Flashback: Imagine Brooks Robinson trying to go unnoticed in Baltimore

What can be said, written or thought about Brooks Robinson that hasn’t already been said, written or thought? Simply put, he’s Mr. Oriole, the enduring face of the franchise when the O’s finally weaved themselves into the tapestry that is Baltimore, right beside steamed crabs, marble stoops and painted screen doors.

If you don’t have a Brooks Robinson autograph, that means you’ve probably never tried. As a kid, I remember thinking how cool it was for the best third baseman of all time to be chatting up the fans while he signed balls, bats, gloves and caps next to the Orioles dugout at Memorial Stadium. In later years, I’ve seen Robinson more times than I can recall, always patiently penning his John Hancock and graciously accepting fans’ accolades. Every time Brooks was told, “I’m sure you don’t remember this, but ...”, he always seems to smile and recollect exactly the moment or person whoever he was talking to meant. It’s uncanny, incredible and uniquely Brooks. If a crowd surrounds him, Brooks always seems humbled as he takes his time whittling away the layers of fans like a cook peels an onion, and usually waiting until the last person’s request for a signature has been happily satisfied.

BRobinsonCar.jpgIt must be difficult for Robinson, shown here in a Sport Magazine photograph from the Orioles archives with wife Connie during a photo shoot when his automobile for winning the 1970 World Series Most Valuable Player Award, to do things we take for granted - grab a beer and a burger at a neighborhood bar, walk in and out of the bank, take in a movie. He’s instantly recognizable, as much for his folksy smile as his defensive wizardry at the hot corner. And not just to folks in their 50s and older; it seems all generations of well-schooled Orioles fans understand his significance in the annals of orange and black.

But I’ve seen Brooks try to blend in, go unnoticed, shun celebrity and try to turn the attention away from himself. It didn’t really work; ol’ No. 5 would have a better chance at sneaking a grounder past himself at third base.

Back in the late 1970s, one of Brooks’ sons - Brooks David, who went by his middle name - was playing varsity basketball for Loch Raven High School. When the Raiders would hit the road, Brooks wanted to watch his son play - what dad wouldn’t? - but doing that without shifting the focus off the court and into the stands took some creativity.

When Loch Raven would play at Catonsville, where I covered preps for the Catonsville Times, four minutes or so would be elapsed in the first quarter before Brooks would amble into the gym, usually when the action on the hardwood was moving away from the entrance to the gym. He’d quickly scurry into the bleachers, deftly maneuvering cheering fans, and find a spot as close as he could to the top of the wooden stands. There, he’d train his eyes on his son, a forward, and revel in the fact that he could root for the Raiders.

Of course, Robinson’s anonymity didn’t last long. Usually by halftime, maybe a few minutes into the third quarter, his cover was blown and he was besieged by autograph seekers (imagine if this had been the time of mobile phone cameras, Facebook and Twitter), who lined the bleachers in search of a signature. If the masses were polite and didn’t interrupt his view of the game, Brooks would sign. If the attention ever shifted to the dad in the stands who just happened to be one of the game’s all-time greats, Brooks shut it down. He never wanted the focus to move from the court to himself. And if that meant leaving early, he did. It was another incredible display of humility from a guy whose name and face have become synonymous with the word. Simply put, Brooks Robinson didn’t want to be a distraction.

To many, Brooks Robinson was, is and always will be the Orioles - and vice versa. But I think it’s safe to say that Baltimore definitely has gotten the better end of the deal: a genuinely nice man who’s a great ballplayer and a better person.

Today, he’ll take his place in Legends Park when a bronze likeness of the “Human Vacuum Cleaner” is unveiled. Health issues delayed his statue dedication from its scheduled May date, and the crowds that have shown up to watch subsequent unveilings have cheered wildly when Brooks took his place in support of old teammates and friends. May they always do so.

Now it’s time for Robinson to get his due, and for Baltimore to reprise the role of wide-eyed kid in the iconic Norman Rockwell print and say, “Thanks, Brooks.”

Photos used in the Flashback feature come from the Orioles’ photo archives. From time to time this season, we’ll take a look back at interesting people, places and events in Baltimore baseball history through the camera lenses that captured them and lend a historical perspective to what’s shown.

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