At a banquet honoring Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson after his retirement in 1977, sportswriter Gordon Beard was among many to speak that evening. Beard said, “In New York they gave a candy bar a name [The Reggie Bar] according to Reggie Jackson. Here in Baltimore we give our name Children according to Brooks Robinson.
As a matter of fact. Brooks Robinson is the most beloved sports figure in Baltimore history, quite a legacy considering the city gave us Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken and Jim Palmer, among many other icons. That legacy endures, as Robinson is not only the best defensive third baseman in baseball history, but also the nicest person I have ever met in 45 years of baseball reporting.
“I never met anyone in any profession who was more revered than Brooks,” said Frank Robinson, a former teammate. “We would go on road trips and he would stop on the street to talk to complete strangers. It’s amazing that he was such a good player and so kind to everyone he met.”
He was great on the field during his 23-year career. He won 16 Gold Gloves, the most of any position player. He won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1964 after hitting .317 with a league-leading 118 RBIs, and finished in the top four in MVP voting in four additional seasons. He made 18 All-Star teams. He collected 2,848 hits. He is one of the best clutch hitters of all time: He holds the major league record for most games played – 10 – and went 1-0 in the only over. He was also so durable: He led the AL in rushing four years in a row, playing in at least 161 games each time.
His defense was beyond great. Before games, he picked up ground balls on his knees and practiced taking balls off his chest. His body was never in a hurry; He was always calm, a quality that is crucial for a third baseman. He had great feet, in part because he began his professional career as a second baseman and only moved to third base in 1955, when he was promoted to the major leagues. And then he played 2,870 games there, the most games at third base in baseball history. Robinson had great, soft hands. He was ambidextrous. He ate and wrote with his left hand.
“The first time I met Brooks was at my first spring training said former Orioles second baseman Davey Johnson. “I noticed he was writing and eating with his left hand.” I thought, “My God, the greatest defensive third baseman does that.” So I ate and wrote My left hand for a year. It didn’t do anything for me. But I had to try.
No one has ever played the bunt better than Brooks; His bare-handed catching and throwing across the body was textbook. In 1962, pitcher Robin Roberts, who would later be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joined the Orioles. In one of Roberts’ first starts, on a bunt along the third base line, he cut in front of Robinson but didn’t make the play. The runner was safe at first base.
“I slapped him on the butt,” Robinson said, laughing many years later. “I told him, ‘Next time let me have the ball. I’m good at this play.’”
Robinson’s defensive greatness was never more evident than in the 1970 World Series against the Reds. He made at least half a dozen spectacular plays. The Orioles won in five games.
It earned him the nickname “The Human Vacuum Cleaner.”
“I’ve never seen anything like what he did to us in this series,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson said. “He killed us.”
Pete Rose of the Reds said, “God sent Brooks Robinson to play third base in the ’70 Series. He caught everything except a cold.”
“I made Brooks the MVP of this World Series,” said Johnny Bench, who won the National League MVP award that year. “I fired 14 missiles at him and he intercepted every one of them. The next time I saw him was at the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit. On my second shot, I shot a BB at him and he just made a throw. “It was like it was nothing. I threw my hands in the air as I ran to first base. I looked at him. He just laughed.
I first met Brooks Robinson in 1979. I was 22 and writing a few stories about the Orioles for the Washington Star. He was a broadcaster on the team. He said to me, with that disarming Arkansas flavor, just a damn kid from Little Rock, “If you ever need anything, please let me know.” I helped cover the team for the next two seasons and was then the Orioles’ beat writer for The Baltimore Sun from 1986 to 1989. I spent a lot of time with Brooks Robinson. As writers, we can’t get too close to current or former players. With Brooks that was impossible.
He was so great, so kind, so gentle, so generous. For decades, Robinson attended the Orioles’ Fantasy Camp and played into his late 60s. For the campers, playing with Brooks Robinson was the thrill of a lifetime.
“How did you do at fantasy camp?” I asked him once.
“I was great,” he said, joking and laughing. “You should have seen me.”
When he ran into financial trouble after several business ventures failed, Baltimore fans helped bail him out. They knew he would have done what he did best: helping other people. For most of his career, he was heavily involved with BAT, the Baseball Assistance Team, which helped former players who needed assistance of any kind. A year and two days ago, the Orioles celebrated the 45th anniversary of Robinson’s retirement with a “Thanks, Brooks” day at Camden Yards, where Robinson performed before the game. They also donated dozens of tickets to the Baltimore Boys & Girls Club.
Last January our family took a trip to Florida. One day we went to an aquarium. We spent most of the day there; I met baseball fans from all over the country; I’ve spoken to dozens of people. Three of them told me that they had named a son after Brooks Robinson.
Here in Baltimore…we name our children after Brooks Robinson.