Brooks Robinson played for the first team I covered. There was never a gentler, more decent and beloved ballplayer. In his entire 23-year Orioles career, Robinson earned a total of less than $1 million in salary. In 1975, just months before Miller and his union won their court battle for free agency, Robinson won his 15th and final Gold Glove in his last full-time season. His financial timing was awful.
Brooks’s post-baseball plan was his sporting goods store in Baltimore — nothing big, just a local business. What could be more logical and modest? But Robinson hated to nag local youth teams to pay for their equipment. He carried many accounts on the cuff. So, one of my first “scoops” on the beat was to ask one of my childhood heroes how he had gone bankrupt. Robinson blamed himself for not being tough enough in business. I blamed a century of baseball owners who never paid players a fraction of their worth.
Fans inundated Robinson with small cash gifts in the mail. He sent them all back. A local lawyer, Ron Shapiro, was so upset by Robinson’s plight that when the Orioles asked if he would help Robinson handle his bankruptcy, Shapiro ended up becoming a player agent.
Ron’s son, Mark, who became an MLB general manager, has told the story of how Robinson wanted to thank Ron Shapiro for the help. “Brooks wanted to give my dad his 15th Gold Glove, and my dad wouldn’t take it,” Mark once recalled. “He rang our doorbell and ran away, and there was a Rawlings Gold Glove at our front door.”
Some athletes will still go broke. But thanks to Marvin Miller, none will have to feel such mortification because their employers systematically robbed them of rightful fortunes, keeping the cash for themselves.
From the first free agent class in 1976 until Miller retired after the 1982 season, I interviewed him regularly, because baseball labor-management wars never really ceased, they just took different forms between work stoppages. His primary weapon — aside from a formidable mind, quiet fierceness and an unapologetic personal hatred for most owners (out-and-out evildoers in his eyes) — was the simple truth.
The facts, and American labor law for other citizens, were usually so starkly against baseball that he needed little else. In person, he was handsome, resembling actor Douglas Fairbanks. But his eternal on-point earnestness gave him gravitas. I never heard him laugh, except sardonically.