All weekend, the interstate highways from York to Harrisburg to Scranton to Binghamton to Oneonta have been littered with cars, vans and buses loaded with orange-and-black-clad devotees making the pilgrimage here to pay homage and offer thanks to Brooks Robinson.
Today, that legion of Orioles fans and Brooks lovers descended upon the tiny hamlet of Cooperstown, quintupling the village's population from its normal 2,500. This afternoon, that leather-lunged throng in Leatherstocking land massed themselves in a lovely park behind the Hall of Fame and gave Robinson the largest and loudest of all baseball's love-in inductions.
In a normal summer, the Hall of Fame induction draws a crowd of perhaps 5,000, with Mickey Mantle's gang of 10,000 fans back in the '70s the previous high-water mark. Robinson and his merry band--who arrived from Baltimore and Washington in 42 charter buses, 12 airplanes and countless private cars--put that in the shade.
Before these ceremonies could even begin, the crowd--which swept over knolls, spread itself under maple trees and stretched almost out of sight--had conducted its own singing of the national anthem, complete with an ear-splitting "O" at the appropriate "Oh, say can you see," juncture.
The gleeful mob, fresh from a morning of lay services at The Bold Dragoon Saloon, followed unofficial team mascot Wild Bill Hagy in spelling "B-R-O-O-K-S" and passing the cold beer on a hot afternoon.
Bed sheet signs and placards dotted the sea of orange humanity, their slogans perhaps more heartfelt than literary. Only one couple--Yankees fans, of course--demurred, carrying topical protest signs that read: "A rule is a rule is a rule;" "Suspend Brett. Impeach MacPhail;" and " 'Backwoods logic begets backwoods vengeance'--The Tombs."
This was also a grand day for Juan Marichal, George Kell and Walter Alston, who joined the exclusive fraternity in Cooperstown: in baseball's 114 years, only 184 men have entered the Hall of Fame, a mere 148 of them players. Also, columnist Si Burick of Dayton, Ohio, and broadcaster Jack Brickhouse of Chicago were honored.
However, this was first and last a Robinson weekend. For all his greatness at third base, all his generosity in civic and charitable work, as well as his most indefinable quality--an absolute lack of vanity or deceit--Robinson was repaid today in a measure that almost embarrassed him. Instead of treating this as his afternoon of glory, he made it an occasion for genuine thanksgiving.
"I'd rather play a doubleheader in 110-degree heat," whispered Robinson to Kell as they sat on the podium. Around Robinson sat 24 other Hall of Famers--names like DiMaggio, Koufax, Spahn, Snider, Feller, Roberts, Terry, Kiner and Cronin.
Afterward Robinson recalled how he even looked at his Little Rock, Ark., neighbor, Bill Dickey, and recalled how, as a boy with a paper route, he would wind up at 5 a.m. and buzz the paper onto Dickey's porch "with a little extra zip." After several years in the broadcast booth, Robinson was almost as confident once he reached the mike as he once was at third base.
"You really know how to make it tough on a guy," the choked-up Robinson ad-libbed as the crowd refused to end its ovation as he was introduced.
"I realize I must be the luckiest man in the world . . . I've been given more than any human being could ever ask for," said Robinson, who followed with an artful reconstruction of all the good fortune that had befallen him, smoothly weaving in his thank-yous to parents, wife, children, coaches and teammates.
"Baltimore, thank you very much. I love you very much," said Robinson, after emphasizing he doubts if any current young players will ever spend 23 years with one organization in this big-money age.
Robinson's only hint of pride came when he insisted, pointedly, that "the Baltimore Oriole organization has, from top to bottom, proven itself to be the best (in baseball)."
Robinson's closing remarks came from the heart as he tried, without saying so, to explain why his life has been so exemplary, so patient, so seemingly guided by a stronger principle than merely winning ball games. "From the beginning, I was committed to the goodness of this game . . . I think my love for baseball has been the biggest thing in my life . . . This is a day for my giving thanks. This is a (blessed) life from which I want to give (something) back."
Perhaps there could hardly be a better marriage of temperaments and tastes than the coming together of Cooperstown, Robinson and his Orioles fans. This idyllic enclave at the foot of Otsego Lake was made for the sort of fans who would appreciate Robinson's understated heroism.
The modern world has aimed at Cooperstown and missed, much to Cooperstown's benefit and delight. The village, which has one traffic light, has been bypassed by every harbinger of progress from 19th Century canals and railroads to recent interstates; it has no industry but beauty, no operating principle but the veneration and preservation of an affluent civility.
Every lamp post in Cooperstown has a scrolled cross bar from which flower pots are suspended like scale balances. The ubiquitous red geraniums grow up and small-leafed English ivy grows down. Induction day at Cooperstown looks like the Fourth of July as the five square-block downtown has almost as many American flags as potted lamp posts.
This is Cooper country, home of Natty Bumppo's Cave, Blackbird Bay, Mohican Canyon, Glimmerglen Cove and Leatherstocking Falls. Hall of Famers stay here at the Otesaaga Hotel, with its legend-strewn veranda at lake's edge, or the Cooper Inn with its 15 towering hemlocks, each perhaps 70 feet high, their symmetrically curved branches forming an evergreen pagoda. In this haven of antique shops, art galleries and quiet restaurants, Robinson and his fans seem natural birds.
"The last five years have been as happy as the other 23," said Robinson afterward. "Everybody dreads retiring, but I'm having as much fun now as I was when I was playing. I can't believe it, to tell the truth."
Robinson looked at the streets full of people in Orioles' regalia, their chests covered with block-lettered praise of No. 5. Robinson, in his cheerful pink jacket, beamed.
"It feels just like a World Series."