically into succeeding on the baseball field and measured it by the dirt on your uniform, mine would have been black."
He went on to win a then-record 3 MVP Awards and eight home run titles. In 1980 he was named the World Series MVP as he led the Phils to their first and only World Series title. He finished his career with 548 home runs, a record number for a third baseman.
Eddie Mathews (1952-1968)
"I've only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them."
- Ty Cobb
Though not a household name today, Eddie Mathews was one of baseball's all-time great sluggers. He played most of his career with the Milwaukee Braves, a small market team, and even though he is one of the few who have hit over 500 home runs, he is overshadowed by the man who batted in front of him, Hank Aaron. In an era that featured such notable sluggers as Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays, Mathews was always near the top in the home run race, winning it twice.
In 13 seasons, Mathews and Aaron combined for 863 homers, the most ever by a pair of teammates, eclipsing Ruth/Gehrig and Mays/McCovey. At one point in his career, legendary announcer, comedian and former player Bob Uecker, who roomed with Mathews, proudly boasted, "Between me and my roommate, we've hit 400 major league home runs." Problem was that Uecker had a grand total of one at the time.
In 1947, Mathews and Aaron, along with Warren Spahn, led the Milwaukee Braves to a World Series title over the New York Yankees. Mathews won game four with a home run that he hit with Aaron's bat, and he saved a run with a fine defensive play in the seventh and final game. He ended his career as a pinch-hitter for the Detroit Tigers in 1968, when the Tigers won the World Series.
He was prophetic that his teammate, Aaron, would break Babe Ruth's career home run record. Mathews said, "I don't know when Hank Aaron will break Ruth's record, but I can tell you one thing - ten years from the day he hits it, three million people will say they were there."
Brooks Robinson (1955-1977)
The Human Vacuum Cleaner
"He can throw his glove out there and it will start ten double plays by itself."
- Sparky Anderson
Baltimore Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson made the 1970 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds his personal showcase, making one miraculous play after another, earning for himself the MVP Award for the Series. A part of the Award was a brand new car, which prompted Reds' catcher Johnny Bench to say, "Gee! If we had known he wanted a new car that bad, we'd have chipped in and bought him one." Reds manager Sparky Anderson said, "I'm beginning to see Brooks in my sleep. If I dropped a paper plate, he'd pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first."
The 1970 World Series showed the nation what everyone in baseball already knew - Brooks Robinson was the greatest fielding third baseman of all time. He won a record 16 Gold Glove Awards in his 23 seasons, all with the Baltimore Orioles. His 23 years with one team has only been equaled once, by Carl Yastrzemski.
Brooks Robinson was not just a great fielder, he was a clutch hitter who ended his career only 152 hits shy of 3,000. He won the league MVP Award in 1964 when he led the league in runs batted in and in the top five in three other offensive categories. For many years, Brooks was teamed with another Robinson - right fielder Frank - leading the Orioles to four World Series appearances, winning two of the Fall Classics. Frank Robinson, an African-American, joked with journalists, "I don't see why you reporters keep confusing Brooks [white] and me. Can't you see that we wear different numbers?"
Brooks Robinson was revered by the citizens of Baltimore so much that "Brooks" was one of the most popular names for children born in the area in the 1960s and 1970s.
George Brett (1973-1993)
"If God had him no balls and two strikes, he's still get a hit."
- Steve Palermo
Kansas City Royals' third baseman, George Brett, was a hitting machine, posting a career .337 in 43 post-season games. In twenty one seasons, he stroked over 3,000 hits with a .305 lifetime average and won three batting titles, each in a different decade (1976, 1980, 1990). He was the face and leader of the Kansas City Royals for two decades.
His career, though, did not start well, with poor or modest stats his first two seasons. Royals hitting coach, the legendary Charlie Lau, worked with Brett to hit the ball to all fields, breaking him of trying to pull each pitch. In 1975 Brett led the league in hits and triples. His 1980 season caught the nation's attention as he went well into the season with a .400 average, threatening to be the first player since 1941 to hit that mark. He was at .400 as late as September 19, but nagging injuries (and maybe the pressure) got to him. Brett still finished at .390, the highest average ever by a third baseman and the highest since Ted Williams in 1941. He wound up with the league's MVP Award and a trip to the World Series.
Maybe the most lasting image of George Brett was of him charging from the dugout in the famous (and infamous) "Pine Tar Incident." In 1985, Brett had hit a ninth inning, two run homer against the Yankees' Goose Gossage. Immediately after Brett got into the dugout, Yankees manager Billy Martin talked to the home plate umpire, who signaled for Brett's bat from the Royals' dugout. After inspecting the bat thoroughly, the umpire signaled that Brett was out - no home run. Martin had said that the umpire should look at Brett's bat because of a little known rule - that the pine tar could not exceed a certain height on the bat. When Brett saw his homer taken away, he came storming at the umpire in a tirade, an image that is still seen on SportsCenter. The Royals protested the game and American League president Lee McPhail reinstated the home run, acknowledging that while the pine tar was, indeed, too high, the games "should be won and lost on the playing field - not through technicalities of the rules."
George Brett was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1999, the first Royal ever inducted.
Harold Joseph Traynor (1920-1937)
"He was a mechanically perfect third baseman, a man of intellectual worth on the field of play."
- Branch Rickey
Of all nine positions on the baseball field, the Baseball Hall of Fame has fewer third basemen than any other position. Third base had only recently produced great hitters with excellent defensive skills. Which leads us to Pie Traynor, who Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Casey Stengel stated was the greatest at the hot corner.
Traynor's numbers are good (.320 lifetime average) and he rarely struck out. In over 7,500 at bats, Traynor fanned a mere 278 times, a testament to his great bat control. The latter statistic is even more impressive because Traynor was known for being a bad-ball hitter, that is, swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. What garnered the most accolades from his peers was his defensive play. "He looked like a real ballplayer, even though he seemed to be all arms and legs and [had] feet like violin cases. He also had big hands and scooped up every ball hit at him," stated Edward Barrow. Traynor played before the Gold Glove awards were introduced. Otherwise, he and the award would have been well acquainted.
In 1925, he led his Pittsburgh Pirates to a World Series title over the Washington Senators. He also was with the Pirates in 1927 when they were manhandled by the Babe Ruth-led Yankees, a team many consider the greatest in history. The Buccos lost four straight to the Bronx Bombers.
In 1948, Traynor was elected into the Hall of Fame, the first third baseman ever inducted into baseball's shrine of greats.
Wade Boggs (1982-1999)
"[M]ight be the purest hitter in baseball. No one has yet found a way to get him out consistently."
- a 1984 scouting report
Wade Boggs won five batting titles and batted .328 for his career, averaging 200 hits per season. He entered the 3,000 hit club in his last season by belting a home run - the only player to have a homer as their 3,000th hit. He was a veritable hitting machine, yet his power numbers were slight - only 118 homers in his career. He rarely struck out.
Yet few players were as superstitious as Boggs. His nickname of "Chicken" referred to his habit of eating chicken before every game. He fielded exactly 150 balls and took batting practice the exact time before every contest.
Ken Boyer (1955-1969)
"Kenny Boyer was a pillar of strength in the Cardinal organization. It was kind of understood that Kenny took care of the players coming into the organization."
- Stan Musial
Ken Boyer came from a great baseball family - two brothers also played in the major leagues and three other brothers played in the minor leagues. He was the captain of the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals of 1964. He won five Gold Gloves and the 1964 MVP. During much of his career, he was overshadowed by other third basemen, such as Brooks Robinson, Eddie Mathews and Ron Santo. When he retired, he was among the all-time leaders in slugging, assists and double plays by third basemen. He also tied the then-record of 90 or more runs batted in for seven seasons held by Pie Traynor.
Ron Santo (1960-1974)
"Ron Santo towers far above the real standard of the real Hall of Fame."
- Bill James
The greatest third baseman in Chicago Cubs history is also one of the most beloved among the Windy City's fans. Ron Santo finished his career with 342 home runs, five Gold Gloves and batted over .300 four times, yet he and many talented teammates never made it to the post season. Those teammates included Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. Probably the most remarkable fact of Santo's career was that he played with a silent disease, diabetes, which was diagnosed at age 18. He was told not to expect to live beyond age 25. Nearly 50 years later Santo is still alive and is a regular on all of the Cubs radio broadcasts.