The Center for the Study of Sport and Leisure in Society

Birdland Memories: Coming to Terms with a Glorious Past in a Playoff-Bound Present

In Fandom on October 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm

By Richard Hardesty

“He was, and is, Mr. Oriole”

 On Saturday evening, the Baltimore Orioles completed their Legends Celebration Series by unveiling the sculpture honoring Gold Glove-winning third baseman Brooks Robinson. Robinson played twenty-three years with the Orioles, winning sixteen Gold Glove awards, two world championships, and the 1964 American League Most Valuable Player Award (MVP). In 1970, Robinson’s glove and bat work earned him the World Series MVP, giving nightmares to then-Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson.[1] Robinson retired seven years later, and, in 1983, he entered the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Robinson represented one of six Orioles legends honored in bronze during the 2012 season. Yet, more than any other Oriole legend, Robinson crystallized the tough process the current organization endured to accept its glorious past. From 1960 to 1985, the Orioles served as a model baseball franchise, enjoying twenty-three winning seasons, seven American League East titles, six American League championships, and three World Series titles. Robinson served as the face of the franchise during most of the team’s glory years. As Baltimore businessman Henry A. Rosenberg said, “He was, and is, Mr. Oriole.”[2] Baltimore embraced Robinson, establishing a connection so strong that Associated Press sportswriter Gordon Beard once famously remarked, “Brooks never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore, people name their children after him.”[3]

However, by October 2011, the Orioles did little to commemorate Robinson and his contributions to the team and the city. To be sure, the Orioles erected an aluminum monument of Robinson’s number “5,” which continues to greet fans as they enter Camden Yards via Gate H on Eutaw Street. Robinson’s number also rests comfortably along the upper deck façade in left field. Still, no monument to Robinson the man existed in Baltimore, prompting Rosenberg’s long quest to sponsor a suitable statue.[4] He succeeded, and, on October 22, 2011, the first Baltimore-based statue to Brooks Robinson was unveiled outside Camden Yards between Russell Street and Washington Boulevard. The location symbolized the Oriole organization’s lack of involvement in the process. As Rosenberg stated pointedly, “[t]he Orioles knew what was going on, but we didn’t get much encouragement from them.”[5]

At the time, the Orioles had been nearly a month removed from finishing their fourteenth-straight losing season, and the statue gave the appearance of an organization out-of-touch with the team’s storied past. The organization responded by indicating that they, too, had been developing a similar project which they intended to tie into Camden Yards’ twentieth anniversary.[6] For the 2012 season, the organization would honor six players – Robinson, Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken – with sculptures in the left-center field picnic area. The series highlighted the larger issue of memory, and how the organization and fans dealt with the past. Through monuments and other symbols, the Orioles underwent a long process to accept a past that fans wanted to remember. Robinson’s statue ended the Legends Celebration Series on Saturday night, but the Orioles finally came full circle with a playoff spot secured and a division title firmly in sight.

The Past Inside the Present

Memory provided people with an opportunity to use the past as a means of identifying present realities. In short, memory represented the past’s presence in the present. Historian John Bodnar noted that “[p]ublic memory is a body of beliefs and ideas about the past that help a public or society understand both its past, present, and by implication, its future.”[7] Moreover, memory provided the vehicle for competing components of society to use the past to shape their own interpretations of the present. Bodnar divided the competing interests along national and local lines, but his examination focused on issues of patriotism during the twentieth century. Nonetheless, Bodnar’s methodology can be applied to sport as memory facilitated competing interests, even within the local level. Memory provided a battleground over the past, and the message it conveyed about the present.[8]

By 2011, the Orioles had disintegrated into a laughing stock, as the organization endured its fourteenth-straight losing season. The Orioles fielded teams that either underperformed or were overmatched. In 2005, after starting the year with a 42-28 record and holding first place for sixty-two days, the team floundered, and finished in fourth place with a 74-88 record. To add insult to injury, in August 2005, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro received a ten-game suspension for testing positive for an anabolic steroid, five months after telling Congress he never used.[9] The losing persisted, sparking continued fan outrage and apathy. In September 2006, Nestor Aparicio, owner of the Baltimore-based WNST radio station, organized the “Free the Birds” protest. Nearly 1,000 disgruntled Orioles fans walked out of an early-evening Orioles-Tigers contest to express their dissatisfaction with how owner Peter Angelos ran the team. As Aparicio said at the time, “He needs to realize he’s hurting the city. If you want to help this city, you’ll put your ego aside, take the check [offered by a prospective buyer] and step aside.”[10] The protest represented a minority of Orioles fans, but attendance figures spoke louder. Whereas the Orioles drew 3,711,132 people during the 1997 playoff season, attendance dwindled to 1,755,461 people in 2011.[11]

In the midst of fourteen-straight losing seasons, memories conveyed different messages about the present for the organization and its fans. Fans wanted the Orioles to develop and acquire better talent, but they also called for symbolic changes. For instance, fans longed for the return of “Baltimore” on the road uniforms. The organization removed the city’s name in 1973, an attempt to broaden the team’s regional appeal after the Washington Senators left for Texas. While the proposed uniform change would do little to improve the team’s on-field performance, the proposal provided symbolic value beyond civic pride. “Baltimore” linked present-day fans to the team’s past, to an era when the Orioles won ballgames and championships. In short, memory allowed fans to cope with a painful present.[12] The organization, though, was slow to change, even as the Nationals came to Washington in 2005. For the organization, memory presented a different message. The past did not serve as a coping mechanism. Instead, memory served as an agent of contrast, highlighting an organization that used to do things the right way with one that did things the wrong way.

The organization, however, slowly started to change. In 2008, the organization filed paperwork with Major League Baseball to place “Baltimore” back on the road uniforms. The move prompted fan Steve Nettles, a systems analyst from Reisterstown, Maryland, to remark, “I find it awfully interesting that after years of asking and pleading for this that the team has finally conceded. Maybe empty seats in a stadium are louder than filled seats.”[13] Still, additional gestures to the team’s past continued to come slowly. The organization adopted new uniform additions in 2012, returning the cartoon Oriole and the orange home alternate jersey. Like “Baltimore,” the cartoon Oriole and the orange jersey served to link the present with the past, as both features had been uniform staples during the team’s glory years.[14] Most of all, the organization announced plans to honor the six greatest Orioles of all time during the 2012 season as part of the Orioles Legends Series. The series coincided with Camden Yards’ twentieth anniversary, and served as the most direct connection between the past and the present.

“[J]ust like the playoffs….”

No clear explanation existed regarding the organization’s recent embrace with the past. Quite possibly, ownership could no longer ignore dwindling attendance figures, just as Nettles suggested. That serves as a plausible explanation, but one that does not explain the four-year gap between uniform implementations and the Legends Celebration Series. More probable, the organization’s embrace of the past stemmed from Buck Showalter’s hiring as manager, not to mention the importance of anniversaries. Showalter clearly expressed his desire to use the team’s tradition as a means of changing the organization’s losing culture, as he believed the past defined what happened as well as what can and will happen.[15] Given the 2012 season coincided with Camden Yards’ twentieth anniversary, the organization had a reason to celebrate the team’s past. In doing so, the organization came to terms with how the team’s past shaped its present. No one expected much from the Orioles in 2012, and, by honoring the six greatest Orioles, the organization bared its short-comings to the public.

Yet, on a cool, late-September evening, Brooks Robinson’s sculpture unveiling occurred in a playoff atmosphere. Going into that evening’s contest, the Orioles stood one game behind the New York Yankees for first place in the American League East. The Yankees lost earlier in the day, giving the Orioles an opportunity to tie with a win against the Boston Red Sox.[16] Standing before a packed crowd in the left-center field picnic area, before the sellout crowd of 46,311 settled into their seats, Robinson acknowledged the implications of the evening’s game. “And I say to you fans,” Robinson declared, “this is just like the playoffs right now. I say sit back enjoy it and pull for the Orioles to win.”[17] The Orioles did, winning 4-3 on the strength of the bullpen’s four innings of shutout relief and current-third baseman Manny Machado’s seventh-inning home run. The next day, the Orioles won again. Their sights remain on a division title, but with a victory by the Texas Rangers, the Orioles earned their first playoff berth in fifteen years.

At the same time, Robinson’s ceremony integrated the past with the present. Robinson himself noted, “Of course Buck has more important things to do, and the players, we really appreciate them coming out for every ceremony we’ve had.”[18] Memory does not simply remember the past, but also provides commentary on the present. For an organization hindered by poor performance and declining attendance, memory served as a commentary on long-standing organizational errors, while simultaneously providing fans with a coping mechanism to deal with the continued losing. Nonetheless, as Showalter and his current players showed, the Legends Celebration Series illustrated an organization accepting of its successful past. That past, however, emerged in a promising present, as the Orioles gear up for meaningful October baseball and a chance to take over the baseball world.


[1]  Speaking of Robinson’s defense after Game Two, Anderson remarked, “I’m beginning to see him in my sleep. If I dropped this paper plate he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out. His fielding has been the difference. He got us two days in a row. He’s the best.” Catcher Johnny Bench had a more blunt remark, noting “Brooks Robinson ought to be declared illegal.” Bob Addie, “Reds Tab B. Robinson As the Big Difference,” Washington Post (Washington): October 12, 1970.

[2] Mike Klingaman, “Rosenberg man behind statue of Brooks Robinson,” Baltimore Sun (Baltimore): October 22, 2011.

[3] “They Said It,” Sports Illustrated 47 (October 3, 1977), 12.

[4]  Accounts differ on the length of Rosenberg’s quest to erect a monument to Robinson. Whereas the Baltimore Sun reported a seven-year process, Stan Charles for the Baltimore-based Press Box reported a six-year process for Rosenberg. Stan Charles, “Brooks Robinson Finally Getting What He Deserves,” Press Box (Baltimore): October 19, 2011, information online at: http://www.pressboxonline.com/story.cfm?id=8173; Klingaman, “Rosenberg man behind statue of Brooks Robinson,” Baltimore Sun, October 22, 2011.

[5]  The Rosenberg-sponsored statue did not represent the first statue dedicated to Robinson. In 2008, the York Revolution unveiled a statue of Robinson, who started his minor league career with the York White Roses in 1955. Thom Loverro, “Orioles’ E-5 in judgment on Robinson statue,” Washington Examiner (Washington): October 19, 2011, information online at: http://washingtonexaminer.com/article/41233#.UGhe6FF9mSo; Charles, “Brooks Robinson Finally Getting What He Deserves,” Press Box, October 19, 2011, information online at: http://www.pressboxonline.com/story.cfm?id=8173; Klingaman, “Rosenberg man behind statue of Brooks Robinson,” Baltimore Sun, October 22, 2011.

[6] Loverro, “Orioles’ E-5 in judgment on Robinson statue,” Washington Examiner, October 19, 2011, information online at: http://washingtonexaminer.com/article/41233#.UGhe6FF9mSo.

[7] John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 15.

[8] Ibid., 13-6.

[9] “Letdown: The Story of the 2005 Baltimore Orioles ,” Bleacher Report, information online at: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/121156-letdown-the-story-of-the-2005-baltimore-orioles; “Palmeiro docked 10 days for steroids,” ESPN (Bristol, Connecticut): August 2, 2005, information online at: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=2121659.

[10] Murray Chass, “Fans Lament Decline and Fall of the Orioles,” New York Times (New York): September 22, 2006; Kevin Cowherd, “Aparicio ready to lead chagrined O’s fans in protest,” Baltimore Sun, September 21, 2006.

[11] Aaron Cahall, “Losing O’s Hurt Camden Yards,” Baltimore Examiner (Baltimore): May 13, 2008; “Baltimore Orioles Attendance Data,” Baseball Almanac, information online at: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/baltatte.shtml.

[12] When “Baltimore” returned to the road uniform, Pete Kerzel noted that “Baltimore making its long-awaited homecoming to the team’s uniforms isn’t just a Band-Aid on a long unattended boo-boo. Think of it as the Orioles’ way of putting that fast-acting liquid on a cut that makes it disappear, pain and all. The attire might as well be a new skin, devoid of blemishes or imperfections.” Pete Kerzel, “Baltimore Is Back,” Press Box (November 2008), information online at: http://www.pressboxonline.com/story.cfm?id=4410.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The cartoon Oriole made its debut during the 1966 season, while the orange jersey first appeared in 1971. For the 2012 iteration, the Orioles used features of the 1970 and the 1983 cartoon bird. Dan Steinberg, “New Orioles uniforms, old Orioles bird logo,” Washington Post, November 15, 2011, information online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dc-sports-bog/post/new-orioles-uniforms-old-orioles-bird-logo/2011/11/15/gIQApTLkON_blog.html; “Orioles 2012 Uniform Changes,” information online at: http://baltimore.orioles.mlb.com/bal/fan_forum/2012_logos.jsp.

[15] “Buck Showalter talks about the storied Orioles tradition in his first video blog with MASNsports.com,” information online at: http://www.masnsports.com/index_medialounge.php?show_id=576205&p=.

[16] “Yankees lose, opening door for Orioles in AL East,” USA Today (Tysons Corner), September 29, 2012.

[17] “Transcript of Brooks Robinson’s speech at sculpture unveiling ceremony,” Baltimore Sun, September 29, 2012, information online at: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-09-29/sports/bal-orioles-transcript-of-brooks-robinson-speech-at-sculpture-unveiling-ceremony-20120929_1_roy-bat-boy-transcript/2.

[18] Ibid.

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