Robinson-Schmidt debate swings on defense vs. power CLOSE CALL AT THIRD

July 28, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Philadelphia Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt will be inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame on Sunday and assume -- in the minds of millions of fans -- that place in baseball history reserved for the game's greatest third baseman.

And why not? The guy hit 548 home runs during his 18-year major-league career. He ranks among the all-time leaders in virtually every relevant power and run-production category. He was named National League Most Valuable Player three times. He led the league in home runs eight times. And he was an outstanding third baseman with great range and a rifle for an arm. Who could argue?

Well, a few hundred thousand Orioles fans might be willing to take up the debate. If Schmidt is the greatest player who ever carried a glove to third base, then that would mean that Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson isn't. Try selling that notion in Hampden sometime.

"People want to talk about who is the best," said Robinson, who will be in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the induction of Schmidt, Richie Ashburn and the late Leon Day and Vic Willis. "I think the best third baseman is whoever you want it to be. I think when you hit 500 home runs, that's pretty impressive. He [Schmidt] was an outstanding fielder who won a lot of home run titles."

Robinson is far too modest to take up his own case in such a debate, almost to the point where he seems willing to concede that Schmidt was more of an impact player. Perhaps he was, but there is room to argue that Robinson's unparalleled defense was enough to counterbalance the weight of Schmidt's tremendous offense -- especially when you consider that Robinson's offensive contribution was far from insignificant.

"Brooks was an offensive third baseman, too," said another Orioles Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson. "You can't sneeze at 20 home runs and 100 RBIs. He was no slouch. He was the best third baseman I ever saw or played with. The guy made exceptional plays every day. He made them so often you didn't get excited about it, because you came to expect them. I'm not talking about good plays. I'm talking about exceptional plays.

"Mike Schmidt was a good defensive third baseman, but what made him exceptional was his tremendous offensive ability."

Longtime major-league manager Gene Mauch agrees that any attempt to compare Schmidt and Robinson is like comparing the batting styles of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

"You can't compare the bats," Mauch said. "Brooks is one of my best buddies, but as good as Brooks was with the bat, you can't compare his bat with Schmidt's. And as good as Schmidt was at third base -- and he was good -- you can't compare him to Brooks. So it comes down to where you place your priorities."

Schmidt would not take issue with that. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame with the fourth-highest percentage of ballots in history, he conceded that Robinson was the better defensive third baseman.

"Brooks Robinson is the greatest defensive third baseman in history, and I would say my numbers are a little better than the other third basemen offensively," Schmidt said that day.

Unparalleled power

In the modern era, the game has put such a premium on power that Schmidt's offensive prowess stands out. He ranks seventh on the all-time home run list and 19th with 1,595 RBIs. But he also was considered the game's top defensive third baseman through much of his career, and he has 10 Gold Gloves to prove it.

"I think Schmidt goes to the top of the list because he hit 500 home runs," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, "but when you get to the intangibles, it's hard to say, because I was never a teammate of Mike Schmidt. I don't know what kind of guy he was in the clubhouse. I do know that nobody was a better teammate than Brooks. The bottom line is, I wouldn't mind having either of them on my team if I was pitching . . . but I'd have to lean toward the 500 home runs. You can't catch a home run."

Determining who was the best of all time might depend on how you define the job.

"If you were starting a team from scratch, which one would you choose to build it around?" asked Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller. "Schmidt would give you a great defensive player and your cleanup hitter -- one of the best in any era. Brooks was a fabulous third baseman, a great guy in the clubhouse and a team leader. Even knowing how truly great Brooks was at third base, if I was starting a team, I'd have to go with Schmidt."

A clutch performer

Robinson didn't have a Ruthian swing, but he did have an impact at the plate. He was one of the best clutch hitters of his generation, and proved it with a .429 average in the 1970 World Series -- the same World Series that cemented his reputation as the best defensive third baseman in the history of the game.

"If I had to go to war with one of them, it would be Brooks," said Orioles teammate Boog Powell. "He didn't have 500 home runs, but look at him in clutch situations. When you had a situation with the tying or winning run on base, you wanted him up there.

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