No Oriole was more beloved or more integral to the story of the franchise than Brooks Robinson, who died Tuesday at age 86.
Robinson played his first game for the Orioles in 1955, the year after the franchise arrived in Baltimore, was a key member of the club’s first four World Series teams and lasted long enough to suit up with a new generation of stars, led by Eddie Murray.
Here are 10 moments that capture what Robinson meant to baseball and to Baltimore.
1970 World Series
After watching Robinson dismantle the Cincinnati Reds with his glove and his bat, Pete Rose put it simply: “Brooks Robinson belongs in a higher league.”
What else was there to say about Robinson’s magnum opus? He hit .429 over five games, with two home runs and six RBIs. His home run off Gary Nolan provided the winning margin in Game 1. His two-run double put the Orioles on the board in their 9-3 win in Game 3.
But it was Robinson’s incomparable glove at third base that left the strongest impression on a national audience. He ranged several feet wide of the foul line to snare what looked like a sure hit for future teammate Lee May and made a perfect one-bounce throw to get May by a step. It’s the play that lives on in highlight reels, but Robinson made a half-dozen nearly as good over the course of the series. He was never better.
1983 Hall of Fame induction
As great as Robinson was on the field, Baltimoreans cherished him just as much for his decency toward everyone who crossed his path. Not only would he sign an autograph for anyone who approached, he would chat with the person like an old friend or neighbor.
After Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983 with 91.98% of the vote, Orioles fans seized on his induction in Cooperstown, New York as their chance to say thank you. A then-record crowd of 12,000 descended on the town of 2,500.
“Before these ceremonies could even begin, the crowd — which swept over knolls, spread itself under maple trees and stretched almost out of sight — had conducted its own singing of the national anthem, complete with an earsplitting ‘O’ at the appropriate ‘Oh, say can you see’ juncture,” Thomas Boswell wrote in The Washington Post. “The gleeful mob, fresh from a morning of lay services at The Bold Dragoon Saloon, followed unofficial team mascot Wild Bill Hagy in spelling ‘O-R-I-O-L-E-S’ and passing the cold beer on a hot afternoon. Bedsheet signs and placards dotted the sea of orange humanity, their slogans perhaps more heartfelt than literary.”
Robinson choked back tears when it was time to address the throng. “You really know how to make it tough on a guy,” he said. “I realize I must be the luckiest man in the world … I’ve been given more than any human being could ever ask for.”
1964 AL Most Valuable Player
Robinson was the first to admit he was an inconsistent hitter, good with men on base and responsible for many important knocks but rarely a contender for the batting title.
His 1964 season, when he finished second to Minnesota’s Tony Oliva with a .317 average, slugged a career-high 28 home runs and led the league with 118 RBIs, was the exception. If you prefer a more modern summation, Robinson, who also won his fifth Gold Glove, led all American League position players with 8.1 wins above replacement.
The Orioles won 97 games and held first place until mid-September, when the New York Yankees finally caught them. But Robinson won American League Most Valuable Player honors for his greatest individual seasons.
1966 World Series
Frank Robinson headlined for the first Orioles team to capture the World Series, winning the Triple Crown after the club traded for him in the offseason. But Brooks Robinson did his usual stellar work that season, winning his seventh Gold Glove, driving in 100 runs and finishing second to his teammate in MVP voting.
He homered off Don Drysdale in the first inning of Game 1 of the World Series, just after Frank Robinson did the same.
A photo from The Baltimore Sun shows Brooks Robinson leaping into view to celebrate with winning pitcher Dave McNally and catcher Andy Etchebarren after the Orioles completed their sweep of the favored Los Angeles Dodgers.
He later listed the victory as his favorite career moment. “I value that more than anything else that happened to me,” he said in 2016. “I remember thinking that even if we never won anything again, we could always say we were world champions.”
Last home run
A 40-year-old Robinson had ceded the starting third base job to Doug DeCinces by 1977, and he would make just 52 plate appearances in 24 games that season.
On April 19, however, manager Earl Weaver called on Robinson to pinch hit for Larry Harlow with the Orioles trailing the Cleveland Indians 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning. Robinson sent a three-run home run soaring over the wall at Memorial Stadium to win the game. It was his 268th and last career home run.
“This was my biggest thrill in a long time,” a typically self-deprecating Robinson said afterward. “It’s a day-to-day thing for me. I was lucky to get a contract this year.”
Baby bird breakout
Robinson’s first outstanding season helped fuel the Orioles’ first winning season in Baltimore.
As a 23-year-old leader on manager Paul Richards’ “Baby Birds,” he won his first Gold Glove, batted .294 and drove in 88 runs. The Orioles held first place as late as Sept. 14, before a four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees doomed their chances. But they finished 89-65, and Robinson finished third in MVP voting.
“We’d had a real good year, our first good year, and we felt there were more good things to come,” Robinson would tell author John Eisenberg for his oral history “From 33rd Street to Camden Yards.”
“The Yankees were supposed to win. They were the kings at that time, and we didn’t feel bad. We felt like, ‘Well, you know, there’s next year.’”
His performance in the World Series overshadowed all, but if anything, Robinson was even hotter in the Orioles’ three-game sweep of the Twins in the AL Championship Series.
He went 3-for-3 in a Game 1 blowout and 3-for-4 in the series clincher, setting the stage for what he would do against the Reds. Robinson had batted a solid .276 with 94 RBIs during the regular season, but he was the most difficult out in the world that October.
“I never played with more focus in my career,” he would say later.
Robinson was 18 years old when he debuted for the Orioles in 1955. The team lost 97 games that year after losing 100 in its first year in Baltimore. The teenager from Arkansas made a modest impression, batting .091 in 22 at-bats.
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He knew how to make an entrance, however, smacking two hits — his only two of the season — and driving in a run in his Memorial Stadium debut against Washington.
He would refer back to that day when he said goodbye to Baltimore fans at the end of the 1977 season. The Washington Post quoted his recollection of a call to his mother: “Mom, I got two hits and knocked in the big run today. I don’t know why I spent so much time at York [in the minor leagues]. I belong up here, this is my cup of tea.”
First home run
Robinson made just 67 plate appearances his first two years and did not do much damage.
But in game No. 152 of the 1956 season, the young third baseman lashed three hits against the Washington Senators. One of those went over the wall in the top of the ninth inning for Robinson’s first career home run and the Orioles’ only run in a 7-1 loss.
Six years before Baltimore celebrated Robinson in Cooperstown, 51,978 fans packed Memorial Stadium on Sept. 18, 1977, to say farewell to No. 5.
He waved from the back of a Cadillac convertible circling the field before the Orioles played the Boston Red Sox.
“For a guy who never wanted to do anything but put on a major league uniform, that goodbye comes tough,” he told the crowd. “I would never want to change one day of my years here. It’s been fantastic.”