Orioles legend Brooks Robinson was a good and decent man. If you don’t know that by now – a week after his death at 86 prompted hosannas throughout the baseball world – then you’ve probably never heard of Mister Rogers either.
Every Baltimorean of a certain age seems to have a Brooksie story – great ballplayer, greater human being – and they’ve poured in by the hour since the news of his passing on September 26.
Of all the ones I’ve heard, this one is by far the best. Surely there were countless others that Brooks kept to himself.
In 2007, Jason Policastro was working the annual Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award banquet in downtown Baltimore. Brooks was a featured speaker and one of Policastro’s jobs was to wait and escort him into the hotel.
“I was maybe 26 years old,” said Policastro, now a financial advisor. “I’m standing out front when Brooks gets out of a cab. I’m about to shake his hand and out of an alley between the buildings comes this guy saying ‘Brooks, Brooks!'”
The man, said Policastro, appeared to be in his 40s, perhaps older, and seemed to be living on the street. He rooted around in the closest trash can, found a raggedy sheet of newspaper and politely ran up to Brooks, saying, “Mr. Robinson, can I have your autograph?”
“Brooks doesn’t bat an eye,” said Policastro. “He gives the guy his autograph and they chat happily for a couple minutes.”
Only after the man finished talking, said Policastro, did Brooks go inside, one of hundreds, if not more than a thousand, chicken dinner charity events at which he spoke over the decades.
With all due respect for silent auction cocktail parties supporting the cause du jour, I’d argue that there’s no greater definition of charity than Brooksie’s moment with the man on the sidewalk.
Said Policastro of the Hall of Fame third basemen from Little Rock, “Everything they say about him is true.”
This Sunday past, before the last game of this fabulous 101 win Orioles’ season (a 6-1 loss to Boston), I ran the story about Brooks and the homeless man by C. Peter Hoffberger, born a year after the 18-year-old Robinson landed in the big leagues in ’55.
Hoffberger’s parents were the former Alice Berney (1925-2016) and C. Jerold “Jerry” Hoffberger, who died at age 80 in 1999. Jerry Hoffberger owned part and eventually the majority of the team throughout Robinson’s career.
Of the story of Brooks and the unkempt stranger, Peter said: “Most people cast off the homeless. But with Brooks the extraordinary is almost a cliche.”
Which translates into: Everything they say about Brooks is true.
In the basement of his home near the Park School, Hoffberger keeps mementos of National Beer and the Orioles, two indelible symbols of Baltimore once owned at the same time by his father.
One photo shows Brooks and Jerry clasping hands in a near embrace at a victory party after the 1970 World Series, the championship in which Robinson defined greatness at the hot corner. He signed it, “Jerry, my best to you. Enjoyed our friendship. Brooks Robinson.”
Growing up when the Birds called Memorial Stadium home, the Hoffberger family seats were behind the third base dugout. Traditionally, the home team uses the first base dugout but, said Peter, “the sun was right in your eyes over there so we moved the Oriole dugout to third.”
At third, he watched Brooks prepare before each pitch was thrown: The quiet, intense crouch, nimble on the balls of his feet, taking off his glove and putting it back on, eyes locked on the batter, moving forward just an inch or so.
“I’d keep looking to see if he’d get distracted and he never did,” said Hoffberger. “I can’t imagine that discipline, going through that routine…” more than a dozen times an inning multiplied by nine innings times 162 games a year times 23 years. All with the Baltimore Orioles.
One time, young Hoffberger didn’t look down at his own feet until it was too late. A 16-year-old summer intern in the club’s PR department in 1972, Peter was in the Orioles’ clubhouse one day and somehow didn’t notice that 6-foot-4, then 240-pound Boog Powell – who caught more throws at first from Brooks than any other player – was kneeling beside him.
“When I started doing the hat dance, [second basemen] Davey Johnson and [centerfielder] Paul Blair began howling,” said Hoffberger. “Boog had slipped a pack of matches under the sole of my shoe and gave me a hot foot.”
Welcome to the big leagues, young man.
As a youngster, Kiel McLaughlin’s father — the late Jim McLaughlin — kept boxes of meticulously curated baseball cards at his home in southwest Baltimore. He often told Kiel that the collection – Mantle and Koufax; Aaron, Mays and Banks – would be worth something one day.
“Brooks was his favorite,” said McLaughlin in a Facebook post. “He told stories of getting change from his Mom as a child and taking the bus from Pigtown to Memorial Stadium to see Brooks play.”
Going through his father’s collection to see what “the highest bidder” might be willing to pay, Kiel came upon a Brooks Robinson card. “I think about him at nine-years-old pulling his hero from a pack and how excited he must have been,” wrote McLaughlin.
That card, he said the day after Brooks died, is not for sale.
A final thought. Would you believe – given all that’s been said about the man, particularly the accolades at yesterday’s Camden Yards memorial – that Brooks Robinson was connected to fraud? It’s true, only Brooksie wasn’t aware of it.
If your father or grandfather or great-grandfather passed along a photo or baseball signed by Brooks – and that forebear happened to be given moments of bad public behavior – the keepsake might be a fake.
Peter Hoffberger knows because – unbeknownst to Brooks – he perpetrated the deception.
During his “hot foot” summer, Hoffberger worked with Bob Brown, Orioles chief PR man for 35 years. Before the team’s media department employed more staff than the roster had relief pitchers, Bob pretty much ran the show single-handedly.
“It was Bob and me,” said Hoffberger. “If a fan came into the office with a complaint but they were polite, I could assuage them by getting a player’s autograph. Of course, everyone wanted Brooks. So I’d get him to sign something and send them on their way.
“If they came in and they were a jerk, they also got a Brooks Robinson autograph, except Brooks didn’t sign it. I did.”
Reasoned Hoffberger: “I wasn’t going to bother Brooks for a jerk.”
On October 13, 1970, Rafael Alvarez saw Dave McNally hit the only grand slam by a pitcher in World Series history at the fall classic in which Brooks Robinson was the MVP. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org