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On Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, Hall of Fame baseball star Brooks Robinson, born and raised in Little Rock, Ark., passed away in Owings Mills, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore.
I will miss Brooks Robinson. I have written more words about Brooks than any Arkansas-born baseball player, but today I can’t think of any that adequately describe how this state, America, and this game felt about Brooks Robinson. He was our guy. He was one of the most outstanding players of his time, but unquestionably, he was a better person than a ballplayer.
He made us proud on the baseball field, but there have been thousands of good major league baseball players. Brooks Robinson was different. Baseball fans connected with him. There were very few Baltimore Oriole fans in Arkansas when Brooks played, but he was every Arkansan’s “second favorite player,” or “favorite American League player,” or some category invented to rationalize the way local fans felt about Brooks, despite the small obstacle that he did not play for their favorite team. Today’s generation of Arkansans recalls “he was my grandpa’s favorite player,” or “he was my dad’s favorite player.”
For the last 70 years or so, generations of Arkansans could mark the major events in their lives by the career of “Number 5.” I started elementary school out on the Pig Trail (Arkansas Highway 23) the year Brooks graduated high school and signed with the Orioles. The summer that he finally became a regular on the Orioles, I joined my first organized team in Ozark, Arkansas. In 1966, the year his Orioles won the World Series, I graduated from high school and started college.
When a new decade arrived in 1970, I graduated college, got a real job, and married the love of my life. Brooks starred in the “Brooks Robinson World Series.” His five-game display featured timely hitting and wizardry at third base that still defines the standard for the hot corner today. The entire world saw our guy at his best in a nationally televised performance that earned him a World Series MVP. My generation watched it with our dads.
In 1973, my first son was born. Brooks won another Gold Glove and was chosen an All-Star for the 14th consecutive year. Brooks retired in 1977, my second son was born, and I made a career move to coach at Arkansas Tech. In 1983, I changed professions one last time, and Brooks Robinson was inducted into The Baseball Hall of Fame.
Every Arkansas baseball fan who grew up in those years can connect their life events with Brooks Robinson’s career, different life adventures, but the same beloved baseball hero. While all the life stories are different, the over-50 crowd share one common connection. From 1957 until 1978 we opened a pack of baseball cards hoping to see Brooks Robinson.
Eighteen-year-old Brooks Robinson signed with the Orioles a few days after his high school graduation, but he did not become an overnight success. He was not a heralded phenom with high expectations. At his first minor league stop with the York White Roses in the Class D Piedmont League, the public address announcer introduced the White Roses third baseman as “Bob” Robinson. Although he was promoted to the Orioles for a few games in each of his first two seasons, he did not appear on a baseball card until 1957.
I could field as long as I can remember, but hitting has been a struggle all my life.” – Brooks Robinson
The summer that Brooks Robinson’s 1960 baseball card arrived in the dime stores, he no longer had to look at the lineup to see if he was in the batting order. He was making the expected dazzling plays at third base, but surprisingly he also led the team in batting average, extra-base hits and runs scored. Brooks finished third in the 1960 MVP vote to a couple of guys named Maris and Mantle. He was named to his first All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove.
He is the best of the best in all aspects of life.” – Childhood friend and teammate Robert Nosari
In the 1960s, no major league player appeared in more games than Brooks Robinson. He played in 162 games in 1962, 161 games in 1963, and 163 games in 1964. If you saw an Oriole game, you saw Brooks Robinson. Fans had paid to see Brooks play and he played. Two decades later another Oriole infielder named Cal Ripken Jr. felt the same obligation.
As he stepped from the platform, the applause was long and well-deserved. Probably the greatest tribute paid to him all night may have escaped him. That would be the tremendous ovation he received from his own dugout.” – Bob Maisel, “Baltimore Sun”, Brooks Robinson Night 1964.
On Dec. 9, 1965, the Baltimore Orioles traded two ordinary pitchers and a journeyman outfielder for Frank Robinson. The trade connected two Robinsons from very different worlds and launched the highly successful run of a Baltimore team that would win two World Series.
Bad trades are a part of baseball. I mean, who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas?” – Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), Bull Durham 1988
By the late 1960s, Brooks was in his thirties and his best hitting years were behind him, but as legends often do, he saved his most memorable performance for baseball’s most prestigious stage.
When I was 11 years and 11 months old, the Cincinnati Reds played the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Off the top of my head, I can name the starting lineups for both teams. I can probably give you the batting order and pitching rotations. More than 50 years later, I remember that series–the last in which all the games were played in the daylight–better than any other, possibly better than any other sporting event of my lifetime.” Philip Martin, “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette”, Oct. 1, 2023
Robinson batted .429 with two home runs and six RBIs for the five-game domination of the Cincinnati Reds. Those are probably MVP numbers, but it is the slow-motion mental video of Brooks going behind third and backhanding a sure double, and contorting himself to make a throw that beats the runner by half a step that will remain with every baseball fan who saw that World Series.
I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep. If I dropped a paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.” – Reds Manager Sparky Anderson
The Orioles traded Frank Robinson in December of 1971, breaking up the Robinson combination that had produced two World Series titles. From 1971 to 1973 Brooks played at least 153 games each season. He was named an All-Star each year and collected three more Gold Gloves. The 1971 season was his last 20+ home run season.
I’ve never known anyone in any profession more adored than Brooks,” said Frank Robinson, a former teammate. “We’d go on road trips and he’d stop on the street to talk to total strangers. It’s amazing that he was that good a player, and that nice to everyone he met.” –Frank Robinson
The 1974 season was the last season Brooks claimed a Gold Glove and was an All-Star selection. By 1976 he was a part-time player, appearing in only 71 games.
Brooks appeared in 24 games as a player-coach in 1977. His last baseball cards were a 1977 Topps card and a special “Record Breaker” card the Topps Company issued in 1978 to commemorate his record for the most consecutive seasons with the same team. Five years later, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with fellow Arkansan George Kell.
I met Brooks Robinson sometime after his retirement at a sportscard show. After about an hour in a long meandering line, Brooks extended his hand with an unexpected greeting, “Brooks Robinson.” After some questions about my hometown and occupation, Brooks told a story about coming to Russellville with his high school track team. He signed the photo that now hangs over my desk. “To Jim, a fellow Arky, Best Wishes Brooks Robinson.”
Rest in Peace, Number 5.
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