Brooks Robinson: Oriole Start to Finish

Black and white photo of Brooks Robinson diving for a ball, his body horizontal to the ground
Brooks Robinson / Walter Kelleher / Gelatin silver print, 1958 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

In his twenty-three seasons in the major leagues, Brooks Robinson made enough of an impact to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. His days on the playing field were best characterized by umpire Ed Hurley’s famous statement, “He plays third base like he came down from a higher league.” From 1955 to 1977, Robinson set a new standard for aggressive infield play. He played his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles, and during his years there the franchise enjoyed four World Series appearances, winning the world championship in 1966 and 1970.

On April 30, Robinson visited the National Portrait Gallery for a reception and a conversation with a few friends and some members of the museum staff.  Robinson is a man who enjoyed a spectacular career, and who loves to share the stories and the lessons of the sport he played.  “Follow your dream,” he responded to museum director Kim Sajet’s question, “What advice would you give young people today?”

Brooks Robinson and Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet pose next to his portrait
Brooks Robinson and Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph by Benjamin Bloom, National Portrait Gallery

After noting that history was his favorite subject in school, Robinson said, “In eighth grade, I wrote a paper on what I wanted to be—I wanted to be a baseball player.  That was my dream.  I tell kids, ‘If you want to do something, set your mind to it.  There will be obstacles, but you have to follow your dream.’”  He added, “Education is really important, though.”  He talked about the difficulty of returning to his baseball career after compulsory time in the military in the late 1950s, stating, “I figured if I didn’t go out there and make it happen, I wouldn’t get back to Baltimore.” 

If one were to say that Robinson was the greatest defensive third baseman, it would be difficult to argue. Known as the “Human Vacuum Cleaner,” Robinson was tough to get a ball past. His career fielding percentage was .971, meaning that nineteen out of twenty times when Robinson was involved in a play, the batter was going to be put out.

Although statistically Robinson is the third-greatest defensive third baseman of all time, the statistical fielding percentage hides the fact that Robinson played seven seasons longer than the leader in this category, Placido Polanco, and ten seasons longer than the second player on the list, Mike Lowell. Also, to further make the case that Robinson was the very best defensive third baseman of all time, Robinson started over two thousand more games at third base than Polanco; Polanco spent his major league years as a utility infielder, playing hundreds of games at second base or shortstop. Robinson owned third base for the Orioles for more than two decades.

Brooks Robinson in tan suit, smiling
Brooks Robinson and Sid Hart, historian emeritus at the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph by Benjamin Bloom, National Portrait Gallery

At the plate, Robinson carried his weight as well. In 1964, on his way to becoming the American League’s most valuable player, Robinson spanked in 118 runs and hit 28 home runs. He hit 268 home runs over his career and batted in a total of 1,357 runs during that span; he also collected 2,848 hits.

Robinson’s peak years were from 1960 to 1975, during which time he won sixteen Gold Glove Awards and was voted onto the American League all-star team fifteen times. In the 1970 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson was everywhere. In the field, he picked up hard-hit balls beyond mortal range, and at the plate, he sizzled. In the first game of the series, he hit the winning home run and over the course of the Orioles’ 4–1 victory over the Reds, Robinson hit .429. He was named the series’ most valuable player. Gordon Beard, sportswriter for the Baltimore Sun, said, “Brooks Robinson never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore, people named their children after him.”

--Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Brooks Robinson in tan suit and red tie
Brooks Robinson, photograph by Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery


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