CAN IT REALLY be that Sunday will mark 40 years since "the most important and beloved Oriole of modern times" first arrived here?
It's true. On May 28, 1955, Brooks Calbert Robinson Jr. -- on the night of his high school graduation -- signed with the Orioles for a bonus of $4,000 and immediately flew to Baltimore from his home in Little Rock, Ark. Arthur Ehlers, the assistant to Manager-General Manager Paul Richards, was the signing scout.
After spending the night in the Southern Hotel downtown, Brooks reported to Memorial Stadium to meet Richards and join the team for a home game. Paul told Brooks he would accompany the team on its next road trip, which included games in Boston, Cleveland and Detroit, before being sent to York, Penn., to join the O's team in the Piedmont League.
Before that night's game against the Yankees, Brooks worked out at second base, not third, and impressed Richards: "He looks like a comer. We'll use him primarily as a second baseman. He needs seasoning."
Brooks, who played basketball and football in high school (his school didn't field a baseball team), attracted 13 major-league clubs by his play in summertime American Legion baseball. Why did he sign with the Orioles?
"Because I figured it represented my best chance to make the major leagues," he said.
Brooks reported to the York White Roses as a second baseman. After about 50 games, his manager, former International League Oriole outfielder George Staller, moved him to third base; he thought Brooks was better suited there. In 95 games with York, Brooks hit 11 home runs; his batting average was .331.
The Orioles recalled Brooks for the final week of the 1955 season. His first game back was Saturday, Sept. 17, against the Washington Nationals (Senators) at Memorial Stadium. He replaced the injured Kal Segrist at third base at the last moment. Brooks banged out two hits in his four at-bats.
Hugh Trader of the News Post called Brooks "perhaps the finest of the prospects hauled in by Paul Rapier Richards."
Brooks went hitless in his final five games, going 0-for-19. He finished the season with an .091 average. He would spend the next couple of seasons alternating between a farm team and the O's. In 1958 he played his first full season in the majors, appearing in 145 Oriole games and hitting .238.
That was just the beginning of what turned out to be a brilliant career: He played in 18 consecutive All-Star games; he won Gold Gloves in 16 consecutive seasons. His play and gentle spirit helped him win the hearts of Oriole fans in his 20-year career that ended with his retirement in 1977. His glove and a plaque noting his triumphs are displayed at baseball's Hall of Fame.
Brooks also impressed others with the way he carried himself as a person. Former American League umpire Ed Hurley once said of Brooks, "The worst thing you can say about that fellow is that he's a great guy."
Twenty-one years ago on Opening Day, Brooks showed true kindness to a kid reporter from Annandale, Va. The kid had written to "Robby" while the Orioles were at spring training, requesting an interview for a college project. Brooks wrote back, "I'll be glad to give you the time when you come to the park."
On Opening Day 1974, the kid reported to Memorial Stadium, showed the letter to one of the secretaries in the O's front office and was led to the clubhouse to meet with Brooks. He greeted the kid warmly and took him into the trainers' room to conduct the interview as the clubhouse was crowded and noisy. The nervous kid tried to conduct an intelligent interview with his hero. When it was over, the kid thanked Brooks for his time and took a seat in the stands.
I think of that day every time I see Brooks at the ballpark.
- Dave Howell is a radio broadcaster and Orioles fan in Fairfax, Va.