At a banquet honoring Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson after his retirement in 1977, sportswriter Gordon Beard was among many to speak that night. Beard said, "In New York, they named a candy bar [The Reggie Bar] after Reggie Jackson. Here in Baltimore, we name our children after Brooks Robinson."
Indeed. Brooks Robinson is the most beloved sports figure in the history of Baltimore, quite a legacy given that the city also has given us Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken and Jim Palmer, among many other icons. That legacy persists because Robinson isn't just the greatest defensive third baseman in baseball history -- he is also the single kindest person I've ever met in 45 years of covering baseball.
"I've never known anyone in any profession more adored than Brooks," said Frank Robinson, a former teammate. "We'd go on roadtrips 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."
On the field, he was tremendous during his 23-year career. He won 16 Gold Gloves, most ever among position players. He won the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1964 after hitting .317 with a league-leading 118 RBIs and finished in the top four in the MVP voting in four other seasons. He made 18 All-Star teams. He collected 2,848 hits. He is one of the best clutch hitters of all time: He holds the major league record for the most games -- 10 -- driving in the only run in a 1-0 victory. He was also so durable: He led the AL in games played four years in a row, playing at least 161 games in each.
His defense was beyond magnificent. Before games, he used to take ground balls on his knees and practiced taking balls off his chest. His body was never in a hurry; he was always calm, a trait critical for a third baseman. He had great feet in part because he started his professional career as a second baseman, moving to third base only once he got to the major leagues in 1955. And then he played 2,870 games there, the most games in baseball history at third. Robinson had great, soft hands. He was ambidextrous. He ate and wrote with his left hand.
"The first time I ever met Brooks was in my first spring training ," said former Orioles second baseman Davey Johnson. "I noticed that he wrote and ate with his left hand. I thought, 'My god, the greatest defensive third baseman does that.' So, I ate and wrote with my left hand for a year. It didn't do me any good. But I had to try."
No one ever made the bunt play better than Brooks; his barehanded catch and throw across his body was textbook. In 1962, pitcher Robin Roberts, who would be a Hall of Famer, joined the Orioles. In one of Roberts' first starts, on a bunt down the third-base line, he cut in front of Robinson but didn't make the play. The runner was safe at first base.
"I patted him on the butt," Robinson said many years later with a laugh. "I told him, 'Next time, let me have that ball. I'm good on that play.'"
Robinson's defensive greatness was never more evident than in the 1970 World Series against the Reds. He made at least a half-dozen spectacular plays. The Orioles won in five games.
It earned him the nickname "The Human Vacuum Cleaner."
"I've never seen anything like what he did to us in that Series," Reds manager Sparky Anderson said. "He killed us."
The Reds' Pete Rose said, "God sent Brooks Robinson to play third base in the '70 Series. He caught everything but a cold."
"I made Brooks the MVP of that World Series," said Johnny Bench, who won the National League MVP award that year. "I hit 14 rockets at him, and he caught every one of them. The next time I saw him was in the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit. My second at-bat, I hit a BB at him, and he just scooped it up like it was nothing. I threw my hands up in the air as I ran to first base. I looked at him. He just laughed."
The first time I met Brooks Robinson was 1979. I was 22, writing a couple of stories on the Orioles for The Washington Star. He was a broadcaster with the team. He told me, with that disarming Arkansas twang, just an aw-shucks kid from Little Rock, "If you ever need anything, please let me know." I helped cover the team for the next two seasons, then was the beat writer for the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun from 1986 to '89. I spent a lot of time with Brooks Robinson. As writers, we are not supposed to get too close to the players, current or former. With Brooks, that was impossible.
He was that great, that kind, that gentle, that generous. For decades, Robinson attended the Orioles' fantasy camp, playing into his late 60s. It was a thrill of a lifetime for the campers to play with Brooks Robinson.
"How did you do at fantasy camp?" I once asked him.
"I was great," he said, joking and laughing. "You should have seen me."
When he fell into financial hardship when a couple of business ventures failed, the fans of Baltimore helped bail him out. They knew that's what he'd have done, what he did best: help other people. He was instrumental for most of his career with BAT, the Baseball Assistance Team, which helped former players who needed help of any kind. A year and two days ago, the Orioles honored the 45th anniversary of Robinson's retirement with a "Thanks, Brooks" day at Camden Yards, featuring an appearance by Robinson before the game. They also donated dozens of tickets to the Baltimore Boys & Girls Club.
Last January, our family took a trip to Florida. One day we went to an aquarium. We spent most of the day there; I met baseball fans from all across the country; I spoke to dozens of people. Three of them told me that they named a son after Brooks Robinson.
Here in Baltimore ... we name our children after Brooks Robinson.