It is the rarest of moments that can produce a collective lump in the throats of an entire city, but that is what we in Baltimore experienced en masse on a bright fall day in 1970.
On that Oct. 14, Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, with the open end of its horseshoe shape offering a view of trees full of autumn color, was the site of World Series Game 4. An ovation began building throughout the packed stands as Brooks Robinson approached the plate to lead off the bottom of the second inning. The Orioles led the Cincinnati Reds three games to none, principally because the player, whom local fans referred to simply as Brooks, had turned the series into a personal showcase like few players before or since, having punctuated a sterling offensive performance with some of the most remarkable defensive plays the Fall Classic had ever witnessed.
The continuing applause was a sincere and grateful acknowledgement of a player who had put his athletic greatness, something that locals had come to expect, on full display before a worldwide audience. And, as if on cue, he responded to fans’ show of appreciation by turning a 2-2 pitch from Reds starter, Gary Nolan, into a booming home run. As the ball disappeared among the spectators above the tall green left field wall, Brooks Robinson was in the process of ascending to the pinnacle of his profession by delivering a magical performance on the game’s biggest stage.
As he rounded the bases at that moment of supreme personal accomplishment, he displayed little sign of exultation or triumph. Instead, the shoe black above his cheeks framed the eyes of someone clearly humbled by the magnitude of what he was in the midst of accomplishing. As he allowed himself a brief hand clap while touching home plate, the choked up Baltimore fans were at once teary-eyed with joy for the player they had come to regard as part of their family.
Brooks Robinson was the hometown hero with whom most of us had grown up. Signing with the Orioles as an 18-year-old out of Little Rock not long after the team’s arrival from St. Louis, his charming Arkansas drawl became a familiar part of the local vernacular, and his meticulous defense and clutch hitting grew to become part of baseball legend. He was the personification of the young team that built itself into a champion while endearing itself to the city with an irresistible persona — consistent and fundamentally sound on the field, gracious and self-effacing in public.
The Orioles’ emergence as perennial contenders coincided with Brooks Robinson’s growth into the Hall of Famer he would become. But his story is not merely that of a player who summoned all of his ability to perform at the highest level. Brooks Robinson was admired for his greatness at the plate and at third base, but he also came to be revered for the person he was off the field. No one could ever be more genuinely interested in and mindful of others.
Growing up, so many of us wanted to be the Brooks Robinson in whose glove would-be doubles went to die, and who came through time after time with the timeliest of hits. But time and Brooks Robinson’s enduring connection to the community prompted the evolution of another aspiration in many of us — to be like Brooks. To be someone whose inherent kindness and unending courtesy was as well-known and admired as much as any professional accomplishment. In fact, it was that he was so professionally accomplished (18 All Star appearances, 16 Gold Gloves, Most Valuable Player of the American League, World Series and All-Star Game) that his humility and common touch shined all the more remarkably. Despite our best intentions, few of us have come close to Brooks when it comes to leaving people feeling better than when you found them. But if enough of us continue to try to emulate his virtues, it will surely make for a better world.
It is fitting that the 2023 Orioles are a young team advancing to their first postseason and demonstrating the promise of perennial excellence. They have much in common with the youthful Orioles with whom Brooks Robinson rose to the top of the baseball world. Perhaps there is a player among the current roster who will achieve baseball immortality and acclaim. But I doubt that there could ever be another player so universally loved and admired as No. 5.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a shareholder in a local law firm. His email is email@example.com.