I just returned from a week in Belgium and France with a head full of blog ideas, but the passing of a Baltimore legend requires a pause to pay tribute.
Brooks Calbert Robinson, Jr. of Little Rock, Arkansas was the greatest defensive third baseman of all time and the most beloved athlete in the history of my hometown, Baltimore, Maryland. He excelled on the diamond, but more importantly, he excelled in life. His modest grace was known throughout my city as his calling card.
Brooks passed away on September 26, 2023, in Owings Mills, Maryland. He was 86 years old.
Every newspaper in the land will recount all the numbers associated with Brook’s singular career so I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say that they set him apart not just as an All Star, but one whose career made him elite among the elite, for whom a small corner of Cooperstown should be dedicated. Never boastful, but when he was inducted into the Hall forty years ago, he immediately began signing autographs with the “HOF ‘83” addendum to signify what a young kid from Little Rock had achieved.
If you are not familiar with baseball or Mr. Robinson’s career, just Google “Highlights, 1970 World Series”, and you will learn in a few minutes everything you need to know about baseball, third base, and the superhuman feats of this legend. His performance will go down in history with Baryshnikov, Tchaikovsky, and Hepburn as singular. Exaggeration? Just watch it.
I grew up watching Brooks Robinson play third base.
My dad took me to my first game in 1958 when I was eight years old, and that was the year that Brooks took over at third base from future Hall of Famer George Kell. Fellow Arkansan Kell had become his mentor and transferred the “Hot Corner” to Brooks with grace. That little piece of Baltimore real estate became Brooksville for 18 seasons.
As I recounted in my blog Talkin’ Baseball last year, I was blessed to grow up across the street from sportswriter Doug Brown who was an annual source of Orioles season tickets for my dad and me. We sat in Section 41 at old Memorial Stadium right behind home plate and as I said then:
It just so happens that Section 41 was also where the Oriole wives sat. Young and beautiful, as I think back on it now, they made the viewing quite pleasant for my dad and win or lose, he always seemed to be in a good mood at the ballpark. One year we sat right beside Brooks Robinson’s wife, Connie Butcher Robinson. She was a former flight attendant and even my 11-year-old self was smitten by this blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty. The following year Brooks David Robinson was born and everyone in our row was pressed into babysitting duty during the game.
Connie was just as nice and as accessible as her famous husband and her friendly flight attendant demeanor was memorable. I can close my eyes and remember scenes and moments in technicolor from those years.
One funny story about the Robinson’s that I remember Doug Brown telling my dad one summers day over an iced tea in our front yard.
Doug would go to Orioles Spring Training each year in Miami as the Baltimore Evening Sun correspondent for the Birds. Before the Brown's had children, his wife Marion would join him for all or part of the Florida trip. Marion was not a baseball fan but enjoyed the warm weather and the poolside life in Miami.
There was a routine evening regimen for dinner with either other writers and their wives or baseball couples. Not all players crossed the line with the fourth estate, but Brooks was friendly with everyone and especially liked Doug’s company. The problem was, Brooks only knew one subject and would talk about it constantly. Yes, baseball.
While baseball was a major part of Doug Brown’s life, he was a Dartmouth grad and a very smart guy. After a day of watching, analyzing, and writing about baseball, he was ready to relax over dinner and think about something else. After falling into a routine of dinners with the Robinson’s, he and Marion would literally hide from Brooks and Connie to avoid another night of non-stop baseball chatter. Brooks was a singular talent, and his focus was, well, singular.
The one and only time that I had some personal time with Brooks was on a winter’s evening in the late 1990’s when he was a guest on Jim Hunter’s long-running Hot Stove Baseball Show on WBAL Radio, then the flagship station of the Orioles. Hot stove is a reference to the baseball offseason and conjures up images of fans gathered around the pot-bellied stove talking about players and memories of the national pastime. Hunter was a former CBS Radio sports announcer who called the baseball Game of the Week for 10 years prior to becoming the voice of the Orioles on WBAL Radio.
A good friend of mine was with a company that sponsored the Hot Stove Show in those years and had a standing invitation to bring guests by to watch the live broadcast. At a sports bar in Baltimore whose name has long-ago sifted through the holes in my memory, we had some beer and snacks, and along with 10 or 12 others watched Brooks and Jim Hunter talk baseball for over an hour’s time.
For a died-in-the-wool Orioles fan, it was heaven. I don’t remember a lot of what was said that night, but I do remember the casual climate that Brooks always generated. It was truly like listening to a couple of guys talking baseball in a bar somewhere in America with no one listening except the bar tender.
After the show was over, Brooks immediately came out and welcomed the handful of fans that were lucky enough to be there. I came armed with a baseball and my own pen and he not only signed that, but also my name tag that had identified me as a special guest. As I watched him sign the ball, as he had done thousands of times before, I noticed his million dollar hands, now rendered twisted and arthritic by Father Time. All of those balls that had jammed a knuckle or stung a fingertip over the years had taken an extra toll.
As he inscribed his name, he smiled and mentioned the practiced skill of writing a flat message on a round object. And, in his new tradition, he addended the signature with "HOF ’83."
I told him that I had been a friend of Doug Brown who had just died at the age of 66. He expressed true sorrow at Doug’s passing and told me how honest and talented a sportswriter he had been. “And a nice guy to boot”, he added, in his downhome “in addition” vernacular. Brook’s humanity and grace were as real as one could imagine.
Brooks Robinson excelled at playing a kid’s game. He never inflated what it was, nor who he was. He approached the fans with respect and gratitude for supporting his ability to do what he loved in a way that few before and few since have ever achieved. He was and will always be “Mr. Oriole.”
Brooksie, nice play.
Postscript: As I don’t have to tell Orioles fans, the numerology of Brooks Robinson is lining up in what we hope will be a prescient way. Brooks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, the last year that the Orioles won the World Series. He has now passed away exactly 40 years later, in a year that a talent-rich Orioles team just won the American League East, with a great chance of winning the pennant and going to the 2023 World Series. Could it be? Will Brooks be able to help us from his new, best seat in the house?