By Mike Klingaman
July 22, 2007
Next week, Cooperstown, N.Y., will do this again. And like Brooks Robinson before him, Cal Ripken Jr.'s induction is expected to smash attendance records when a throng of Marylanders heads north to cheer his entry into the museum's hallowed halls.
Brooks. Cal. Who needs surnames? Their monikers conjure up images of baseball's storied past: Robinson, the deft third baseman, sprawled in the dirt, glove arm raised to show an impossible catch. And Ripken, the nonstop shortstop, high-fiving fans as he circles the field at the height of The Streak.
At Ripken's enshrinement, Robinson surmised, the Iron Man will speak modestly, sign graciously and engage the crowd, which is expected to top the 50,000 mark set in 1999.
"Cal will say and do the right things, and people will love him," said Robinson, 70.
Just as No. 5 did nearly a quarter-century ago.
On July 31, 1983, Robinson woke at 7 a.m. with his acceptance speech racing through his mind.
As I stand here before you I realize I must be the luckiest man in the world. ...
Gathering his notes, he scribbled some last-minute changes and, for the umpteenth time, read the speech to his wife, Connie, who listened patiently in their hotel room in Cooperstown.
"I was very nervous," Robinson said. "I'd been working on that speech for two months."
My career has been all the more meaningful because of the Oriole fans and friends, many of whom have made this trip to join me here today. ...
As he left The Otesaga Resort Hotel that hot, sticky Sunday, Robinson was engulfed in what he described as "a sea of orange and black." The streets of the little town teemed with folks wearing Orioles caps and Orioles T-shirts, and waving Orioles flags and placards trumpeting Robinson's arrival.
"No. 5 is No. 1!" a banner read.
On another, in big, bold strokes, was a poem:
"Players of high caliber are few,
Thank God Baltimore had someone like you.
Robinson watched all of this in a pinch-me state.
"I felt like I was living a dream sequence," he said.
Of the 12,000 fans who attended, at least half hailed from Maryland, Hall officials said. Fifty busloads came from Baltimore, as did 12 private planes, one of them trailing a banner that read, "Viva Le Brooks!"
Though four men were inducted that summer, "it was basically Brooks' day," said Ted Spencer, chief curator of the Hall.
It was a benchmark year for the museum, which had never coped with crowds greater than the 10,000 who shepherded the New York Yankees' Mickey Mantle into the Hall in 1974.
"There was consternation among management over those 50 buses that would arrive from Maryland," Spencer said. "Everybody was freaking about that.
"Basically, it was the first day of the rest of our lives as far as crowds were concerned."
Accommodations were limited, but Robinson's fans made do. They slept in motels 40 miles away or in their cars or in sleeping bags in farm fields near the village.
Come Sunday, they flocked to the rear of the Hall, where the ceremony was then held. There was William Donald Schaefer, the unabashed mayor of Baltimore, leading an O-R-I-O-L-E-S cheer. And "Wild Bill" Hagy, the team's unofficial mascot, spelling B-R-O-O-K-S with his potbellied body.
"You could hardly move around Cooperstown without seeing people you knew from Memorial Stadium," said Don Hutchinson, then Baltimore County executive.
Earlier, Hutchinson had toured the museum with John Steadman, sports editor of The News American.
Said Hutchinson: "As we walked through the Hall, John stopped and turned to me and said, 'Just imagine, tomorrow the most gracious baseball player of all time will have his name and face on that wall.'"
Playing in the major leagues and being recognized at the Hall of Fame is more than any one human being could ask for. ...
At the ceremony, Robinson batted cleanup. The other inductees - manager Walter Alston, pitcher Juan Marichal and third baseman George Kell - were introduced first. Kell, in fact, ended his career with the Orioles in 1957, when he yielded to Robinson, his ultimate successor.
"It was unbelievable that Brooks and I would [be enshrined] on the same day," said Kell, who, like Robinson, is from Arkansas.
When Kell rose to speak to the crowd, he whispered to Robinson: "I'm going to take advantage of this because I played in Baltimore, too."
With that, Kell basked in the biased applause.
"I rode Brooks piggyback that day," Kell said.
Finally, it was Robinson's turn. On the podium, commissioner Bowie Kuhn applauded his career.
"Just how good was he?" said Kuhn, preparing to answer his own question. He never got the chance.
"THE GREATEST!" the crowd roared as a host of orange balloons was released overhead.
I thank God for giving me the talent and the help to reach the top of this profession. ...
Robinson didn't exactly strut to the dais, wrote Sun columnist Michael Olesker:
"[He] walked onto the induction 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."
Three times Robinson tried to speak over the din. When the tumult subsided, he addressed the audience for nine minutes with a simple eloquence.
Throughout my career, I was committed to the goodness of this game. ...
"I didn't try to memorize the speech," Robinson recalled. "I knew some parts by heart, like when I thanked the fans in Baltimore for putting up with me in good times and in bad.
"The truth is, I spoke better than I thought I could. In fact, I thought I nailed it."
Ron Shapiro, then Robinson's agent, agreed.
"When Brooks finished," he said, "people looked at each other and just smiled."
That evening, at a private dinner for Hall members, Robinson received his ceremonial ring and sat among men such as Stan Musial, Johnny Mize, Cool Papa Bell and Ted Williams.
"Imagine," Robinson said. "That's where you check your ego at the door."
Two old-timers - Bill Dickey and Bill Terry - shared a confession.
"They said they weren't in good health but that they wanted to make the trip that year to see me," said Robinson, who was flattered speechless.
The next day, a 23-year-old shortstop tried to tour the museum before the Orioles played in the annual Hall of Fame Game. But so many fans approached him that an overwhelmed Cal Ripken Jr. fled the building.
For that, he was scolded by his agent, Shapiro. "Let me tell you something, Cal. You owe those fans that," said Shapiro, who was quoted in The Evening Sun. "You owe them your autograph at the very least. They are the ones who make all you players. That's one reason Brooks is in the Hall of Fame - because he realized that."
Twenty-four years later, having a plaque in Cooperstown hasn't changed Robinson.
"Every month, I think about going back there to make sure no one takes it off the wall," he said. "There's Williams, with a lifetime batting mark of .344. And Joe DiMaggio. And Musial.
"And, oh, there's Brooks, who hit .267.
"How did I get into the Hall of Fame, anyway?"
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