“Around here, nobody’s named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson,” Baltimore-based sportswriter R. Gordon Beard said in 1977, referring to the confection named for New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson. Instead, he said, “We name our children for him.”
Celebrity is not the same as decency, and not every hero is worthy of memorializing with something as personal and eternal as a child’s name — but Baltimore Orioles legend Brooks Robinson, who died Tuesday at 86, absolutely was.
Baltimoreans of a certain age can recite the numbers by heart: Robinson’s 23 seasons in an Orioles uniform, the 18 all-star appearances, the 16 Gold Gloves as arguably the greatest defensive third baseman in history. He was the most beloved figure of the most successful era in Orioles history: the 1966 to 1974 teams that went to four World Series, won two of them and made two other playoff appearances.
“Established modern standard of excellence for third basemen” reads the first sentence of Robinson’s Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y.
But Robinson — known to teammates as “Brooksie” and to sportscasters as the “Human Vacuum Cleaner” for the way he sucked up groundballs at third base — was also a kind and generous and humble and accommodating man whose ambassadorship for the Orioles franchise lasted well beyond his playing days. It lasted through his Hall of Fame induction in 1983, deep into the autumn and winter of his life, and continued almost to the day he died.
If you lived in Baltimore and never shook Brooksie’s hand, it’s because you never tried.
Many of those folks shaking Robinson’s hand, of course, were also Brookses and would be sure to mention they were named for him. Letters addressed to Robinson would frequently arrive at Memorial Stadium, trumpeting the arrival of another newborn Brooks, and Robinson would send an autographed picture to each return address, invariably inscribed: “Brooks, I’m honored you have my name. I hope to say hello to you some day.” Sometimes the letters arrived from far away. Sometimes they could be walked over a few blocks from 33rd Street, site of the Orioles’ old home.
“I’ve even had a few dogs named after me,” Robinson once said. In fact, in 2019, WBAL-TV in Baltimore held a “Puppy With a Purpose” campaign to pair dogs with veterans and first responders. When the station held a vote to let viewers pick one new pup’s name, there were 117,000 votes. And soon, someone had a new puppy named Brooks.
It may not be literally true that Brooks Robinson was synonymous with the Orioles, but at least for a generation of fans, it was practically so. The team arrived in Baltimore in 1954, one year before Robinson, an 18-year-old rookie just a few months out of Little Rock (Ark.) Central High, showed up. Within a few years, he had become the face of the franchise and then of the city. Two things always stood out: his brilliant glove and his huge heart.
When an 18-year-old prospect named Boog Powell was dropped off at Orioles spring training by his father in 1960, it was Robinson who sauntered over to the car, introduced himself to the nervous father and said: “Don’t worry, Mr. Powell. I’ll take care of him.”
Orioles fans who watched the 1970 World Series, a five-game victory over the Cincinnati Reds, will never forget Robinson’s nightly heroics at the plate (a .429 batting average with two homers and six RBI) and in the grass and dirt around third base. And Orioles fans who were too young to have witnessed that MVP-winning performance were doomed to being told about it by their elders for years and decades to come.
Even the way Robinson retired midseason in 1977 reflected his graciousness. At 40, his skills were obviously declining, and the Orioles, with a handful of injured players nearing their returns, needed roster spots. So he retired on the spot, before a road game in Minnesota. Only weeks later did the Orioles get the chance to honor him with a “Thanks, Brooks” Day in Baltimore.
Robinson and his wife of 62 years, Connie, would make Baltimore their semi-permanent home. At one time, he owned a local sporting goods store and a restaurant, and he was a fixture on Orioles telecasts as a color commentator during the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
And still, the Brookses kept coming. Once, in 2013, Robinson was approached at a memorabilia show by a young man who said he was named for Robinson. The young man was a hockey player: Brooks Laich of the Washington Capitals. According to Laich’s subsequent account of the meeting to The Washington Post, Robinson told him he watched many Capitals games on television, and Connie once took note of Laich’s first name and said, “Brooks, I guarantee he’s named after you.”
“He turned out to be the most humble, genuine, nicest guy,” Laich said then, echoing a phrase that has been uttered in Baltimore countless times over the last half a century or so by those meeting Robinson for the first time. “It was a life-changing moment for me.”
A year ago, on the final homestand of the 2022 season, the Orioles staged another “Thanks, Brooks” Day at Camden Yards, theoretically to honor the 45th anniversary of his retirement from playing — although any excuse to honor Robinson was an excellent one, and the Orioles were good about doing so every once in a while. Perhaps this time, someone realized that at his age, the opportunities were dwindling.
They paraded Robinson around the dirt warning track in a convertible, with the Hall of Famer perched atop the back seat, waving and smiling. In almost every section of the stands, there was at least one fan holding up a sign saying some version of “From one Brooks to another: Thank you.”
So tread easily around Orioles fans this week, if you please. Even as the team points toward an October full of promise, they will be mourning a man they have been watching and meeting and naming their sons after for nearly as long as there has been big league baseball in Baltimore.