The Act opened in Boston six weeks ago and did 12,000 paid, which, if it ain't socko, is better than the Dolly Sisters ever did in Boston on the Tuesday after Easter with the temperature in the 40s. When The Act played New York on a cold, miserable, overcast Sunday it drew 13,800, a tribute to the power of a good advance. Three weeks ago in Baltimore it pulled a record 49,000. Two weeks ago in Cleveland it lured 34,100 from the barbecues of Shaker Heights to Municipal Stadium and, brother, that is socko. And last week in Baltimore—Preakness Week, mind you—it got 67,700 for four appearances in three days, and David Merrick would probably trade Cactus Flower even up for The Act right now.
Nobody, however, has a chance to get Frank and Brooks Robinson away from the Baltimore Orioles. In an era when pitching and speed are dominating major league baseball—and maybe even dulling it a bit—the Robinsons have prevented hitting from becoming a lost art. Hitting back to back for the Orioles, they have been exploiting situations, bringing crowds to their feet as well as into the ball park, changing baseball games around as quickly as you can say base hit.
The American League seems to be filled with acts this season, but so far the two Robinsons are by far the most interesting. This week they play for the first time in the cities where the crowds should be, if the weather holds: Chicago, Anaheim, Minneapolis-St. Paul. If they continue to do all year what they have done the first six weeks, they could even upstage the American League's last big gate attraction, Maris and Mantle back in 1961.
Actually, The Act has only lived up to expectations. Frank, who came from Cincinnati last December in the trade for Milt Pappas, Dick Simpson and Jack Baldschun, was a name to be mentioned in the same breath with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays in the National League. Brooks, for six years, had ranked second only to crab cakes in Baltimore. But as The Act was being polished on tour in Florida during spring training, it looked too good to be true. Skeptics said wait, wait until the regular season begins.
May 30, 1966
Then it opened in Boston, dear Boston, and did it ever open. It was a smash in the very first inning of the very first game of the new season. Frank Robinson stepped to the plate for his first time at bat in the American League and began the ritualistic process that for 10 years had sent shivers up and down the spines of National League pitchers. Digging his spikes into the batter's box, Robinson scratched away the white chalk line from the front of the box. He smoothed the dirt with his hands, readying the earth the way little old ladies prepare the soil for petunias. He put his left foot almost on the edge of the plate and, swack!, got hit by a pitch from Boston's Earl Wilson. Back in Baltimore people sucked in their breath as they listened on radios, but Frank merely trotted off to first base, and up came Brooks.
That is the name around Baltimore—Brooks. It has always been "Brooks this" and "Brooks that." Great plays by "Brooks." Pressure hit piled upon pressure hit by "Brooks." When Brooks won the Most Valuable Player award two seasons back, it was as though all Baltimore had won it. The thing Baltimore wanted now in this situation was the impossible, a home run. Brooks gave it to them, high over the left-field wall, and The Act was on its way. Where will it end?
In that first game the Robinsons collected five hits, three runs, two home runs, four runs batted in and a stolen base. In the Orioles' first four games Frank and Brooks hit three home runs apiece, Brooks batted in eight runs and Frank scored six. They tore the New York Yankees apart in five games by combining for a .470 batting average and 12 runs batted in. And they kept it up against the other clubs.
Last weekend they were second and third in the league in hitting, and the only thing that kept them from being first and second was Minnesota's Tony Oliva, who, it has been suggested, should form a third league of his own. Brooks led the league in runs driven in, Frank led it in scoring. Brooks led the league in doubles and hits, and Frank was one short of the lead in home runs. Beyond the statistics is the challenge they present to the enemy. Only once have opposing pitchers been able to hold both Robinsons hitless in a game. In Baltimore's first 32 games, the two were responsible 24 times for driving in the winning run, the tying run, the go-ahead run or the run that brought the Orioles to within one of a tie.
The biggest moment came when Frank Robinson hit a home run out of Memorial Stadium three weeks ago before that crowd of 49,000. It was the first fair ball ever hit out of the big stadium. Later Brooks pointed out where Frank had hit it. "Right up there, just over the bleacher wall. It was measured at 451 feet on the fly and 540 feet overall. He really creamed it. He's a tremendous guy to be playing with and to hit behind. He gets on base so often, and he can steal and set up a run for us. Sure, that puts pressure on me, but I enjoy it." Brooks looked out at the left-field bleachers. "Some of the fans put a sign up where the ball went out of the park." The sign says, simply, HERE!
When Brooks was asked if he knew his own batting average, he laughed. Asked if he kept track of Frank's, he smiled. "Naw," he said, "ball players aren't supposed to say they keep close track of their batting averages all the time. You know when you are going good." Then Brooks rolled up the short right sleeve of his uniform blouse and peeked inside. "Would you believe .350 and .346?" he asked.
Anyone who has seen The Act will believe anything, for its importance to the Orioles is almost unbelievable. Two weeks ago, for instance, everyone on the team except the Robinsons stopped hitting. "In all the time I have been in baseball," said Manager Hank Bauer, "I have never seen a team go into a hitting slump like this. If we hadn't had Brooks and Frank, I don't know where we would be." Boog Powell, the big first baseman, had gone 1 for 40 and was batting .180. Dave Johnson, the rookie second baseman, had sagged to .200. Luis Aparicio was down to .218. Curt Blefary, last year's Rookie of the Year, was hitting .230. Andy Etchebarren, the gritty young catcher, had fallen off to .240. "This slump has us all down," Bauer added. "But sometimes a silly little hit can break a team out of a thing like this."
On Blefary's first at bat after Bauer's talk he got a silly little hit that drove in a run, and in the same series Etchebarren homered and tripled. But more important, the Robinsons, still sailing along, hit two homers each. If they can keep it up and if the other Orioles indeed come out of the dismal slump, June could be a rich, rich month for Baltimore. The Orioles play 32 consecutive games in June against California, Kansas City, Washington, Boston and the Yankees, the five teams that made up the American League's second division last year. They say that pennants are won by beating the tailenders.