Rick Dempsey still remembers the aura that surrounded Brooks Robinson in the Orioles clubhouse.
When Dempsey, a catcher who spent half of his 24-year career in Baltimore, first arrived with the Orioles, the great Robinson walked over to introduce himself to the new 26-year-old. By that time, Robinson had already won 16 Gold Glove awards, earned 18 All-Star nominations and won two World Series championships with Baltimore.
And yet here he was, that day in 1976, walking over to Dempsey.
“You’re saying to yourself, ‘Oh my God, the best third baseman in baseball, one of the most loved and respected players in the game, just walked over and said hi to me,’” Dempsey recalled by phone Tuesday evening. “I mean, you felt like you met the greatest movie star ever, you know? And that’s probably what he was in baseball.”
Robinson died on Tuesday at 86, his family announced. His passing led to a moment of silence ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Washington Nationals at Camden Yards and an outpouring of memories about the Hall of Famer.
Dempsey and Robinson played together for two seasons before Robinson’s retirement, but the pair often returned to games and stayed in touch over the years. And in some ways, it was Dempsey’s return that prompted the end of a storied playing career for the 18-time All-Star.
Dempsey returned from the injured list after missing six weeks in 1977 with a broken hand, and to make room on the roster, the Orioles placed Robinson into retirement. He immediately began that night as a commentator on the broadcast, and after watching Dempsey strike out three times in his return, Robinson uttered a line Dempsey still laughs about to this day.
“They retired me for that?” Robinson said.
“You had to laugh,” Dempsey said. “There were only two people in the game I’ve ever seen — and you know I’ve been around quite a few years — they were out of the same mold, Brooks Robinson and Harmon Killebrew. The two nicest men in the game. And true professionals. Always treated everybody with the utmost respect, and that’s one thing Brooks always was: You just never heard a negative word out of him. He was just absolutely the best.”
Rick Vaughn, who began as the Orioles’ assistant public relations director in 1984, met his childhood hero on one of his first days at work. Robinson, still broadcasting games, met daily with Vaughn, and one of the first things out of Vaughn’s mouth underscored the influence Robinson had on a whole generation of baseball fans.
All throughout little league, Vaughn wore Robinson’s No. 5 jersey. He would’ve worn it in college, too, had it been available at George Mason.
“I was like a lot of kids. We grew up worshipping him. We grew up wearing No. 5,” Vaughn said. “And then getting the opportunity to work with him and finding out he was an even better person than I hoped he was, was probably one of the best things about working in baseball to me, just getting to know him.”
Jim Palmer, who played with Robinson for 12 seasons, stayed in close contact with Robinson and recalled how he visited him earlier this season.
“He was a great player and a great role model,” Palmer said with tears in his eyes. “When you decide who you wanted to emulate, you’d go Brooks Robinson because he was the real deal. He was a genuine person. There was no acting or trying to play a role. We were just lucky that we all had him in our lives.”
Cal Ripken Jr., who began playing for the Orioles in 1981 and whose name carries as much weight in Baltimore as Robinson’s, issued a statement in memoriam of Robinson.
“Today is an incredibly sad day for Baltimore and baseball fans everywhere. Brooks was Mr. Oriole,” Ripken’s statement read. “He was beloved and rightfully so. His historic career on the field pales to the impact he’s made on so many of us. The memories we all share of Brooks will live on. My thoughts are with Connie and the Robinson family. We lost a great man but were so fortunate to have had him in our lives.”
The influence Robinson had on baseball sunk in for Vaughn when they were in a room full of Hall of Famers. Robinson had been inducted in 1983, and Vaughn was beginning as the vice president of communications for the newly founded Tampa Bay Rays about a decade later.
Robinson asked whether Vaughn knew many of the assembled Hall of Famers, and when Vaughn said he didn’t, Robinson stopped everything to bring Vaughn around.
“He introduces me to about 15 Hall of Famers and he tells every one of them, ‘Hey, this is the guy that’s gonna be running that new expansion franchise down there,’” Vaughn recalled. “I was like, ‘Well, Brooks, I’m going to be the VP of communications. I’m not actually going to be running the place.’ But he was so happy to do that. I don’t know anyone else who would do that. … This was Brooks Robinson doing this. Those Hall of Famers stopped what they were doing and were like, ‘Well, this guy must be important if Brooks is bringing him around,’ and I wasn’t.”
But Robinson made Vaughn feel as though he was important — just as he had when Vaughn was the assistant public relations director in Baltimore, low on an organizational totem pole yet high in Robinson’s eyes.
And for that reason Baltimore embraced Robinson as their own.
Ken Singleton, a longtime Orioles outfielder in the 1970s and ‘80s, remembers going to a function years ago to honor Robinson. At one point, the emcee asked, “Would all the people in the audience who are named Brooks stand up?”
“It must have been 30 people,” Singleton recalled. “It’s because of Brooks Robinson, what he meant to Baltimore, what he meant to Maryland. It was quite a few people. If you had yelled ‘Brooks’ that night, 30 people would have turned around.”
Baltimore’s success in the time Robinson played third base for the Orioles doesn’t come as a surprise, Dempsey said.
“He was Oriole baseball,” Dempsey said. “He was the guy you thought about when you said the Oriole Way. It was Brooks Robinson who made that Oriole Way. He didn’t have to go to other players and say, ‘Hey, you need to work a little bit better.’ Brooks Robinson, all you had to do was play with him and watch the way he went about his job. That was the Oriole Way.”
He also found time for everyone. He found time for Dempsey when he first arrived in Baltimore’s clubhouse, and again for the wide-eyed Vaughn who is privileged enough to call his hero a friend.
And he found time for a little boy in York, Pennsylvania.
A father called Vaughn wondering whether Robinson could call his sick son, and Vaughn passed along the phone number to Robinson. A few days later, Vaughn checked in.
“Hey, did you get a chance to call that kid?” Vaughn asked him.
“No,” Robinson said. “I drove up there to see him.”
Banner reporters Danielle Allentuck and Kyle Goon contributed to this story.