Baseball Books Reviewed: Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson

Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson by Doug Wilson. (Thomas Dunne Books, 352 pg., $26.99). HB, 2014.

Brooks Robinson was one of the finest third basemen in baseball history. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, he is arguably the most popular athlete ever to wear the uniform of the Baltimore Orioles, his only team in 23 years in the major leagues. He played in 18 All-Star Games, was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1964, and won 16 Gold Gloves. He starred on some of the most dominant teams of the last fifty years, including two World Series winners. His fielding heroics in the 1970 Fall Classic made him a one-man highlight film, and he has set the standard for excellence at the hot corner.

He retired in 1977. So why did it take 37 years for someone to finally write a comprehensive, full-length biography of such a sporting icon?

In the preface to his new book, Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson, author Doug Wilson answers that question bluntly: Robinson was the seemingly perfect All-American male, “viewed as a squeaky-clean good guy in a time when attitudes were changing.” He had no skeletons in his closet. He endured no dishonorable scandals, conflicts, or controversies. “In other words,” Wilson asserts, “none of the things that drive book sales.” Can anyone argue with him on this point? How else to explain the endless shelf space devoted to volumes on Mickey Mantle, whose personal demons cause psychobabblers to salivate?

Wilson acknowledged this handicap when he first set out to write a biography of Brooks Robinson. What he eventually produced is a book that hopefully will prove the publishers wrong. The story of Brooks Robinson is that of a decent man. But it is also an entertaining and informative account of a playing career spanning three decades in which the great American game underwent seismic shifts.

Brooks is what a baseball biography should be about. This is now Wilson’s third such venture, having previously written excellent books on Fred Hutchinson and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Like those, Brooks is well-researched, and Wilson is a first-rate writer worthy of his subject. Readers will get an inside look at the evolution of the Orioles, from their rag-tag seminal days in Baltimore following their exile from St. Louis, through the “Baby Birds” years of the early 1960’s, culminating in the world championship seasons  that gave birth to the ethos of “The Oriole Way.”

Wilson gives us delightful profiles of some of the characters of those wonderful teams. Among them is manager Earl Weaver, the former bush-leaguer suddenly transformed into the umpire-baiting, lineup-juggling maestro. With his mantra of pitching, defense, and three-run homers, the Orioles became the blue-chip franchise in the American League following the collapse of the New York Yankee dynasty.

The great pitching staff was anchored by names like Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Jim Palmer, who in his privileged boyhood had lived on Park Avenue in Manhattan, and played catch in Central Park with his butler. It was a team with great nicknames. John Wesley “Boog” Powell, the fun-loving, power-hitting gentle giant, anchored first base and boasted an 18 3/4-inch neck. At catcher was Andy Etchebarren, affectionately called Lurch because of his resemblance to the unibrowed character on the television program “The Addams Family.” Outfielder Curt Blefary was labelled Clank, the same sound a ball made upon hitting his glove. Centerfield dynamo Paul Blair they called Motormouth, “for obvious reasons,” writes Wilson. Even Robinson’s nickname of “The Human Vacuum Cleaner,” is one of the best ever pegged on a player.

It was the acquisition of the multi-talented African-American slugger Frank Robinson, however, which had vaulted the Orioles to the top of the American League. Together, Brooks and Frank Robinson became the symbol of the Orioles of that period, not only on the field but off. The 1960’s were a time of racial tension, but Wilson portrays the Baltimore clubhouse as one of harmony and togetherness which overcame differences in skin color. Frank Robinson instituted the Orioles’ hilarious kangaroo court, of which he himself was the judge. The court meted out penalties for various infractions such as yawing on the bench (Brooks got accused of this) or talking to female fans in the crowd (Don Buford was the guilty party, assessed a fine of a dollar per lady, totaling three dollars, but he protested that he had actually been talking to five.). The Orioles’ players loved it, and it created a bond between them that carried over to the diamond.

At the center of it all is Brooks Robinson, “Mr. Impossible,” the consummate professional. Wilson portrays him as a fine human being, without trying to manufacture controversy simply in order to lend his tale more voyeuristic spice. At the same time, Wilson gives an honest treatment to what Robinson himself described as his darkest days as a player: The short-lived players’ strike of 1972. He was the Orioles’ player representative, and came to be viewed by some fans as an agitator in the whole affair. Wilson describes Robinson being booed at Memorial Stadium once the strike was over and play resumed. But the fans’ anger soon subsided, and Robinson was back in their good graces. If you are looking for revelations of a sordid past whitewashed behind a veneer of respectability, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll discover an authentic Brooks Robinson, a trustworthy and loyal friend, a hard-working teammate, and a loving husband and father. The touching story of Brooks and Connie Robinson, who have been married for over 50 years, is one of the book’s strengths.

Leave it to Earl Weaver to sum up how a lot of people feel about Brooks Robinson: “(He) is one of the greatest people I have ever met. He gets along with people better than anyone I’ve ever known. The whole room brightens when he walks in. He goes out of his way to do things for people. I don’t believe I ever saw him mad and we were together on the field for almost 10 years. He never had trouble with a teammate. How can you have trouble with Brooks?”

You don’t have to be a Baltimore Orioles fan to enjoy Doug Wilson’s Brooks. All you need is a love for the game as it was once played, when it was truly the national pastime, and when character and decency in professional athletes counted for something. Wilson, who grew up a Cincinnati Reds fan, confesses that he was no particular fan of Robinson’s in his youth. But as an adult, he appreciates Robinson’s greatness and importance, especially today, when athletes are too often surly, unapproachable, and apparently disdainful of their responsibilities as heroes. Brooks Robinson is the real deal, and so is Doug Wilson’s book. 

Scott Ferkovich (August 4, 2014)

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