#2 - Brooks Robinson, 3B (1955-1977)
When Stacey and I first tossed about the idea of doing this list, she asked me, "Cal is #1, right?" And yes, Cal is #1, but that's not because Brooks Robinson is any less of a great Oriole. Cal and Brooks are the greatest Orioles. That much is certain. The debate over which is the greatest can always be had.
For us, Cal is the one we got to see. Brooks is the one we heard about from our parents. There was a lot to hear about. Fifteen straight All-Star selections, sixteen consecutive Gold Gloves at third base. One Most Valuable Player award in 1964 and four more top five finishes. Two World Series championships over a 23-year Hall of Fame career. The Human Vacuum Cleaner, they called him, and still do. All future third base defense is compared against his gold standard.
You know the legendary Brooks images. Leaping towards Dave McNally and Andy Etchebarren as the Orioles have clinched the 1966 World Series. He looks to be soaring so high it's like he's floating towards the clouds. Perhaps he was doing just that as the team won its first championship in the franchise's history. He was the runner-up for American League MVP that year, sandwiched between teammates Frank Robinson and Boog Powell in the voting.
Maybe you've heard about this one once or twice:
Great day in the morning!
Sure, it was probably a slow runner, but my goodness. Two steps into foul territory and he fires the perfect strike. I've heard about this play a hundred times and even seeing it, I still can't believe it. That was Brooks at age 33, over 2,000 games into his major league career. If he had that kind of range and arm strength into his 30s, I can only wonder what it must have been like to see him in the prime of his career.
What a career it was. The Orioles signed him out of Little Rock in 1955 and he made his big league debut - over six games - that very year. Most of his time was spent in the minors until 1958, when he played in 145 games at age 21. He only batted .238/.292/.305 that year and didn't show much of anything at the plate. A rough April in 1959 saw him demoted to Triple-A - Vancouver in those days, if you can believe it - and he didn't make it back to Baltimore until July.
That was a rough month, too, but he got things going in August and September of that year and never looked back. He played in only 88 games in 1959, but he'd play in 144 or more every year after that until the 1976 season, winning a Gold Glove in every one of them. Watching him flash the leather above, it's easy to see why. The people who watched him play could see it right away, too: he came in third place in the MVP voting in that 1960 season, the first of seven top ten finishes.
Brooks broke out for his MVP season in 1964, which also happened to be a great year for the Orioles. He was a big part of the team winning 97 games, which was only good for third place in that year's American League, though they were only two games back of first place New York.
Apparently, you didn't have to be on a playoff team to win MVP then. You just had to be really good, like .317/.368/.521 good, with 28 home runs and 118 runs driven in. That was good for 8.1 bWAR, a number that's only been topped in seven Orioles seasons in the 50 years since. One of those others was Brooks himself; three of them were Cal. This was the first of five MVP awards won by Orioles players to date.
That kicked off a five-year stretch in which he had a better-than-league average OPS+ every season. Not surprisingly, three of these five years he finished in the top three of MVP voting. His 1964 season was his most superlative with the bat, but he was never as helpless with it as a player like Belanger. He finished with a .267/.322/.401 batting line over his career, and had ten seasons in which he batted at least league average. Add to that the kind of defense that let him pull off a play like he did against Lee May above and you've got a player who was one of the best to ever step on a baseball field.
Did you know that when Brooks was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1983, there were 30 writers of the 374 with ballots who did not vote for him? What sort of person sat there and thought, nope, not a Hall of Famer? There are always a few curmudgeons, but it certainly wasn't anti-PED crusading in those days. Too bad for them. He cruised in with about 92% of the ballots naming him.
I've never met him - though he did cruise in a golf cart right past me one time - but we're on a first name basis. Maybe that's because it was the only way to differentiate him from Frank Robinson. I think there's more to it, though. Beyond just spending his whole career here, he felt like a part of everyone's lives, and he still does. He was a player for so long, then a broadcaster for a while. He even got his own Norman Rockwell painting. He is older now, soon to be 77, and any time he is in poor health, the whole community of Orioles fans is behind him.
Brooks is part of the family. His statue stands with all the rest in Legends Plaza, and no matter what any fan of any other team might try to tell you, he's the greatest third baseman to ever play the game of baseball. My dad was lucky to get to see him play, and I'm lucky I got to grow up hearing stories about him. #5 in his uniform, #2 in our list, he is Brooks Robinson, and he is an Oriole if there ever was one.