The passing of one’s childhood hero can be a difficult pill to swallow. My dose came on September 26th with the announcement that Brooks Robinson had left us.
This was not the shock it could have been, since I was informed by one of his close friends in August that Brooks’ health had taken a serious turn. A month earlier, my contact had enthusiastically promised to set up a personal meeting for me to sit with Brooks and present him with a copy of my new novel, a book where Brooks is referred to as the “enlightened one” by a military chaplain in Vietnam after a soldier reveals an autographed Orioles hat. Only my wife, and its host, knew this meeting was to come when the first review copies of the book arrived. I didn’t tell anyone else, in case it couldn’t take place.
When the advance review copies arrived, I called my contact and at first heard nothing back. A few days later we spoke, and with a heavy heart he said, “I wasn’t sure how to tell you this, but Brooks is extremely ill right now and not in any condition for visitors.” This kind and sincere gentleman asked me not to spread the word since the family wished to keep his situation private. He knew enough about my book to realize this would be a personal blow.
To put things in perspective, I need to go back to 1968 when I was 8-years-old and a huge Orioles fan. I had already started playing baseball, at third base and shortstop, and emulated Brooks in every way. He was an inspiration that provided a very shy schoolboy, who struggled off the field, great confidence on the diamond.
In 1969, my mother brought home a new, zippered gray jacket for fall. Using a permanent, black marker, I carefully added “B. ROBINSON” on the back with a large number 5 below it, put a 5 on the top of each sleeve, and “ORIOLES” across the front with another number 5 just below it. I loved it—my mother was devastated! As a preacher’s kid, we didn’t have lots of extra money. She said, “That was for school and you just ruined it!” It was late October of 1969 and I should have told her, “Mom, ruined would have been if I put the Mets rookie Nolan Ryan’s name on it!”
Earlier that year, at a summer camp near the Bay Bridge called Camp Wright, I’d done something a bit unusual. While most campers at the end of each session painted their names inside the cabin walls with the date they stayed, I painted under a window “Brooks Robinson – 1955.” No one noticed, and it was my little secret. Eight years later, I was in that same cabin as a counselor tasked with getting 8- and 9-year-old boys to calm down each night. One kept flicking his flashlight on and off and suddenly yelled out, “Holy Crap! Brooks Robinson was in our cabin!” I had totally forgotten what I’d done and let the lads down easy.
Needless to say, 1970 was the year when everything went right for MVP Brooks in the World Series. I saw a later interview where he admitted that he’d never had a streak of games where everything went so well for him. His voice and smile was as humble as ever.
This week, a book reviewer in Texas shared that he went to the Hall of Fame several years ago and asked two long-time staff members there who was the most genuine inductee they ever met. He said both replied without a moment of hesitation “Brooks Robinson.”
After spending almost a decade doing research for my book Follow His Lead about a Vietnam Scout Dog handler who adored Brooks Robinson, I didn’t need to do much research on Brooks. While he will always be remembered to some as the “human vacuum cleaner” at third base, it was his enlightened spirit that captured so many of us in his golden glove.