First, a story.
Sometime in the early 1980s, a young radio reporter in Buffalo – me – was sent out into the field to interview legendary baseball star Brooks Robinson, who was in town for some sort of promotional appearance. Robinson had been retired for a few years, but was still a fresh enough memory to inspire awe if not a slight bit of intimidation as an interview assignment.
Those feelings lasted about 30 seconds after an introduction. Robinson was not only superb at putting me at ease, but he also was about the nicest person – not just athlete, but person – imaginable.
It turns out that just about everyone who ever met Robinson had the same reaction. “Brooks,” a new biography of the Baltimore Orioles’ third baseman, makes it clear that Robinson was an all-star at life year after year. As one sportswriter put it, they didn’t name a candy bar after him like they did for Reggie Jackson; they named their children after him. Hundreds in Maryland have done exactly that.
Robinson grew up in Little Rock, Ark., where there wasn’t a sport he didn’t conquer. He was as good a baseball player as you’d imagine, but he was also a good enough basketball player to attract scholarship offers from major universities. The football coach was ready to hand him the starting quarterback job, but Robinson was intent on concentrating on baseball.
By the way, Robinson graduated from Little Rock Central in 1955. That’s the school where some epic battles over school desegregation were fought two years later. It’s to his credit that no one ever noticed the slightest bit of prejudice from him; he credited his parents for that.
Robinson signed with the Orioles right out of high school, and went to Baltimore to work out with the big club for a few days. After Robinson’s first workout, veteran infielder Eddie Waitkus said, “I know this sounds ridiculous, but that kid may have the best hands I’ve ever seen.” Waitkus was right. Robinson set the standard for fielding by a third baseman, one that hasn’t been matched a half-century later.
You could argue that Robinson’s hitting never quite caught up to his glove – it couldn’t – but he was still mighty good at the plate once he got the hang of big-league pitching by 1960 or so. Third base was still something of a defensive position at the start of his career, but Robinson was a good enough hitter to pile up 2,848 hits and had five 20-homer seasons.
The book comes to life by a few notches when Robinson’s two World Series championship seasons come up. The 1966 team offered newcomer Frank Robinson, who dominated the American League by winning the Triple Crown (batting average, home runs, RBIs). The two Robinsons made for a terrific combination, and according to all accounts Brooks was more than willing to share the spotlight with Frank. There are good stories here about how the team came together and meshed nicely.
The Orioles won it all again in 1970, and Brooks may have had the best defensive World Series in history that year. No matter where the Cincinnati Reds hit the ball that October, Robinson was there to catch it – usually in dazzling style. The nation found out just how good he was that year. He retired in 1977, moving smoothly into television and other activities.
Author Wilson says in the acknowledgments that someone told him that “If you’re digging for bad things to write about Brooks Robinson, it’s going to be the shortest book in history. There isn’t anything.” In the literary sense, that’s something of a problem. There are only so many ways of saying that Robinson was the best fielder and the best person any of his teammates and opponents have ever encountered. Wilson covers them all, and then some. A little editing might have been useful, since the points are thoroughly made. In addition, there aren’t any epic struggles for success on and off the field that could add dramatics, and it doesn’t seem as if new information has been revealed here.
Still, there’s a place in a library for a book like “Brooks.” Not all athletes are well-equipped for the job of role model; you can fill in your own blanks about those you’d disqualify. As this shows, Brooks Robinson was the perfect man for the position by almost any standard.
Budd Bailey is a copy editor in The News Sports Department.
By Doug Wilson
340 pages, $26.99