Baltimore Orioles’ beloved Brooks Robinson, Catholic convert, dies at 86

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Hall of Fame member and former Baltimore Orioles player Brooks Robinson waves to the crowd prior to a game between the Orioles and the Houston Astros at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Sept. 24, 2023. Robinson, a convert to Catholicism, who often relied on his faith to see him through several major health challenges later in his life, died Sept. 26 at age 86. (OSV News photo/James A. Pittman-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

BALTIMORE (OSV News) — Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles whose unmatched fielding prowess and dedication to his adopted hometown endeared him to generations of Baltimoreans, died Sept. 26. He was 86.

Robinson, a convert to Catholicism who often relied on his faith to see him through several major health challenges later in his life, was known as a player who freely devoted hours to signing autographs at Memorial Stadium — and seemingly everywhere else in his retirement.

His generosity with fans was captured in a famous painting by Norman Rockwell that shows the player scribbling his signature on a ball for a grinning boy.

A convert to the Catholic Faith

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Robinson was raised in the Methodist Church. He became a Catholic several years after he married his Catholic wife, Connie. In a 2010 interview with the Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan news outlet, Robinson remembered that with three sons and a daughter, he thought it was important for the entire family to attend church together.

“When the kids got older, they were inquisitive and wanted to know, ‘How come Dad doesn’t go to church with us?'” Robinson told the Catholic Review. “It made a lot of sense to join the Catholic Church.”

He began studying the faith with Msgr. Martin A. Schwalenberg Jr., the Orioles’ chaplain and one of Robinson’s tennis partners. He was received into the Catholic faith in the late 1960s at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium.

“I couldn’t be happier being a Catholic,” Robinson said in the 2010 interview. “It’s worked out well for me and it’s been a good impression on my kids.”

Robinson, who as a young player served as a sports columnist for the Catholic Review in the 1960s, was an 18-time All-Star and a 16-time Gold Glove Award winner. He was named 1964 American League MVP and the 1970 World Series MVP. The player was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1983.

Last year, in a national online ballot sponsored by Catholic Athletes for Christ, Robinson was voted the all-time Catholic third baseman. Ron Santo of the Chicago Cubs was the runner up.

Popular broadcaster, generous philanthropist

Robinson, who inspired many Baltimore parents to name their sons “Brooks,” was a familiar face well into his retirement. He served as a popular Orioles broadcaster whose Southern drawl was a mainstay on the airways. He was supportive of various charities, including the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor who operate St. Martin’s Home for the Aged in Catonsville.

Brooks Robinson
A moment of silence is held for the passing of Hall of Fame baseball player Brooks Robinson before the game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Sept. 26, 2023. Robinson, a convert to Catholicism, who often relied on his faith to see him through several major health challenges later in his life, died Sept. 26 at age 86. (OSV News photo/Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

Robinson’s spectacular defensive play earned him the nickname of the “Human Vacuum Cleaner” for his ability to prevent balls from getting by. Always humble, he tended to downplay his ability.

“It’s just a reflex action more than anything else,” Robinson told the Catholic Review in 2010.

Prayer was a source of strength

When Robinson underwent 39 radiation treatments for prostate cancer in 2009, he turned to his faith. Before abdominal surgery unrelated to the prostate cancer, Robinson made a visit to Catonsville’s Mount de Sales Academy. Among those who joined him were his wife and MaryLou LaMartina, a parishioner of St. Agnes in Catonsville who formed the first Brooks Robinson fan club with friends as an eighth grader at St. Agnes School. Ronald LaMartina, her brother, had been Robinson’s confirmation sponsor.

During the visit to Mount de Sales, Dominican Sister Philip Joseph Davis, then school’s director of academy advancement, prayed over Robinson with a relic of St. Padre Pio. Robinson later prayed with a parish priest, who gave him a relic of St. Catherine of Siena.

Robinson, in the Catholic Review interview, credited the prayers of family and friends for getting him through his health challenges.

“It’s just been an outpouring of love which I’ve never seen before,” he told the Review. “I’ve compiled a lot of (religious) medals that people sent me. I really think that was a big part of it and my wife certainly thinks that too.”

Robinson, who had been a parishioner of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood, said his relationship with God had deepened in his senior years.

“I think more about my Catholic faith now than I ever did,” Robinson said. “It seems like the older you get, the more you think about Jesus Christ and how you’re living.”

Statue at Camden Yards

In 2011, a 1,500-pound, 9-foot bronze statue was unveiled outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The work was crafted by Joseph Sheppard, the same Baltimore-born artist who made the statue of St. John Paul II that stands in an outdoor prayer garden at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.

At the dedication, Sheppard recalled that the statue had been kept at a foundry in Pietrasanta, Italy, right next to a replica of Michelangelo’s David.

Sheppard remembered that a friend noticed the neighboring artwork and made a prescient observation: “Florence has their David,” the friend said. “Now, Baltimore has their Brooks.”

Baltimore would get a second statue of Brooks Robinson, when the Baltimore Orioles dedicated a statue inside the stadium in 2012.

Tributes to Robinson poured in from across Maryland and around the country following his death.

Jim Hunter, a fellow Catholic and former Orioles broadcaster, said on X, formerly Twitter, that Robinson was “easily the nicest person” of all the great players he met in his career.

“He was always kind, always had a compliment, and always had a smile,” Hunter said. “Sad day. RIP #5.”

John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and a Catholic, said in a statement that Robinson was “full of love for everyone he met,” and he asked that God “forever bless him and the entire Robinson family.”

“Ingrid, Alison and I extend our deepest condolences, prayers and respect to the entire Robinson family after the passing of the great Brooks Robinson,” Harbaugh said in a statement.

“From the moment we met Brooks, when completely unbeknown to us he answered the door for Trick or Treat during our first year in Baltimore, we knew what a wonderful and gracious man he was. Brooks was full of love for everyone he met. May God forever bless him and the entire Robinson family.”

Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

George P. Matysek Jr. is managing editor of the Catholic Review, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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