Brooks Robinson, Hall of Fame Orioles Third Baseman, Dies at 86

Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey
Baltimore Orioles great Brooks Robinson acknowledges the crowd’s applause during a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in July 2019.

Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles third baseman who helped lead his team to two World Series championships and is widely regarded as baseball’s greatest defensive third baseman ever, died Sept. 26 at 86.

The team announced the death but did not disclose further details.

During a 23-year career in Baltimore, Robinson was an All Star for 15 seasons and won the Gold Glove award as the top fielder at his position 16 years in a row. His ability to grab any ball hit in his direction earned him many nicknames, including “the Human Vacuum Cleaner,” and he remained one of Baltimore’s best-loved athletes long after his retirement in 1977.

He was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1964 and was among the core of players, including fellow Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Frank Robinson (no relation), who formed an Orioles dynasty for the next decade as the team reached the postseason six times and the World Series four times.

Although the Orioles lost the World Series to the New York Mets in 1969, but by then Robinson’s reputation for defensive wizardry was already well established.

“I’m not hitting the ball to Robinson in this Series,” Donn Clendenon of the Mets said. “He’s the vacuum cleaner, don’t you know that?”

Among the pinnacles of Robinson’s career was the 1970 World Series, which the Orioles won over Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in five games. Robinson was named the Series MVP.

He set the tone in the first game, grabbing a ground ball in the sixth inning off the bat of the Reds’ Lee May, as his momentum carried him far into foul territory. Robinson made a whirling throw to first to gun down May and stop a Cincinnati rally.

“He was going toward the bullpen when he threw to first,” Clay Carroll, a Reds relief pitcher, said at the time. “His arm went one way, his body another, and his shoes another.”

In the next inning, Robinson hit a home run to win the game for Baltimore, 4-3.

He continued to make clutch plays in the field and at the plate throughout the Series’ five games. In Game 3, Robinson leaped to pull down Tony Perez’s sharply hit grounder, stepped on third and hurled the ball to first for a double play.

In the ninth inning of the fifth and final game, Robinson made a headlong dive into foul territory to grab a line drive by Cincinnati’s power-hitting catcher, Johnny Bench. Fittingly, Robinson made the final play of the series on a ground ball to third.

In addition to his dazzling fielding, Robinson hit .429 during the Series, with two home runs and six runs batted in, for one of the most spectacular performances in World Series history.

“I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson quipped afterward. “If I dropped this paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

But for all his exploits on the field, Robinson wasn’t particularly fleet of foot and had only an average throwing arm. His strengths were his nimble hands, a lightning-quick release on his throws and an uncanny instinct for anticipating where a ball would be hit.

“When I go after a ball, I always think I can get the out,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1969.

Robinson had his best season in 1964, batting .317, slamming 28 home runs and driving in 118 runs – all career highs – and was named the American League’s MVP.

Despite winning 97 games in 1964, the Orioles didn’t reach the World Series until 1966, the year another Robinson – slugging outfielder Frank Robinson – was acquired in a trade with Cincinnati. Frank Robinson, the Orioles’ first Black star, led the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs to win baseball’s Triple Crown. Brooks Robinson drove in 100 runs and was stellar in the field.

Brooks Robinson had grown up in Little Rock, where he attended Central High School, the site of violent white protests against federally enforced integration efforts in 1957.

But in Baltimore, Brooks Robinson embraced Frank Robinson from the start, saying the slugger was “exactly what we need.”

With the two Robinsons, pitchers Palmer and Dave McNally, and Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio, the Orioles won the 1966 World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Throughout his career, Robinson was always obliging when asked for an autograph and was even portrayed in a painting by Norman Rockwell, signing a baseball for a young fan. (He wrote lefthanded, although he batted and threw righthanded.)

“Of all the game’s greats, perhaps Robinson has been least cursed by his own fame,” Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell wrote in 1977, when Robinson retired. “He had great talent and never abused it. He received adulation, and reciprocated with common decency. While other players dressed like kings and acted like royalty, Robinson arrived at the park dressed like a cab driver. Other stars had fans. Robinson made friends.”

Brooks Calbert Robinson Jr. was born in Little Rock on May 18, 1937. His father, a firefighter who played semipro baseball, introduced his son to baseball at a young age, using a sawed-off broomstick as a bat.

Soon after his high school graduation in 1955, Robinson signed with the Orioles, a year after the former St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore. He played briefly with the big-league team in 1955, and became the starting third baseman in 1958 before being sent back to the minor leagues the following year.

He became an Oriole for good in 1960 and never played with another team.

During his career, Robinson set a record for most games played at third base (2,870) and is still baseball’s all-time leader, by wide margins, for most putouts, assists and double plays at his position.

Known primarily for his fielding, he finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .267, 268 home runs and 1,357 runs batted in and was easily elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, the first year he was eligible. He was a leader of the players’ union, the Major League Baseball Players Association.

In 1959, he met Constance Butcher, a flight attendant on one of the Orioles’ team flights. He told her that all his teammates were married, according to his 1974 memoir, “Third Base Is My Home.”

“So remember,” he added, “if any of them try to talk to you, I’m the only single, eligible bachelor on the plane.”

They were married a year later. Robinson, who was raised as a Methodist, converted to Catholicism, his wife’s faith. They had four children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

After his playing career, Robinson worked as an Orioles television broadcaster from 1978 to 1993. He briefly lived in California before returning to the Baltimore area, where he was involved in several businesses, including a petroleum company, a counseling organization for athletes and minor-league baseball franchises. He was the coauthor of several books about his life in baseball.

He sold most of his memorabilia in 2015, donating the $1.44 million in proceeds to a charitable foundation he and his wife started.

In 1991, before the final game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium – the Orioles’ home park for Robinson’s entire career – he threw out the ceremonial first pitch. He was joined by former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, who tossed a football.

The Orioles retired Robinson’s No. 5 in 1977, and a statue of him was unveiled outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2011. It depicts him preparing to throw out a runner at first.

“Baseball is the only thing I have ever done in my life,” he said in 1969, “and it is the only thing I have ever loved.”