There’s an old saying that goes, “You should never meet your heroes, because they’re bound to disappoint you.”
Whoever coined that saying has never heard of Brooks Robinson.
It’s hard to believe that a person could be one of the most talented baseball players in the history of the game and it’d be only his second best quality. But Robinson’s incredible legacy in Baltimore didn’t stem solely from his athletic prowess during his 23-year, Hall of Fame career. No, what makes him truly beloved is that everyone who’s been lucky enough to meet him — from teammates to reporters to his many fans — universally agree he’s a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Genuinely Wonderful People.
“He’s an extraordinary human being, which is important, and the world’s greatest third baseman of all time, which is incidental,” wrote longtime Baltimore sportswriter John Steadman.
Brooks was (and still is) legendarily generous with his time, greeting everyone he met with a courteous and gracious manner that almost made it seem he was in awe of them. “[He was] a true gentleman who never took himself seriously,” wrote Joe Falls of the Detroit News. “I always had the idea he didn’t know he was Brooks Robinson.”
“When fans ask Brooks Robinson for his autograph, he complied while finding out how many kids you have, what your dad does, where you live, how old you are, and if you have a dog,” said famed Orioles broadcaster Chuck Thompson in Curt Smith’s The Storytellers.
“I don’t call you fans. I call you friends,” Robinson told the crowd on Sept. 29, 2012, when his bronze sculpture was unveiled at Camden Yards as part of the Orioles Legends Celebration series. (Not to be confused with the other statue of Brooks just outside the ballpark, built a year earlier.)
If your family has longtime roots in Maryland, chances are you have a relative named Brooks. I do. “Brooks never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him,” said Associated Press columnist Gordon Beard. “In Baltimore, people named their children after him.”
And not just in Baltimore. At least three major league players — Brooks Kriske, Brooks Conrad, and Brooks Pounders — were named after the O’s Hall of Famer, even though all were born on the west coast and years after Robinson retired. Such is the lasting, far-reaching legacy of Brooks Robinson.
His humility was astounding, considering that his on-field performance would’ve given him every reason to be full of himself.
The Little Rock, Ark., native, signed by the Orioles for $4,000 in 1955, made his MLB debut at age 18 that same year, but didn’t become a regular until late in the decade. Once he did, he was a sensation. In 1960, Robinson batted .294/.329/.440 with 14 home runs and 88 RBIs to lead an O’s team that improved 15 games over the previous year, finishing with the first winning record in club history. On July 15, Brooks also became the first Oriole to hit for the cycle. (You may be thinking, “Wait, he got a triple?” But Robinson, while not a fast runner, actually led the team with nine triples that season, and had 68 in his career.) Robinson was named Most Valuable Oriole and finished third in the AL MVP race behind the Yankees’ Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
And — oh yes — Brooks won the Gold Glove at third base that season. Get used to that.
Oh, was his defense otherworldly. As umpire Ed Hurley said, “Brooks Robinson plays third base like he came down from a higher league.”
For the next decade and a half, Robinson would dominate the hot corner like no other player in the history of the game, winning 16 Gold Gloves, the most ever by a non-pitcher. Even some of his most talented teammates couldn’t help but be impressed.
“He was the best defensive player at any position,” said Frank Robinson. “I used to stand in the outfield like a fan and watch him make play after play.”
“It would take a .22 caliber rifle aimed in just the right way to get one past him,” Boog Powell said in Ted Patterson’s The Baltimore Orioles: 40 Years of Magic from 33rd Street to Camden Yards.
Robinson continued to deliver at the plate, too. He won MVO again in 1962, posting a then-career best .303 average, .828 OPS, and 23 home runs, and also hitting grand slams in consecutive games in May. Two years later, he upped his offensive game even further. He batted .317, OPS’d .889, smacked 28 homers, and led the American League with 118 RBIs.
By now, there was no denying his greatness. Robinson was voted the 1964 AL MVP. He finished in the top three of the voting each of the next two years, too, including 1966, when he was runner-up to his teammate, Frank Robinson. The Robinson duo led the Orioles to their first championship, setting the tone by hitting back-to-back homers off Dodgers Hall of Fame righty Don Drysdale in the first inning of the World Series.
That ‘66 series, though, wasn’t the one for which Brooks was best known. It was in 1970 that he truly shined on the baseball world’s biggest stage.
You’ve probably seen the highlights of “The Human Vacuum Cleaner’s” defensive wizardry in that World Series against the Reds. The ridiculous backhanded lunge into foul territory to rob Lee May of a hit. The smooth pickup of the sizzling grounder to start a double play. The diving catch to his left to pluck a Johnny Bench scorcher out of the air. The sprawling grab across the foul line to rob Bench again in the final inning of the clinching game.
Brooks did it all in that magical Fall Classic, including hit. He batted .429, homered twice, and drove in six runs, garnering well-deserved World Series MVP honors.
Robinson’s excellence continued well into the 1970s. He made the All-Star team for the 15th straight season in 1974, then won his 16th straight Gold Glove in 1975. The latter was his final season as a regular. The 39-year-old began losing playing time to young Doug DeCinces in 1976, then called it quits in 1977 (but not before making his final career home run a magical one, a walkoff three-run shot against Cleveland on April 19).
On Sept. 18, 1977, a packed house of 51,798 at Memorial Stadium celebrated Thanks Brooks Day, giving one last standing ovation to an Orioles legend. Robinson, in his usual humble manner, requested no gifts, but was awarded a new car, a vacuum cleaner, and, of course, third base itself (presented by DeCinces). After the season, he and Frank Robinson were elected as the inaugural members of the Orioles Hall of Fame. Six years later, Brooks was a first-ballot inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, earning 92 percent of the vote.
“He should have played at Carnegie Hall,” said sportswriter Furman Bisher. “No player of his time, and a rare few before him, have dominated their position as Robinson did.”
After retirement, Brooks stayed active in baseball, serving as an Orioles broadcaster and later as president of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, and also becoming a part-owner of several minor league teams. The now 83-year-old still makes public appearances from time to time, congenial as always.
Five years ago, Robinson auctioned off nearly every award he’d ever won — his two World Series rings, his MVP trophy, all 16 Gold Gloves, everything but his Hall of Fame ring — for $1.44 million, all of which he donated to charity.
Of course he did. Would you expect any less from the man?