One year ago almost exactly to the day, it was my pleasure to celebrate the arrival of the 2013 baseball season with a review of “The Bird,” Doug Wilson’s thoroughly engaging biography of Mark Fidrych, the young Detroit Tigers pitcher who for the one glorious season of 1976 brought joy back to a game desperately in need of it and then flamed out. This was doubtless because his young arm had been badly overused by a team desperate to get maximum use from it, but well after his untimely death, Fidrych lives on in a small but treasured corner of baseball legend.
Now it is the opening week of the 2014 season, and Wilson is back again, this time with a biography of Brooks Robinson, the third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles from 1958 until 1975 and probably the greatest ever to play at what baseball has known since time immemorial as the Hot Corner. “Brooks” is not quite as successful as “The Bird” because Robinson, though thoroughly likable, is lacking in eccentricity (of which Fidrych had plenty) and had a long career totally unsullied by misbehavior or callousness of any sort (of which too many sports legends have had plenty). Thus he left Wilson with little choice except to write a prolonged encomium. Every syllable of it is deserved — Robinson was, as a player, and is, as a man, totally as advertised — but the treacle at times gets a bit thick, diligently though Wilson tries to keep it under control.
I take the liberty of inserting a small personal note. Late in 1978, a year after Robinson’s retirement from the Orioles, I moved to Baltimore for what turned out to be a 20-year residence in that city. I became an obsessive, if not insane, Orioles fan and wrote about them too often in a Style-section column in which this newspaper used to indulge me. My affection for the Orioles turned to something quite the opposite when Peter G. Angelos began to run the franchise into the ground in the 1990s and then disappeared when the Washington Nationals appeared in 2005, but my years as an Orioles fan were happy ones, and “Brooks” brings them back to life.
Baseball, indeed American sport generally, has seen precious few people as decent, self-effacing and broad-minded as Brooks Robinson. Born in Arkansas in 1937, he had the good fortune to be one of the two sons of parents who loved them but cut them no slack. His father, the first Brooks Robinson, was stern but utterly devoted, and when he discerned his son’s athletic gifts he encouraged them but never, apparently, pushed the boy in the obsessive pattern all too familiar in the stories of prominent American athletes. Young Brooks grew up in Little Rock, enjoying a normal childhood that was abnormal in only one respect: From a very early age, he proved to be an uncommonly gifted athlete.
He played all three major sports and could have gone to college on a basketball scholarship, but baseball always came first, and when the Orioles offered him a $4,000 signing bonus in 1955 — believe it or not, that was big money in those days — he leaped at it. His progress through the minors was rapid, not least because the Orioles’ manager/general manager, Paul Richards, was high on him from the outset, but for a long time his fielding was miles ahead of his hitting. Not until 1959, when he was sent down to AAA Vancouver, did he solve his hitting problems and mature into the supreme clutch hitter that he remained throughout a career that led him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, his first year of eligibility, only “the 14th player (not including the original five) to get in on the first ballot.” His plaque in Cooperstown reads:
“Established modern standard of excellence for third basemen, setting major league records at his position for seasons (23), fielding pct. (.971), games (2,870), putouts (2,697), assists (6,205) and double plays (618). Hit 268 career home runs, named to 18 consecutive All Star teams. MVP of 1970 World Series. American League MVP in 1964.”
Ah yes, the 1970 World Series. Wilson properly opens this biography with an account of the astonishing play that Robinson made in the bottom of the sixth inning of the first game, Orioles against the Cincinnati Reds, a.k.a. the Big Red Machine. Lee May of the Reds smashed a sure hit, probably a double, down the third-base line, but Robinson was there. He “lunged to his right, reaching as far as possible with his gloved left hand,” then “with his back to the infield and his momentum carrying him well into foul ground, turned in midair and, throwing across his body, seemingly without looking, launched the ball in the general direction of the Ohio River.” The ball beat May to first, “and 50,000 fans watching the game in the stadium and millions more watching on television gasped at what they had just witnessed.”
“Gasped” doesn’t begin to tell the story. As I recall, I fell off the living-room sofa in amazement, and so no doubt did hundreds of thousands of others across the country. It was one of the greatest plays in baseball history, yet it was only the first of many Robinson made in the series, which the Orioles won in five games. Later Robinson said, with characteristic self-effacement, “When it was all said and done, I told people I played 23 years professionally, that’s 162 games a year, and I don’t ever remember having five games in a row like that,” and: “As an infielder, you can play for a week and never get a chance to do anything spectacular. In this particular series, every game I got a chance to do something; make an outstanding play. I was hitting well too. It was a once-in-a-lifetime five-game series and it just happened to be the World Series.”
Because it was the World Series, the nation was watching, and it cemented Robinson in our collective consciousness as the most brilliant fielder ever to play third base, perhaps the most brilliant fielder to play any position on the diamond. And because the player in question was Robinson, the fame he thus earned was deepened by our collective understanding that he was an extraordinary human being. Wilson quotes various sources almost ad infinitum to that effect — too many of them marginally literate sportswriters of the day — but I’ll settle for the words of George Kell, who preceded Robinson at third in Baltimore and joined him in Cooperstown: “There never was a finer fielding third baseman than Brooks. I don’t believe there ever will be. It’s not humanly possible. . . . Off the field, you have to walk two country miles and then skip through a row of cornfields to find a nicer person.”
Nowhere was that more keenly understood and appreciated than in Baltimore, where Robinson was elevated to the status of civic hero and exemplar by the early 1960s and remains thus to this day. That good old city doubtless is less innocent about its sports heroes than it was when Robinson and his great counterpart and friend, Johnny Unitas of the Colts, were in their heydays, but even in the cynical second decade of the second millennium it loves Robinson — “Brooksie,” as he’s generally known — as much as ever, and it rejoiced two years ago when a statue of him was erected at Camden Yards, the city’s exquisite ballpark.
“Brooks” is an imperfect book, a little heavy on the adulation to my taste, but it is an unabashedly affectionate life of and tribute to a man who deserves every good word that ever has been said or written about him. Only Baltimore really knows how lucky Baltimore has been to have him.
The Biography of Brooks Robinson
By Doug Wilson
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 340 pp. $26.99