Brooks Robinson, 1937–2023

When I was too young to exercise any judgement about the important things in life, I received from my dad the sense that my baseball hero ought to be Brooks Robinson. I do not remember ever having been in any doubt on the matter, at any point in my life.

I should explain that we lived in Rochester, New York, which had just begun an affiliation with the Baltimore Orioles, so although Robinson never played for the Red Wings, my allegiance to the Red Wings warranted a baseball hero who might play for the Orioles. That will have been a time when Robinson was just settling into his career; he might easily have slumped, succumbed to injury, been traded to the Kansas City A’s, or any of a thousand developments that would have complicated my admiration of Robinson, but instead he blossomed into being a steady (if not fearsome) batter, a loyal Baltimorean, and the best defensive third baseman to pick up a glove. All the obits report that he had various outlandish nicknames; those weren’t proper nicknames at all, but the sort of epithet that sportswriters and broadcasters dream up to attach themselves to greater men’s glory.

I’ve read a lot about Brooks, and as a theologian I’m amply aware of human frailty, but I’ve never heard a negative report about him. Many of his generation will have imbibed racism growing up, many of his contemporaries revelled in the libertinism that stardom afforded, many retirees complain about subsequent generations’ salaries or fame or style, many people are just plain mean in one way or another — but so far as I’ve heard, Brooks Robinson was simply a good, kind, man. I know that I won’t ever have an achievement to compare to his; I hope that I may at least be found to have shared in his goodness.

In this year when the O’s are at last back in postseason baseball (and have done it the Oriole Way, by building a team from the minors up), many will feel his death especially acutely. Vale, Brooks Robinson — one old priest in England is sadder this season.

3 thoughts on “Brooks Robinson, 1937–2023

  1. When the fiery, proud Black outfielder Frank Robinson was traded to the Orioles just before the 1966 season, it seemed there was some potential for conflict. Frank was an alleged troublemaker and a superstar who commanded more in salary than Brooks, who had been the Orioles undisputed team leader. How would the Southern boy – a graduate of the notorious Central High School – react to the interloper?

    Frank and Brooks bonded famously, leading to a long friendship highlighted by a late 1980 Miller Lite commercial. In that spot, Brooks delivers the penultimate line: “Now I know we’re incredibly alike, but don’t be confused. We are not identical twins.”
    Then, genuinely cracking up, Frank delivers the kicker: “I’m at least 2 inches taller than he is.”

  2. Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker recalled Robinson’s friendship during the early years of his career, when he broke in with Atlanta in the late 1960s.

    “I’m just sad. Another great one is called to heaven,” Baker said. “They got some all-stars up there.

    “He was really nice to me when I was a rookie with the Braves. We used to barnstorm with him all the time and he was a real gentleman. … I never heard anything negative about him, ever. And he was on a team that with the Orioles had a number of African-American players. I think they had 10 or 12. They all loved him. That’s saying a lot. Especially back in that day.”

  3. Baseball Reference calculates Total Fielding Runs Above Average (‘The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made’, an assessment how how many runs a player saved, or cost, their team when they were no the field) — and their statistics identify Brooks Robinson as the best defensive player in baseball history. Not just the best third baseman, but the best defensive player. And that’s by a significant margin: Robinson is first, having saved the O’s 293 runs compared to an average player, while second-place Andruw Jones saved the Braves 241. That’s a gap of 52 runs, by far the biggest gap between any two players. Brooks was the greatest defender, by the greatest margin.

    Moreover, most of the top defenders were shortstops or outfielders (they get more plays, so the counting stat favours them). The next third baseman in Total Runs Saved is Buddy Bell, in tenth place overall at 174 Total Runs Saved — 119 fewer than Brooks.

    (As a side note, the third best defender in TRS was Mark Belanger, who playes shortstop beside Robinson on the Orioles. Now, that was a tight defensive infield.

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