You always remember your first.
First car, first love, first job.
For a generation of baseball fans, their first real-life hero was an everyman from Arkansas who made his major-league debut at age 18 in the second year of the modern-day Baltimore Orioles’ existence and grew with a burgeoning fan base until he was a household name, an American League MVP, a World Series MVP, a Hall of Famer and Baltimore’s favorite adopted son.
Brooks Calbert Robinson, the original Mr. Oriole, died Tuesday, according to a statement from the team.
A Statement from the Robinson Family and the Orioles:
“We are deeply saddened to share the news of the passing of Brooks Robinson. An integral part of our Orioles Family since 1955, he will continue to leave a lasting impact on our club, our community, and the sport of…
— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) September 26, 2023
He leaves behind his wife of 62 years, Connie, their four children (Brooks David, Chris, Michael and Diana) and a legion of fans throughout the world.
He was 86 years old.
“All of us at Major League Baseball are saddened by the loss of Brooks Robinson, one of the greats of our National Pastime and a legend of the Baltimore Orioles,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a Tuesday statement, later adding, “I will always remember Brooks as a true gentleman who represented our game extraordinarily well on and off the field all his life. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Brooks’ family, his many friends across our game, and Orioles fans everywhere.”
Robinson’s popularity rose far beyond his incomparable defensive skills and clutch hitting; he was known as a Hall of Fame person for his humility and the way he treated everyone he encountered. That’s Brooks Robinson’s lasting legacy.
“He doesn’t consider people fans. He really considers them family or friends. And, so, when there’s a connection, he takes the number, he makes the call. There’s no gatekeeper, middle man,” Diane Hock, Robinson’s longtime marketing attorney and agent, told The Athletic in a 2021 interview. “He’ll tell you he doesn’t really have fans, he has friends. That’s the beauty of who he is.”
Robinson is best known for the work he did at third base and at the plate for 23 seasons, all with the Orioles, from 1955 to 1977. He also was a broadcaster, a businessman, a philanthropist, a partner in a minor-league-baseball ownership group and past president of the Major League Players Alumni Association.
He’ll forever be considered the greatest defensive third baseman of all-time, an 18-time All-Star (in 15 consecutive seasons) and winner of 16 Gold Gloves, the most for any position player in the award’s history. Offensively, he was a career .267 hitter with 268 homers and 1,357 RBIs who seemingly raised his game in the postseason.
50 years later: An oral history of the ‘Brooks Robinson World Series’
“He was the most amazing, winning ballplayer and that’s the greatest tribute that you can say,” said Robinson’s close friend and teammate Boog Powell in a 2020 interview with The Athletic. “He’s a winner.”
Robinson appeared in 39 playoff games, including four World Series, two of which his Orioles won (1966, 1970). He hit .303 with a .785 OPS in 156 postseason plate appearances. In 1970, when Baltimore beat Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in five games to capture their second championship in four years, Robinson won the Series MVP by batting .429 with nine hits, including two home runs, and contributing several iconic defensive gems.
Those who played with Robinson understand the country was mesmerized by Robinson’s defensive wizardry in 1970, but they felt like it was just another week of work for the man nicknamed “The Human Vacuum Cleaner.”
“We all love Brooksie. And we all thought he was a great player. We always expected him to make great plays and that’s what he did,” said former Oriole Davey Johnson in a 2020 interview. “You don’t pick a series or a game or whatever because he did it every day. I get it. Yeah, you can highlight him for that Series. But, let me tell you, he was great every time he went out there.”
For his part, Robinson described the 1970 World Series as, “A once-in-a-lifetime, five-game series, that’s what I say. I never had a five-game roll like that in my life. And I played a long time.”
Late Associated Press reporter Gordon Beard is credited with one of the greatest lines in Baltimore sportswriting history.
“Around here, nobody’s named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson; we name our children after him.”
Brooks’ namesakes have dotted the Maryland landscape for decades and continue to do so. And it’s not just in the Mid-Atlantic Region. There are documented cases of Brookses from Canada and Florida and California that have been named after Robinson.
“I run into people all over that tell me about their Brooks,” Robinson said in 2020. “I tell people, “I’ve got a lot of little Brookses running around.”
Perhaps the most inspiring story came to light in 2021, when the Orioles claimed right-hander Brooks Kriske off waivers from the New York Yankees. He appeared in four September games for the Orioles before being released in the offseason.
Not only was Kriske, who grew up in California, named after Robinson, but his family made a connection through Hock and became friends with the Hall-of-Famer. Robinson ultimately attended a few of the boy’s games in California, from youth ball to college, to watch him play.
And then, as fate would arrange, Kriske briefly became an Oriole.
“It’s pretty surreal. I was a baseball junkie growing up. So, it was very special to me,” Kriske said in September about his relationship with Robinson.
The Kriske family, like many others, first learned of Robinson through his exploits playing third for the Orioles. But, once they met the legend, their esteem for him grew. And, for Brooks Kriske, it gave him a path to follow.
“Obviously, you hope to have the career that he had on the field, but I can control how kind and generous I am to the fans and to the staff and to my teammates,” Brooks Kriske said. “And I think that’s where Brooks’ legacy lies. And I know that is something in my control, and I can hopefully have the same impact that he has left, not necessarily on the field but amongst my peers.”
While in eighth grade in his hometown of Little Rock, Ark., Robinson compiled a booklet called “My Vocation.” His project focused on baseball, and he wrote about the salaries and the hours involved and the skills needed to make that dream a reality.
It was the only job he ever wanted. He decided not to play football in high school because he was afraid an injury might derail his baseball dreams.
In 1955, as an 18-year-old senior, the Orioles signed Robinson for a $4,000 bonus and a major-league contract. Only two teams offered a big-league deal: The Orioles and, perhaps fittingly, the Reds, whom Robinson tortured in the 1970 World Series.
Robinson chose the Orioles because he believed he would be able to get to – and stay – at the majors more quickly because the big-league club wasn’t good. He was right, though the Reds cried foul, suggesting that Robinson had taken additional money under the table from the Orioles and manager/GM Paul Richards.
The Reds filed a complaint with Commissioner Ford Frick, and Robinson, ultimately had to go to the commissioner’s office in New York and stress he didn’t receive a penny over $4,000. Frick was satisfied, and Robinson and the Orioles were cleared.
Robinson began his pro career for the York (Pa.) White Roses in the Class B Piedmont League, weeks after he turned 18. It was an inauspicious debut. He was so new to the franchise, that in his first start he was listed as “B. Robinson” on the scorecard. The public address announcer, playing the odds, announced “Bob Robinson” for the kid’s first pro at-bat.
Robinson made a name for himself in York — hitting .331 with 11 homers and a .903 OPS in 95 games — and forged an impenetrable bond there. Robinson was part of a minor-league ownership group that brought an Atlantic League team to York in 2007 and there is a statue of Robinson outside the Revolution’s stadium and headquarters, which is located at 5 Brooks Robinson Way.
After his 1955 season ended in York, Robinson was promoted to the big-league Orioles and had two hits in his debut against the Washington Senators. He didn’t get another hit for the rest of the season. In a 2020 Q&A with The Athletic, he remembered calling his parents after that first game.
“I said, ‘I don’t know why I was in York. I should have been here.’ But then I went 0-for-18 after that for the rest of the year,” Robinson said. “That was a good lesson to learn.”
Robinson became the Orioles’ primary third baseman in 1958 at age 21. By 1960, he had made his first All-Star team and finished third in MVP voting behind only the New York Yankees’ Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. In 1964, he hit .317 with 28 homers and a league-leading 118 RBIs to win his only AL MVP award.
Two years later, the Orioles traded for outfielder Frank Robinson, the two men immediately clicked, and the future Hall of Famers combined to lead the dynastic club to four World Series from 1966-71, including the 1970 World Champions that are considered one of the greatest teams in baseball history.
Robinson retired in 1977, with more than 50,000 people attending a game at Memorial Stadium in September for “Thanks, Brooks” Day, a celebration in which he received a new car, a third base bag and, fittingly, a vacuum cleaner. His No. 5 has not been worn by an Oriole since.
Debate may rage as to whether Robinson or Cal Ripken Jr., the Hall of Fame infielder who is a native Marylander, is the true Mr. Oriole – Robinson humbly said he passed that title onto Ripken decades ago – but there’s no question that Robinson was the first Mr. Oriole and the franchise’s first enduring star.
A long-time resident of Baltimore County, Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, receiving 344 of 374 possible votes (92 percent) in his first year on the ballot.
After his retirement, Robinson worked from 1978 until 1992 as a color commentator for Orioles games airing on WJZ-TV, WMAR-TV and Super TV.
When the Angelos family took over the Orioles, the club’s relationship with Robinson gradually splintered and the Hall of Famer’s appearances at Camden Yards became more infrequent. In 2012, a statue dedicated to Robinson was unveiled, the second of two on or near the stadium grounds, and in July 2018, the Orioles’ John Angelos hired Robinson to be a special advisor and community liaison for the club.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Robinson spent more time at the downtown ballpark than he had in decades, and always received standing ovations whenever shown on the stadium’s big screen.
Over the years, Robinson dealt with several health issues including prostate cancer and a Whipple operation (pancreas/gall bladder/intestine) in 2008, a fall from a raised stage in 2012 in which he broke his scapula and four vertebrae, and a fall getting out of a car in 2021 in which he broke his left arm.
But, for the most part, the man who played nearly 3,000 games for the Orioles, stayed relatively healthy in his later years.
As his long-time friend and former teammate, Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, said in 2020 when asked about Robinson’s 1970 World Series performance for the ages:
“(He) had arguably the best World Series ever. And he also happens to be one of the greatest human beings you’ve ever met.”
(Photo: G Fiume / Getty Images)