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Goodbye to the true Lord Baltimore
Brooks Robinson, beloved for 23 years as an Oriole, passes at 86.
The Baltimore Orioles became presentable just in time. They began dragging themselves out of 100-loss hell in the middle of last season. They somehow remembered how they did it through the winter and into the spring, and they became the best regular-season team in the American League.
There’s a certain serendipity to quick turnarounds like that. In this case there was urgency, too. It was like they sensed they had to be good for Brooks Robinson, to make sure he could rest in peace.
Last year they had a day for Robinson, who was still hanging on despite various falls and maladies and a brush with prostate cancer. He threw out the first pitch that night. Behind the plate was Gunnar Henderson, who the Orioles had drafted in 2019 and paid $2.2 million. Robinson had been the Orioles’ first real star. Henderson seemed likely to be the next. Grandsons of Robinson’s biggest fans would follow Henderson on his undetermined adventures. Rarely do the statues, like the one of Robinson on the street outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, actually walk and talk.
Robinson passed away Tuesday, at 86. They had a moment of silence before Baltimore’s game with Washington. Manager Brandon Hyde had trouble keeping his eyes dry. So, too, did 3-time Cy Young Award winner Jim Palmer, now a broadcaster who saw so many of his pitching mistakes find shelter in Robinson’s third base glove. Sure enough the Orioles won, 1-0, thanks to a home run from Henderson.
But there will be no Next Brooks Robinson, a concept that always bemused him, because there will be no 23-year players for the same franchise, no 18-time All-Stars, no 16-time All-Stars, nobody who could repel Goliath’s projectiles exactly that way. His slingshot was his glove, and Earl Weaver, his most famous manager, maintained that Robinson had gloves stacked up, like ambitious members of the House of Windsor. When Robinson couldn’t come up with a play, he often would retire the glove and bring up one of his developmental gloves, from some imaginary Triple-A team of gloves in his closet. He would acclimate the new glove during his daily ground ball sessions, the ones he used to sharpen the memory of the most knowledgeable muscles in the game.
Beginning in 1966, the Orioles played in four World Series in six years and won it twice. Robinson had already won the MVP in 1964. Now, with a trade that brought Frank Robinson from Cincinnati in exchange for Milt Pappas, the Orioles won 100 games in three consecutive seasons. Brooks was the hub of all that.
Few players have ever annexed a World Series, made it his own, as Robinson did in 1970. The signature play came against Lee May, whose chopper perfectly followed the baseline. Robinson tracked it down, was at least three steps into foul territory by the time he decelerated, turned and threw blindly, and bounced the ball into Boog Powell’s glove just in time. Robinson also hit .429 in the 5-game win, with two homers and six RBI, and stood resolutely in front of the wheels of the first Big Red Machine.
Those were the days when Sport Magazine awarded a car to the MVP of the World Series. Al Silverman, editor of the magazine, said it was the first time he didn’t have to ask for anyone else’s nominations.
Said Johnny Bench, the young catcher, “I”m looking forward to getting here again and by then I hope Brooks Robinson has retired.”.
We assume that was Robinson’s prime time. Actually, he was 33 during that Series. But there was an ageless quality to him, primarily because he never really changed. For four years he never missed a game, reasoning that there were 162 of them and “you got to play ‘em.” Perfect attendance was his only goal. He figured the rest of the numbers would take care of themselves and they did. He wound up with 2,848 hits, and only once did he strike out more than 70 times in a season.
Baltimore became the new home of the St. Louis Browns in 1954, the same year Robinson graduated from Little Rock Central High in Arkansas and got a $4,000 bonus to sign. That Orioles’ team lost 100 games. Don Larsen, two years before he would write history, won three and lost 21. Robinson played six games in 1955 for the Orioles, who didn’t finish over .500 until 1960, surprising the rest of the league the same way the 2022 Orioles did. From that point, their fortunes roughly coincided with Robinson’s.
Some players make it look easy, the way Palmer made it look on the mound, the way Mark Belanger made it look in the field as a shortstop. Robinson never did. Hitting wasn’t natural to him. He wasn’t fast. Scouts didn’t think much of his arm. Without the faith of Paul Richards, he might not have gotten second chances.
He overcame all that, as the fans followed through streak and slump alike. What separated Robinson was that he made life look easy. He was everything you’d expect a ballplayer to be, which is why Norman Rockwell made that portrait of Robinson signing an autograph for a kid. Anybody in Baltimore who really wanted one could get one. Palmer’s only complaint was that Robinson made it tough for him to sign the same baseball. The signature was too big.
The Baltimore Banner relayed the story of Rick Vaughn, the Orioles’ PR man at the time, who fielded a call from a man in York, Pa., whose son was sick and who would really appreciate a call from Robinson. Vaughn knew Robinson would follow up. He, too, had idolized Robinson, even insisting on wearing his No. 5 throughout Little League.
A few days later Vaughn asked Robinson if he’d made the call.
“No,” Robinson said. “I just drove up there and saw him.”
But Robinson wasn’t a prude or a pushover, and he had a well-hidden vein of devilment, too. He and Belanger were prime movers in the emergence of the Players’ Association. And on an early chartered flight, he was intrigued by a flight attendant named Connie Butcher. Robinson took her aside and warned her that everyone on the team was married, with one exception: Himself. They went out for dinner and were married for 62 years, with ten grandchildren. The fact that, no, not all the Orioles were married didn’t come out until later.
It was clear that Robinson’s 23rd year would be his last and maybe shouldn’t have started at all. When catcher Rick Dempsey recovered from an injury, Robinson made room for him by announcing his retirement. That was merciful, and Robinson immediately became a broadcaster. Dempsey struck out three times that night. “They retired me for that?” Robinson asked.
Gordon Beard, a wire-service reporter, saw Reggie Jackson spend a couple of aimless months with the Orioles while he prepped for free agency, a process that Robinson, the 23-year Oriole, never sampled.. Beard wrote that while other cities name candy bars out of their baseball heroes, Baltimoreans name their children after Robinson. As the Banner reported, Ken Singleton would address fans and ask them to raise their hands if they were named Brooks. There were always more than a few.
The eighth-grader who wrote a paper about his plans to play in the major leagues would have written the same paper, with the same motivations, when he became a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1983. No antagonistic molecule could infiltrate the purity of Brooks Robinson. He even made sure the circle was unbroken before he left, made sure Gunnar Henderson and company had the ball going into October. Now they, and Baltimore, are on their own.