BALTIMORE – Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson died Tuesday, his family said in a joint statement with the Orioles. He was 86.
“An integral part of our Orioles Family since 1955, he will continue to leave a lasting impact on our club, our community, and the sport of baseball,” the statement said.
Through much of baseball’s golden age, Brooks Calbert Robinson Jr. was a poster boy for the national pastime, a symbol of Americana whose visage was even captured in a 1971 Norman Rockwell painting.
The face of the Orioles for nearly a quarter of a century, Robinson won the heart of the city that adopted the deft-handed kid from Arkansas in 1955 and never let go. Before Ripken, there was Robinson. Before Cal, there was Brooks. Before the Iron Man, there was the Human Vacuum Cleaner. As Oriole icons, no others come close.
Robinson played 23 years in Baltimore, piling up numbers that made him one of the game’s greatest third basemen and which put him in the Hall of Fame in 1983. He was the AL’s Most Valuable Player in 1964 and the World Series MVP in 1970, when he led the Orioles over the Cincinnati Reds. Then a balding, 33-year-old father of four, Robinson thwarted the Big Red Machine, game after game, on a national stage with brilliant backhand stabs, off-balance pegs and timely (.429) hitting.
From then on, America knew his name.
“I’d pay to watch him play,” Reds star Pete Rose marveled.
Four years earlier, Robinson had helped the Orioles win their first world championship. In 1966, they swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in four straight games as Robinson homered in his first at-bat. Fans remember his joyful leap in the air, captured on film, at the Series’ end.
“My kids thought it was trick photography,” Robinson said. “They told me, ‘Dad, you never jumped that high in your life.’ ”
Robinson hit 268 home runs, played in 18 straight All-Star games, won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves and set a slew of records for third basemen, including most putouts, assists, double plays and fielding percentage (.971). Even Pie Traynor, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Hall of Fame third baseman of the 1920s, paid homage to Robinson some 40 years later.
“I once thought of giving him some tips, but dropped the idea,” Traynor said. “He’s just the best there is.”
In 1999, Robinson was named to Major League Baseball’s All-Century team. In 2007, baseball fans named him the best defensive third baseman of all time in balloting conducted by Rawlings. No other position player received as much of the vote (61%).
Modest to a fault, Robinson seemed unfazed by accolades. Accepting his MVP award in 1964, he quipped, “I’m still trying to figure out how I hit 28 homers.”
In 1983, at his Hall of Fame induction, Robinson appeared out of place, Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker wrote:
“Brooks walked onto the stand looking shy and a little self-conscious, as though maybe a mistake had been made, that he’d gotten in on a pass somehow but was thrilled about it anyway.”
To the end, Robinson seemed perplexed by his inclusion at Cooperstown.
“Every month, I think about going back there to make sure no one takes my plaque off the wall,” he told the Sun in 2007. “There’s (Ted) Williams, with a lifetime batting mark of .344. And Joe DiMaggio. And (Stan) Musial.
“And, oh, there’s Brooks, who hit .267.
“How did I get into the Hall of Fame, anyway?”
Pigeon-toed and slow afoot, Robinson made up for it with sure hands, lightning reflexes and an unerring knack for making acrobatic throws that would nip runners by a whisker. He barehanded bunts with poetic precision.
“The baseball didn’t have much of a chance, going one-on-one with Robinson, be it on the ground or in the air,” wrote Phil Jackman, who covered the Orioles for The Evening Sun.
Hitting was another matter. A notorious streak hitter, Robinson carried the club (.295, 17 home runs) for the first half of 1966, and then tailed off at the end (.236, 6 homers). But his fielding never wavered.
“Watching Brooks play third is like watching Oscar Robertson play basketball every day,” teammate Frank Robinson said.