Sunday, November 1, 2015
Gee, Thanks Brooks: Robinson to Give Away Fortune in Memorabilia
In 1971 Brooks Robinson, fresh off the greatest individual World Series domination in baseball history, visited the Massachusetts studio of Norman Rockwell. It was a classic pairing: the man who chronicled mid-twentieth century Americana on canvas and the man who embodied mid-twentieth century Americana on turf. The setting was commissioned by the ATO corporation, a conglomerate that owned the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company. Brooks had put on a fairly good advertisement for one of their products, a leather glove. The resulting painting by Rockwell was named, "Gee Thanks Brooks" and pictured the Orioles star signing an autograph (left-handed of course) for a star-struck youngster.
When the book Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson came out a few years ago, an occasional complaint was that it overemphasized his legendary niceness. I'll admit that perhaps I should have edited out a few more of the redundant quotes to that effect, but in my defense, I did edit out about a third of them. The problem was that virtually everyone I talked to immediately launched into a story about what a thoughtful/kind/congenial/charitable/big-hearted/down-to-Earth (pick one or more) guy he was and almost all of them mentioned, usually within the first five minutes, that he was the nicest person they ever met or the best teammate they ever had. Also, and quite unusually, almost no one turned down a request to talk about him. They all eagerly contributed their memories--they all wanted to have their say about how much they loved the guy. I'll admit, I was blown away. After a while I felt like interrupting and reminding them, "I didn't ask about Mother Teresa, I asked about Brooks Robinson."
I don't write bubble gum books. My goal is not to make my subject look perfect; it is to explain the personality of the guy, what makes him tick and what makes him unique. And for Brooks Robinson, for better or for worse, that is it in a nutshell--he was a uniquely good guy. It's a totally unusual attribute for a highly successful professional athlete, many of whom have been pampered and given too much leeway throughout their lives because of their extraordinary talent.
Now comes the announcement that Brooks Robinson is unloading almost all the memorabilia from his 20-plus year career for auction. He is not doing this because he needs the dough; doesn't need to divide up the loot to make it easier to split up for ravenous heirs; isn't in any kind of dire financial straits. He and his wife of 55 years are doing quite nicely and they are donating 100% of the proceeds to their charitable foundation.
This is not just a few old broken bats or a mangled jersey. He is giving away almost everything, including the 1964 American League MVP award, the 1970 World Series MVP award and 16 Gold Gloves. The only thing he is keeping is his Hall of Fame ring--call him selfish. It is estimated that the haul will bring over one million dollars. The original print of the Norman Rockwell, which Brooks purchased at auction for $200,000 in the 1990s and has been loaned out to museums over the years, will be offered in a separate auction and should bring more than the rest of the stuff combined.
Sixteen Gold Gloves? Yeah, with so many of the things laying around, they did get to be a bother, constantly taking up space. Actually this is the second time he's tried giving them away. Over the years he gave Gold Gloves to his brother, his parents, the Boys Club in his hometown of Little Rock and a lawyer who helped him out, among others. As part of his farewell from baseball ceremonies, in 1977 the Rawlings company had 16 new ones recast and presented them to him. He probably thought, "What's a guy gotta do to get rid of these things?"
In recent years we have seen quite a few aging athletes auction off items. But never before has anyone given up his entire collection and donated the whole amount for charity. This is the sort of thing that immediately provokes questions. You know, the "What kind of a . . ." type questions. As in "What kind of a guy just gives away over a million dollars worth of precious pieces of his career?" And also, just as baffling, "What kind of kids did he raise that are okay with him giving it all away and not bestowing it on them?"
One of the very sad things in reading about former sports greats is the fact that frequently the only emotion provoked from so-called loved ones in their declining years is unspeakable avarice. The only thought is in how to exploit the old guy for all they can get. Apparently Brooks Robinson's children do not feel the need to plunder his memorabilia for their own means. Imagine that.
Of course, this doesn't surprise me and I already know the answers to the above questions. You see, in researching my book, I talked to nearly a hundred people. I heard people who went to high school with him tell how he seemed to know everyone in the largest high school in the south, and called them out by name in the halls, from the lowliest freshman to the captain of the football team. I was taken out to dinner in Little Rock by some of his childhood friends and listened as they recounted stories and told how close they have remained over the years and how highly he is still regarded by their classmates after 60 years--as a friend, not as a celebrity. I heard more than one former batboy discuss how Brooks treated them as equals and made them feel as if they were his friends. And I listened to a crusty former manager--once the scourge of umpires all over the league--almost break down and sob as he described an act of kindness from Brooks.
So I'm not surprised at all by this totally unselfish and memorable gesture by Brooks Robinson. As Earl Weaver told me, "Only Brooksie would do that."
Baltimore fans will never realize how lucky they are that their icon has been one of the best guys off the field in sports history. They have never had to worry about scandals distorting their opinion of their idol. He is truly unique among great athletes and is the kind of guy they would be proud to have their children emulate. So they should just smile and say, "Gee, thanks Brooks."