Robinson to join Johnny U, the Babe with statue near stadiums

A new, 9-foot statue will be unveiled on Oct. 22 near Oriole Park

August 05, 2011|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

As artist Joseph Sheppard pondered creating a statue of one of baseball's icons, one image of Brooks Robinson kept flashing through his mind: having stabbed a scorching grounder, the Orioles' third baseman readies to throw out the runner at first.

Eyes fixed on his target, ball firmly in grasp, Robinson appears predictable, orderly, calm.

"Of the hundreds of photos of Brooks that I studied, that pose kept popping up, all through his [23-year] career," Sheppard said. "Whether he had a crew cut or long hair, wore loose pants or tight pants on the field, that pose never changed."

It's the look Sheppard chose for his depiction of Robinson, the Hall of Famer whose bronze likeness, when unveiled this fall, will greet fans outside Oriole Park. Completed last month at the artist's studio in Italy, the 1,500-pound sculpture will be flown to Baltimore next week and stored here. The statue's base, which measures 25-by-25 feet, is under construction on a city-owned plaza between Washington Boulevard and Russell St.

The unveiling ceremony is set for Oct. 22.

"At a time, we thought, 'Suppose we do this when the World Series is in Baltimore?' But, of course, that's impossible," said Henry A. Rosenberg, a Baltimore businessman and longtime acquaintance of Robinson who conceived the tribute to him in 2004.

Not coincidentally, the 9-foot statue is the same height as one of John Unitas, the Baltimore Colts star, which was dedicated outside Ravens Stadium on Oct, 20, 2002 — one month after the death of the Hall of Fame quarterback.

"We've got to get this done during Brooks' lifetime, absolutely," Rosenberg said. "Hopefully, people will like (the sculpture) and say, 'Thank goodness Mr. Oriole is being recognized in this way.' "

Robinson, 74, has suffered health problems in recent years and was treated for prostate cancer in 2009, from which he recovered.

"I'm feeling pretty good, and that's all I want to say about that," he said.

The statue costs $500,000, nearly four times what Robinson made in his best year in baseball. Expenses "are not all covered at this point, but they will be taken care of," Rosenberg said. "Those who want to step up to the plate and contribute $10,000 to $25,000 will have their names listed on the pedestal."

Not far from where Robinson's statue will stand is one of Babe Ruth, commemorated in 1996 at the Eutaw St. entrance to Oriole Park.

"That's ironic," Robinson said. "As a kid, I kept scrapbooks about what was happening in the major leagues, and when Ruth died in 1948, I pasted a big picture of him in the back of it. Now, I'm going to have a statue not 200 yards from Babe."

That he'll be immortalized near Unitas seems right, Robinson said.

"John was arguably the greatest quarterback ever, plus a great friend and neighbor," he said. "At one time (in Timonium) we lived back yard to back yard."

Those are the only athletes thus honored by Baltimore.

"We don't have many sports statues, do we?" said Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, which handles funding for the sculpture. "But it's hard to argue that the pedigree of the three guys we have doesn't match that of other cities."

The bronze Brooks is the first sports sculpture ever done by Sheppard, whose best-known works include a statue of Pope John Paul II at Franklin and Charles streets, and another for the city's Holocaust Memorial (Lombard and Gay streets).

His latest creation was a labor of love, said Sheppard, 80, who grew up in Pikesville watching Robinson play.

"I think the statue is the best thing I've ever done," he said. "Brooks isn't static at all; he looks like he's really moving and getting ready to let the ball go."

Sheppard borrowed Robinson's glove, cap and shoes as models for the sculpture, which was more than a year in the making. He began by crafting a 15-inch clay likeness, a photo of which Sheppard showed Robinson at a Ravens' game they attended last year.

"He loved it," the artist said. "Before I started, I had Brooks decide whether to give the statue a crew cut, like he had in the 1950s, or long hair and sideburns, like he had later on."

Robinson chose the latter.

Once the sculpture is in place, how will the city keep birds from defacing Mr. Oriole? Robinson chuckled.

"They can roost on that statue any time they want to," he said. "We (the Orioles) have been pooped on a lot, lately."

Said Sheppard: "The best protection against pigeons is a yearly cleaning, which has been arranged for. The only other answer is to put Henry (Rosenberg) at the base, with his shotgun."

This is the second statue honoring Robinson's career. Another bronze sculpture stands outside the ballpark in York, Pa., where he broke into baseball in 1955. Robinson's visage hangs in Cooperstown, where he was enshrined in 1983. And he was saluted in a Norman Rockwell painting in 1970, after leading the Orioles to a world championship.

"That's as good as it gets," he said. "Nothing is left. I will leave this wonderful life with a big smile on my face."

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