Brooks Robinson auctioning cherished memorabilia for charity

Why did Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson decide to sell his most cherished memorabilia?

Brooks Robinson figures he's had more than half a lifetime to enjoy the relics of his Hall of Fame career, to reflect on the stories behind each Gold Glove and document from his 23 years with the Orioles.

So after some serious talks with his wife, Robinson decided to do with his lustrous memorabilia what he's tried to do with his entire life — help other people.

This week, Robinson officially put 240 items — including 16 Gold Gloves, his 1964 American League MVP trophy, his Hall of Fame pin and two World Series rings — up for auction. He plans to pump every cent from the sale, which could draw more than $1 million, into the charitable Constance and Brooks Robinson Foundation.

"I just feel like I've been blessed over many years as have my children," the 78-year-old Robinson said. "I've always tried to teach them to give back, and so that's what I've decided to do."

It's an act that fits the biography of a man known as one of the kindest stars in the history of American sports.

"It does not surprise me at all that Brooks would make such an unselfish gesture as auctioning off his personal collection to support charitable causes," said Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Sports Legends Museums.

Robinson said he and his wife are still deciding which charities they'll support with the money.

Fans are used to hearing of great athletes forced to auction Super Bowl rings and old uniforms to pay off crushing debts. Others, such as Robinson's former teammate Jim Palmer, sell off awards to help with more routine family expenses.

But straight-up charitable sales are rarer, said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, which is running Robinson's auction.

"Brooks has had a very successful life, and he's in a position where he just wants to give back," Ivy said. "It's always nice when your client is selling for the right reasons."

Heritage has auctioned items from a range of prominent athletes over the years, working with 1980 Olympic hockey hero Mike Eruzione and the families of baseball Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Walter Johnson and golfing legend Sam Snead.

Robinson said he actually picked the auction house because a friend of his represented the Musial estate and had a good experience. Growing up in Arkansas, Robinson idolized Musial, the great St. Louis Cardinals outfielder.

Sometimes, former stars have no idea what kind of value they're sitting on. Ivy recalled climbing up to Eruzione's attic and finding Olympic gear that hadn't been touched in decades.

"I said, 'Mike, you have at least $1 million worth of stuff up here. Do you even have it insured?'" he said with a laugh.

But Robinson had his most prominent mementos displayed in his home study. He knew they were valuable and thought long and hard before deciding to sell.

"Each one of them has a story behind it, and we love thinking about them," Robinson said. "It just came time to do something with them."

Robinson's son, Brooks David, contacted Heritage in the spring. Ivy flew to Baltimore to peruse the available items and quickly recognized a collection that could draw more than $1 million at auction (the company's low-end estimate for the 240 lots is about $850,000).

The big-ticket items are Robinson's World Series rings from 1966 and 1970 and his MVP trophy from 1964, each of which could go for six figures, Ivy said.

But he spoke with just as much excitement about some of the less glitzy items in the collection — Robinson's personal copy of his 1957 Topps rookie card, his rookie contract and a scrapbook containing his original birth certificate.

Not included in the auction but available to private buyers is Norman Rockwell's 1971 portrait of Robinson signing a ball for a young fan in an Orioles cap. Ivy said he's still working with the Robinson family to set a price for the piece, but it could easily eclipse the combined value of the rest of the collection. A Rockwell painting of Boston Red Sox players, featuring Ted Williams, sold for $22.6 million at a Christie's auction in New York last year.

Robinson recalled traveling to Rockwell's home studio in cozy Stockbridge, Mass., where the painter spent four or five days capturing his image.

He was touched by the painting, titled "Gee, Thanks, Brooks," and was delighted when it came up for sale at a Sotheby's auction in 1994. Robinson's son placed the winning bid at the time, and the painting joined the great third basemen's favorite trophies in his study.

"I had always wanted it," he said.

Robinson had to dig into his storage crates for some of the more obscure items in the collection. But nothing really surprised him, he said. The only thing he kept was his Hall of Fame ring.

Asked if Robinson's Gold Gloves might be worth any less because there are so many of them (a non-pitcher record of 16), Ivy laughed.

There's a story there.

Winning the award became so routine for Robinson that he took to giving away his trophies to friends and family members. When the Orioles were set to celebrate "Thanks, Brooks" Day at Memorial Stadium in 1977, someone asked the great third baseman to bring his full set to the ceremony. But of course, he didn't have them.

Hearing this, Rawlings forged Robinson a fresh collection. Those are the Gold Gloves available in the auction, which is online only and runs through Nov. 6.

Gibbons said all of Robinson's items will carry obvious interest for Baltimore-area collectors. He hopes some buyer might loan a few items to the Sports Legends Museum, as happened with an auction of Earl Weaver memorabilia a few years back.

"In a perfect world, I would hope that someone might step to the plate this time around, one, to support Brooks' charitable efforts, and two, to allow museum visitors the chance to enjoy a few of the precious artifacts of Brooks Robinson, the greatest third baseman of all time," Gibbons said.

Robinson, who said he's feeling fine these days, acknowledged he felt a tinge of "seller's remorse" as he watched his study go bare.

"I feel connected to almost all of it," he said. "Each one of those things comes with a special memory."

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