Three teams had been battling all year for the 1977 American League East crown and as of Sunday afternoon, September 18, the Yankees held a 2½ game lead over the Orioles, who themselves were two games ahead of the third-place Red Sox with only 13 games remaining. While the Yankees were playing the Tigers in a three-game weekend series, the Orioles and Red Sox were battling it out at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The Birds had taken the first two from Boston and were sending Mike Flanagan to the mound. Flanagan was on his way to a 15-win season and was opposed by Mike Paxton, who would win ten games in this, his rookie season. The Red Sox had three future Hall of Famers, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Carlton Fisk, gracing the middle of their lineup, while soon-to-be Rookie of the Year and future Hall of Famer, Eddie Murray, was DHing and hitting fifth for the Orioles.
No one had come to the ballpark that day, however, just to root on the Orioles or to see two good teams who would each win 97 games. Everyone had come to pay tribute to another future Hall of Famer, a player who had been a part of the Orioles graced third base since the second year of the franchise’s existence, Brooks Robinson. Sunday, September 18, 1977, was “Thanks, Brooks” Day in Baltimore.
Brooks’ career had been winding down for over a year, and he entered the 1977 season as a player-coach. He pinch-hit occasionally, but Doug DeCinces had taken over third the previous season, and when catcher Rick Dempsey came off the disabled list on August 21st, Brooks went on the voluntarily retired list. Immediately, the Orioles front office began to plan a celebration in Robinson’s honor, but he saw no need for it. Finally, General Manager Hank Peters and Public Relations Director Bob Brown convinced Brooks that the celebration was really for the fans and so he agreed with the stipulation that there to be no gifts and that any donations go to the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.1
An era unlike any other in Baltimore sports history had come to an end and fans entering the stadium that beautiful Sunday afternoon seemed stunned but ready to pay proper homage to their hero. That, they did. As the 1978 Orioles’ press guide described it, “In an emotionally charged atmosphere, Brooks Robinson was accorded a sustained, nerve-tingling ovation as he entered the field and rode around the warning track in a 1955 model Cadillac, manufactured the year he made his major league bow in Baltimore.”2
Teammate and former Cincinnati Red Lee May added some levity to the day when he presented the guest of honor with a vacuum cleaner alluding to Brooks’ nickname, “the human vacuum cleaner.” May, of course, had been robbed of several hits by Brooks during the 1970 World Series.
“Everything we hit, you sucked it up. And you’ll notice, Brooks, that just like you, this machine has a lot of miles on it,” said May.3
Gordon Beard, an Associated Press editor who wrote Birds on the Wing: The Story of the Baltimore Orioles, offered a most salient observation regarding Brooks and the esteem in which Baltimore held him: “Brooks never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore, people name their children after him.”4
Brooks, in typically modest fashion, did not speak long, but thanked the fans by saying, “It’s been a beautiful 23 years. It turned out to be a beautiful day, and you’re all beautiful people.”5
The ceremony lasted for about an hour. Despite his request, Brooks was presented a new car by team owner Jerry Hoffberger, a Hawaiian vacation by friends, and replacement Gold Gloves by the Rawlings Company. Brooks had only two remaining in his personal collection, having donated the others to local charities. The most striking presentation of all, however, was as simple as it was spontaneous. The Oriole players were sitting in the grass along the third base line, appropriately enough, and at one point toward the end of the ceremony, DeCinces went to third base, lifted the bag from the ground, and presented it to Brooks.
To add to the luster of the day, DeCinces hit a three-run homer in the second to give the Orioles a 3-2 lead. When a Rich Dauer single brought home Mark Belanger later in the inning, Sox manager Don Zimmer brought in another rookie, Bob Stanley, in relief. Those four runs would be all that the Orioles would score, but the Red Sox were just getting started. Flanagan, however, gave up another run in the third and when Boston tied it with two down in the fifth, manager Earl Weaver went to his bullpen for another left-hander, Scott McGregor. Faring little better, McGregor surrendered two runs in the sixth and two more in the ninth. Meanwhile, Stanley gave up just three hits in his five innings of relief and when Dick Drago yielded two more runs to the Sox in the ninth, the Orioles had lost by a final score of 10-4. The trio of Yazstrzemski, Rice, and Fisk had gone a combined seven-for-thirteen, but September call-up Ted Cox, who was making his major league debut that day, was Boston’s hitting star, going four-for-four and scoring three runs while DHing and hitting second in front of the Sox sluggers.
With the Yankees defeating the Tigers 6-5, the Orioles fell 3½ games back in the division race.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that even Earl Weaver didn’t care that day. Indeed, he became somewhat emotional when it was his turn to speak during the ceremony but summarized everyone’s feelings when he said, “Brooks, you were number one when it came to doing the things that were right.”
The Yankees, of course, held on, winning the division by 2½ games over Baltimore and Boston. New York went on to defeat the Dodgers in the World Series, with newly signed free agent Reggie Jackson—who had played in Baltimore the year before—capping the victory with three consecutive home runs in the final game. Had Jackson stayed with the Orioles, the 1977 American League East race may well have had a different outcome. The Birds had lost Jackson, but that opened a roster spot for a young Eddie Murray who would usher in the second wave of great Oriole teams just as Brooks Robinson had ushered in the first.
There has never been an athlete more beloved in any city than Brooks was, and is, in Baltimore. My then fiancé, now wife, and I attended “Thanks, Brooks” Day. Our first daughter, born ten years later, would have been named Brooks had she been a boy; so would have the second. Five years after this game and now married, we attended Brooks’ Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1983. Years later, during a ceremony honoring Cal Ripken, Brooks proclaimed that the Iron Man was now “Mr. Oriole.” That was a rare Robinson error because to a generation of us, Brooks will always be Mr. Oriole.
1 Bill Tanton, “In The End, Brooks Was Happy,” The Evening Sun, September 19, 1977.
2 1978 Baltimore Oriole Press Guide, “Review of Orioles 1977 Season,” p 44.
3 Dan Shaughnessy, ‘Thanks, Brooks’ For A Beautiful 23 Years,” The Evening Sun, September 19, 1977.