Appreciating Brooks Robinson

Norman Rockwell's painting, "Gee Thanks, Brooks", was the only Rockwell work to feature a Major League Baseball player.

Fifty years from now I’ll be just three inches of type in a record book.” — Brooks Robinson

Up on my classroom wall sits this months’ featured Meet the Masters project:  Norman Rockwell.

While the students got their fill of Rockwell’s famous Saturday Evening Post covers from their MTM lecturer earlier this month, one painting was noticeably absent from her slide show on the famous American painter, “Gee Thanks, Brooks!”.   Painted after Brook’s performance in the 1970 World Series, where the Oriole third baseman batted .429 and won the series’ Most Valuable Player in leading the Birds to a series win over the Cincinnati Reds, Rockwell met the third baseman for a portrait commissioned by the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company for a magazine spread.

Brooksie, along with Johnny Unitas, quarterback for the erstwhile Baltimore Colts, was my first real sports hero around the time I discovered professional sports.  Yesterday, in downtown Baltimore, outside of Oriole Park at Camden Yard, a statue featuring the immortal Oriole, was unveiled.  The ceremony was attended by over 1,000 people, including Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, well as Emmy-nominated actor Josh Charles (The Good Wife). Notably absent was Baltimore Oriole owner Peter Angelos:

It may seem only slightly odd that it does not sit on Camden Yards proper.

Nobody asked the question, nobody spoke of the ironically absentee local owner, a man who prides himself so much on his civic philanthropy. Angelos has now owned the Orioles since August 1993. Starting with the first full season of his tenure running the O’s, Angelos and his management have a record that is pretty dismal at 1,310-1,536. They have had just two winning seasons during all that time, 1996 and 1997.

That’s a pretty sad record, but that’s not what defines Peter Angelos. What’s even more sad is that he didn’t see fit to celebrate this great moment of his team’s history and the history of the city he professes to love so much. That is his loss, and it’s why he has become such an increasingly lonely and isolated figure.

You can find information about the statue on the Orioles’ own website, as well the key reason as to why the Orioles beleaguered owner might have seen fit to blow off the event:  the team’s own plans to honor the franchise’s Hall-of-Fame players next season, as part of their ballpark’s 20th anniversary.  As a sports town, Baltimore reveres its sports icons:  Johnny Unitas, Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken, and, of course, Brooks.  So it’s amazing to me that while likely unintended, the Orioles made it seem like it can only honor Brooks Robinson a single time, all while honoring its other Hall-of-Famers: Ripken, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, and Earl Weaver.  Not to take away from the accomplishments of his fellow Orioles, but Robinson, in his way, is the Oriole to whom the others are compared, not the other way around.  Angelos’ absence says far more about him than it does about Brooks Robinson, or the hundreds of Oriole fans who, despite a beaten down franchise, chose to come back to honor a valued city legacy.  It’s far too easy to beat on the team’s owner, but it’s even easier, and far more worthwhile, to instead praise the statue’s subject himself.

Much as Angel fans of a certain age name their children after Nolan Ryan, in Baltimore, it’s not surprising to see any number of boys named Brooks, after their parents’ childhood hero.  I always thought it funny that while I became a Colts’ fan before becoming an Oriole fan, childhood drawings of mine pretending to be a football player always had me in a “#5” uniform.  #5 was Brook’s number.

While it currently sits in storage at my parents’ house, the first autograph of any note I ever got was Brooks’.  He was nearing the end of his career, in the mid-1970s, when the Orioles came into Anaheim Stadium to face the Angels.  Back at that time, Anaheim Union High School District used to offer free Angel tickets to its schools’ Honor Roll students, so I was able to go to quite a few Angel games for only the cost of the junk food my friends and I would inevitably buy.  While the tickets were View Level (upper deck) seats, they were between the baselines, and given the small crowds that came to Angel games at that time, we had a virtual free run of the stadium.  This meant that getting autographs from players enabled us to have a virtual free run of the stadium.  While the Angels of that era were notoriously stingy in giving out their signatures (Dave Chalk is one I remember for being a jerk about NOT signing rather than any positive contribution he put out on the field), a number of Orioles would gladly sign, and one evening before an Oriole/Angel game, as the Birds were finishing batting practice, from our perch up on the View Level, I could see Brooks coming over to sign for a group that had been waiting patiently for him to finish warming up.  I signaled my group that I was on my way down.  We tore down the stadium ramps, through the field level concourse and down the aisle towards the field side closest to the Oriole dugout.  There was a line, but Brooks made no effort to leave until he had signed something for all the willing autograph seekers.  Of course, this was a time before autograph seekers were looking to have anything signed, with hopes of scoring big in on-line auctions.  So it mattered little that all I had for him to sign was an Angel souvenir scorebook.  Despite having to run from the upper deck of the stadium, I was still able to take my place in the queue, and no more than 5-10 minutes later, I was standing directly in front of him, in absolute awe.  I thanked him, and walked back up to my seat, enthralled at my incredible good fortune.   I can’t even recall whether or not my Orioles won that night.

Until I got Cal Ripken, Jr.’s autograph many years later, it remains a treasured memory. When I got Ripken’s signature, all I kept thinking was how much I felt like the tween getting Brooks’ autograph, despite the generation of time that had passed.  Reading the recaps of yesterday’s event, I feel that way again.  I just hope I wrote more than 3 inches worth of type.

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