The hard-luck St. Louis Browns arrived in Baltimore in 1954, in desperate need of a rebrand. They grabbed onto the moniker “Orioles,” which had been a baseball team name for several different organizations in several different leagues for more than a half century. To that point, none of them had stuck.

Just one year later in 1955, the ballclub debuted the player — in only six games — who would come to define exactly what being an Oriole meant.

Before Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson; before Adam Jones and Manny Machado; before Cal Ripken Jr. and Brady Anderson; before Eddie Murray, Ken Singleton and Rick Dempsey; even before Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver, as hard as that may be to imagine, there was one man who represented the blueprint.

Brooks Robinson. No one else has been, or could ever be, Mr. Oriole.

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Robinson never met a fan he didn’t have time to give an autograph to, so plenty of baseballs float around to this day with his signature eating half the cowhide. Palmer gave Robinson grief: “I used to tell him, ‘Brooks, how come you write so big?’”

It was appropriate that Robinson had a signature as bold and declarative as John Hancock: He was the Founding Father of what became known as “The Oriole Way.” His signature was probably the most brash thing about him.

Robinson was a gentle, unassuming man from Little Rock, Arkansas, who let his steady work ethic at third base do the talking. His path to baseball came from a letter written to Orioles manager Paul Richards in February 1955: “I am writing you in regard to a kid named Brooks Robinson. I think he measures up to having a chance in major league baseball.” Within a year, the Orioles had snapped him up and made him the first prospect to debut since they relocated.

He could move to his left just as smoothly as his right. His dives had incredible range, and if you tried to bunt on him, good luck: He could charge up the line and still deliver a blistering on-target throw to first. Teammates saw the black-and-blue marks stray baseballs left on his body, because when he couldn’t field a grounder cleanly, he’d simply let it ricochet off him. Outfielder Al Bumbry said the way Robinson played was the way the younger players in the farm system were taught: “We patterned our work pattern after him.”

Longtime Baltimore Sun columnist John Steadman once quoted umpire Ed Hurley as saying about Robinson: “He plays third base like he came down from a higher league.”

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His ability earned him the nicknames “The Human Vacuum Cleaner” and “Mr. Impossible.” But teammates who observed Robinson fielding ground balls hours after practice ended knew why Robinson’s superhuman web gems were possible.

“All you had to do was play with him and watch the way he went about his job,” catcher Rick Dempsey said. “That was the Oriole Way.”

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In 1975, the Orioles traded for pitcher Mike Torrez, who went 20-9, but also led the league with 133 walks — an unusual statistical combination. Singleton said there wasn’t much mystery to it if you watched the Orioles infield: “Mike was a sinker ball pitcher, and it seemed like every time he walked somebody, Brooks or Mark Belanger would turn it into a double play.”

But what stood out to people close to Robinson was the way he treated others: with dignity and reassurance. Robinson was the first player to talk to Singleton in spring training when he was traded to Baltimore in 1975: “You don’t have to do this all by yourself here. We’ve got a very good team, and we’ve got a lot of good players here,” he said.

Singleton’s mother attended a team party later in spring training, and spent a good deal of time talking to Robinson, then the 38-year-old team leader. His mother told him later: “You might want to stay here a while.” Said Singleton: “My mom was a good judge of character.”

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It’s telling that the Orioles players who powered the dynasty spanning three decades took on the character of Robinson: steady in the field and with fundamentals. When the Orioles won the World Series 4-1 over the ballyhooed Cincinnati Reds in 1970, Sports Illustrated wrote “in this Series, the Reds will swear they were the victims of witches and warlocks” because of how deftly the Orioles defense cleaned up their hits.

But it wasn’t just in the field where Robinson made his impact felt: He batted .429 with two home runs in the series. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench told the media that he hoped to see the Orioles in the World Series the next season, and “I also hope Brooks Robinson has retired by then.”

No such luck: Robinson played until 1977, four more All-Star appearances and five more Gold Gloves, stockpiling his massive totals of each (18 and 16 respectively).

Robinson was also a rallying force off the field: In the tumult between owners and players that came to define the 70s, Robinson was one of the Orioles, along with Belanger, who helped keep his teammates informed about rule changes and how negotiations were going with ownership. Even after retirement, he helped found the players’ alumni association.

Robinson did not get to experience many of the advances players negotiated in his time — free agency wasn’t established until 1976 — but he worked the phone tree to help players after him rake in the dollars from a league he helped popularize.

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And he was popular. No less than Norman Rockwell immortalized Robinson with a portrait, “Gee, thanks Brooks,” of Robinson, appropriately, giving a delighted young fan an autograph. (Robinson later auctioned the painting off for millions that went to his charity.)

Nora Ephron etched his legacy into cinema in “Sleepless in Seattle,” with an Oriole bit of dialogue: “She thinks Brooks Robinson is the greatest; so do you.”

“Everyone thinks Brooks Robinson is the greatest.”

Even though Robinson came up in an era when players’ markets were chosen for them, he always embraced Baltimore, his adopted home. He stayed in the region after retirement was unceremoniously foisted upon him, calling Baltimore “a fantastic place to live.” Bumbry was a frequent visitor to Robinson’s house up into their later years, and Robinson was quick to bring his former teammate in for a round of golf at Caves Valley.

“Not a more genuine human being that I’ve been around, a more sincere person than Brooks Robinson,” Bumbry said.

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Robinson remained generous with his time and thoughtful with how he treated fans. ESPN commentator and Maryland native Scott Van Pelt shared a story of the time he lost a Robinson foul ball down a sewer. Hearing the story secondhand years later, Robinson sent a replacement ball with a note: “Hope this makes up for the one that got away.”

Few have ever aged more gracefully into their place in history. As Ripken became a revered star in the Orioles organization, Robinson embraced him as well. So many modern day sports stars want to re-litigate their achievements out of defensiveness or ego — but not Brooks Robinson, who saw the Orioles legacy as one long, unbroken chain.

“I think Brooks realized what Cal meant to a different generation,” Singleton said. “But there’s only one Mr. Oriole. Cal doesn’t have that moniker, even through all he’s accomplished and though he’s well-revered.

“Brooks Robinson was the first one.”

And there will never be another.

Andy Kostka contributed reporting to this story.

kyle.goon@thebaltimorebanner.com