When the long-awaited moment finally came, when the black shroud festooned with black-and-orange ribbons and bows was removed to unveil a bronze image of Brooks Robinson throwing to first base, the unflappable No. 5 found it difficult to contain his emotions as an appreciative crowd roared and Oriole-colored confetti filled the air.
“I haven’t had an applause like that in a long time, believe me,” said the legendary Orioles third baseman, his voice cracking as he dabbed he eyes with a handkerchief. “Thank you very much.”
Then, in typical Brooks fashion, Robinson humbly tried to shift the attention away from himself as he tried to put into words what seeing his likeness meant to him.
“I thought about what I was going to say when this statue was unveiled,” Robinson said. “The first thing I thought of was going back to Chuck Thompson, the great announcer. ... When someone would do something would do something remarkable, or something spectacular, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Go to war, Miss Agnes.’ And that’s all I can say is, ‘Go to war, Miss Agnes.’ “
About 1,000 people showed up Saturday to a patch of concrete now officially named Brooks Robinson Plaza to honor the 74-year-old Hall of Famer, whose 9-foot-tall, more than 1,500-lb. likeness - bronze, except for the Gold Glove - is tagging third base and firing across an imaginary diamond. It’s not by accident that the trajectory of the faux throw would carry to first base at Camden Yards, said sculptor Joseph Sheppard, a native Baltimorean who parroted what most friends, teammates, opponents and fans always say when Robinson is discussed.
“Anybody that’s ever met Brooks would say that he’s probably one of the nicest human beings they’ve ever met,” said Sheppard.
The statue was a gift to Baltimore from local businessman Henry Rosenberg, a longtime friend of Robinson who spearheaded a project that took nearly six years to complete. Its public dedication, a pop fly from the left field entrance to Camden Yards on a city-owned plaza between Washington Boulevard and Russell Street, was cause for civic celebration for throngs who consider themselves to be on a first-name basis with a native of Little Rock, Ark., who is considered every bit a Baltimorean.
Wearing various vintages of No. 5 O’s jerseys, they spilled into roadways and watched from stadium property and Hampton Inn and Pickles Pub windows. They screamed, “Thanks, Brooks” and got a nod or a wave from the man of the hour, who sat on a stage, hands folded in his lap yet slightly uncomfortable with the attention. A “Who’s Who” of local sports legends - ex-Orioles Ron Hansen and Scott McGregor, former Bullet Bob Ferry, longtime Colt Tom Matte and former NFL punter Sean Landeta, who wore the No. 5 throughout his career because Robinson was his favorite player - were among the crowd.
“Every kid in this town grew up wishing that they could play catch with Brooks ... He helped us understand that legendary sports figures weren’t superheros, they were human beings,” said Emmy-winning Baltimore-born actor Josh Charles. “You stand for so much more than the Orioles and baseball. You stand for Baltimore.”
Robinson was feted by Gov. Martin O’Malley, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a representative of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and National Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. He posed for pictures with fans, and signed autographs, genuinely touched by the adulation they showed him. He saw old, familiar faces and a new generation that knew of him only what they saw in grainy television images and well-preserved baseball cards.
“Fifty years from now, Brooks will still be the greatest third baseman in the game,” said Rosenberg, the former CEO and president of Crown Central Petroleum, who called the statue “a lasting monument to one of the city’s best citizens and ambassadors.”
Robinson had trouble composing himself several times during his eight-minute speech, which was frequently interrupted by applause, and his wife Connie rose once to steady him. There were just as many in the crowd wiping tears from their eyes. He acknowledged the statue’s placement several hundred yards from a Eutaw Street statue “of the greatest player in major league history, Babe Ruth,” and a short distance from a bronze likeness of his old friend and legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas at M&T Bank Stadium, who he called “the greatest quarterback in NFL history.”
The statue sits on a diamond-shaped concrete base, 25 feet by 25 feet, covered in black granite. Its risers and pedestals are four feet high and display text describing Robinson’s illustrious career, a 23-season run spent entirely in Baltimore and culminating with his election to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1983, the first year he was eligible. His induction brought a sea of orange to the small village in New York, a record crowd at the time.
Robinson spoke about how he always thought of the fans as his friends, a feeling that certainly was shared by Saturday’s crowd, who speak of him like they would a family member, neighbor or coworker.
“I love them. I think most of them I’ve seen before, said hello, shaken hands with them,” Robinson said afterward. “I love the turnout and appreciate that. I’m just glad my speech was over.”
While Robinson had seen a photo of the work in progress, and had a brief glimpse of the statue when it arrived in Baltimore from Italy, he hadn’t gotten the full effect until it was unveiled Saturday. He seemed in awe of the likeness, which was culled from archival photographs from his career given to the sculptor. Robinson provided Sheppard a glove, a pair of shoes and an Orioles cap to help the process along.
“I’ll just come back one day, by myself, and read everything,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “It’s wonderful. Thank you. I’m grateful for this. I think Mr. Sheppard did a wonderful job. He gave me a little more hair than I deserved. ... I’m amazed (at) every detail - you look at the shoestrings, the cleats, everything is just real-life, it really is.”
Charles, star of the CBS drama “The Good Wife,” saw the statue while it was being cast in Italy, jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the festivities.
“It just felt right to be here,” he said. “They just don’t make guys like Brooks anymore, you know? ... You can learn a lot by just looking at Brooks, learning how he conducts himself, handles himself. Like he said, he doesn’t look at the fans as fans, but as friends. That’s the sense you get from him. He’s an immortal.”
Saturday’s statue dedication, a joint effort by The The Dorothy L. and Henry A. Rosenberg, Jr. Foundation and The Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, won’t be the last time Robinson is honored. The Orioles are planning an announcement soon of a special tribute for Robinson and the rest of the team’s Baseball Hall of Fame members - Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken Jr. - to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards in 2012.
“Brooks is arguably the greatest Oriole of all time and we’re 100 percent behind any effort to honor him,” said Orioles spokeswoman Monica Barlow. “There are not enough ways to do justice to the person he is or the player he was.”
Follow Pete Kerzel on Twitter: @kerzelpete