George Brett, Frank Robinson linked

For those taking long flights to spend the holidays with family seeking a crafty way to put the finishing touches on shopping, here’s a tip: Buy a book, read it on the airplane, wrap it, put a name on the card, stick it under the tree. Two reads for the price of one.

Former Kansas University chancellor and American League president Gene Budig penned just such a book that quickly can become a gift. (Just don’t eat anything sloppy while reading it and nobody will know it’s used.)

In his third and final of a series of books that are his essays on nine big names with whom Budig has crossed paths through the years — this one titled “Clearing the Bases: Nine who did it with grit and class” — two chapters especially caught my attention because I’ve always linked them together as part of a very rare breed: underrated Hall of Fame baseball players.

George Brett and Frank Robinson, by definition as Hall of Famers, are famous, just not as famous as many players who didn’t will victories as regularly as they did.

On the surface, they don’t have much in common. Robinson began his career in 1956 and ended in 1976; Brett’s went from 1973 to 1993. Robinson played in the right corner of the outfield and batted from the right side of the plate. Brett played in the left corner of the infield and batted from the left side of the plate. Robinson was a great power hitter who made good contact. Brett was a great contact hitter who had good power.

Watching Brett always called to mind watching Robinson because of the way both men played the game. Every pitch, whether they were at the plate, in the field or on the bases, these guys were in your face, getting every edge possible, thinking of nothing but how to score runs and prevent the other guys from scoring them.

“Frank played to win,” Budig said in a phone interview. “It was OK if fans loved him, but that was not his goal. His sole preoccupation was winning. Brett was more fan-friendly. Brett was great with fans until the first pitch was thrown. Then he moved into a different zone.”

Budig said he became close with Brett.

“I think it always troubled him that he did not have a degree, especially since he was very successful in business and he was as well-spoken as any college graduate,” Budig said. “I stayed after him about taking classes (at KU’s Johnson County campus). He would have been a superior student. He would have read five books when only one was required. He would have approached that as he did learning hitting from Charlie Lau. No matter what he was taught, he wanted to learn more.”

Robinson was baseball’s dean of discipline for part of Budig’s reign as AL president.

“He’s emotionless,” Budig said of Robinson, who hit 586 home runs without the aid of injections. “No emotion. Just the facts. He’s Joe Friday. When the curtain came up, he was there with his recommendation, and he never backed away from it.”

That’s what made Brett and Robinson even better than players with comparable statistics. Baseball’s a game of reflexes. They made the most of theirs by playing so aggressively. On the path to winning, they never backed away from anything, be it a collision at the plate or a head-hunting hurler.