1. Little Rock
WATCHING THE FINAL GAME of the 1970 World Series, famed sportswriter Red Smith, in the twilight of a 60-year career, commented on Brooks Robinson’s uncanny ability to be where the ball was before it got there: “I can’t recall any player in any sport who ever had such a knack for always being in the right place at the right time.” It was not the first time someone had made such a remark about Brooks Robinson. Whether due to instinct, luck, design, or all three, Brooks made a habit of being in the right place at the right time throughout his life, even from the start.
Brooks Robinson always maintained that he never wanted to be anything other than a baseball player. For that purpose, he couldn’t have picked a better place and time to grow up than Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1940s and 1950s. Located near the geographic center of the state, Little Rock took its name from a description given by a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe, who led an exploration party up the Arkansas River in 1772—noting an outcropping of rock on the banks and calling it “la petite roche” to distinguish it from a larger rock cliff across the river. Part of the Louisiana Purchase, Little Rock became the capital of Arkansas Territory in 1821 and remained the capital as Arkansas became a state in 1836. The city experienced slow, steady growth as people moved in from the countryside in search of better living conditions and jobs, but by 1930 the population barely exceeded 80,000. As the state’s capital and largest city, however, Little Rock possessed the culture and potential afforded by being the political, economic, and educational center. It was by no means a metropolis, but compared to the rest of the mostly rural, agrarian state, it was downright bustling and equaled the larger cities of the United States with every modern convenience. A few early skyscrapers were beginning to dot the skyline, some as high as 14 stories, and the large, beautiful capitol dome could be seen from miles away. Electric streetcars and trolleys ran through the city, bringing citizens to the active downtown area, which held all the major department stores, banks, and numerous theaters. In other aspects, Little Rock retained a certain small-town, country atmosphere with mom-and-pop grocery stores and drugstores scattered on corners in most neighborhoods and a lot of open space.
Most important for Brooks, Little Rock was a hotbed of sports, particularly baseball. There were well-organized baseball leagues for players of all ages and they were actively supported. The daily newspapers regularly printed scores and highlights from the Pee Wee Leagues, semipros, and the minor league Little Rock Travelers, who had been members of the Southern Association since 1902. The American Legion baseball program was one of the best in the region, a fact not lost on professional scouts.
If not for some economic and meteorologic bad luck, however, Brooks Robinson would likely have grown up on a farm in rural Arkansas and missed out on the opportunities Little Rock provided. The future baseball player’s father, Brooks Calbert Robinson (he would later have a senior after his name), was born in 1914 in Pope County, Arkansas. The nearest town was Atkins, a small community of about a thousand, 60 miles northwest of Little Rock. Brooks Sr.’s father, Bruce, like most of the inhabitants of Pope County, was a farmer. Robinsons had farmed in southern Pope County since Samuel Calbert Robinson had moved to Arkansas from North Carolina in the 1840s with his wife and two small children—traveling in a wagon train with other settlers.
Although the Robinsons were not among the most prosperous farmers in the county, they made a good living. Pope County, particularly the Arkansas River bottoms, which formed the southern border of the county, had some of the best farmland in the state, growing cotton, corn, wheat, apples, and peaches in abundance. Grapes were said to be so plentiful they grew without cultivation. The ample supply of running water provided good irrigation for crops and stock even in the driest seasons. But no matter how good the land was, life for rural Arkansas farmers in the early part of the twentieth century was not easy. Brooks, the youngest of five children, certainly learned the value, and necessity, of hard work.
Life became harder for Pope County farmers in the 1920s. The cotton market, which drove the economy for the entire state, nearly crumbled under the burden of a precipitous drop in cotton prices following World War I. By 1920, the price had fallen from 37 cents a pound to barely six. A blight on the orchard industry soon followed. Many farmers left Pope County for California and other lands of opportunity. Those who stayed were in for more bad luck.
While the rest of the country was roaring through the 1920s, storm clouds were forming over Arkansas in the spring of 1927. The previous winter had been particularly wet across the Midwest, and early snow melts in the north had swollen the Mississippi River and its southern tributaries. Then, in April, the rain came. Torrential rain; rain that seemed like it would never stop. Seven inches were recorded in Little Rock in less than a day. Every levee in the state west of Little Rock failed as the Arkansas River poured over its banks. Residents watched helplessly as towns and farms along the river were buried within hours. In an instant, generations of work were lost.
The Great Flood of 1927 is still considered one of the three major floods in North American history. Some towns and farmland stood beneath more than six feet of murky water. Dead animals floated everywhere. With nowhere for the water to go, thousands of residents were displaced and many were unable to return home until September. Red Cross camps and tent cities provided the only resource for families. Typhoid, malaria, and pellagra became epidemic. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who rose to national prominence while leading the recovery effort, called the flood “America’s greatest peacetime disaster” and said that “the disaster felt by Arkansas farmers, planters and residents of river lowlands was of epic proportions.” And farms in the Arkansas River bottom were a particularly bad place to be.
Bruce Robinson died in Little Rock in 1928 at the age of forty-eight, leaving his wife, Bertha, a widow with five children, aged fourteen to twenty-two. By 1930, as the Great Depression was getting into full swing, Bertha Robinson was residing in Little Rock, in a house that rented for $25 a month, with all five children still living at home.
Times were tough, especially for a boy who had to face his teen years without a father. It was the type of situation that could make or break someone. Without a male role model of his own, how would Brooks learn to be one himself? Also, he had to become a city kid—the Robinsons’ farming days were over. This couldn’t have been an easy period but the effect it had on him can only be estimated, as he rarely talked about it over the years. If it affected him negatively, it didn’t show—he got over it.
Brooks developed into an excellent athlete, eventually starring in basketball and football at Little Rock Central High School. In the summers, he played American Legion baseball, playing on the first Little Rock Legion team to be known as the Doughboys in 1930. It was a good team. One of his teammates, Skeeter Dickey, had an older brother, Bill, who was an All-Star catcher for the New York Yankees. As a second baseman and leadoff hitter, Brooks helped the 1930 team to the Arkansas State Championship, scoring four runs in the title game win over Blytheville.
Brooks met Ethel Mae Denker in high school. She had grown up in Little Rock as the only surviving child of August and Maurine Denker, who were in their late 30s and had been married 18 years when she was born. Although not rich, the Denkers were more comfortable than most at the time, living in a house they owned, which was valued at $10,000 in the 1930 U.S. Census. Brooks and Ethel married soon after she graduated high school in June 1935. Their first child, Brooks Calbert Robinson, Jr., was born May 18, 1937. They would add another child, Gary, five years later.
Brooks Sr. worked at the large Colonial Bakery, then got hired by the Little Rock Fire Department in 1941. He would become a career fireman, eventually rising to captain. Gary and Brooks had two working parents before that became common. Ethel worked for Sears, and then as a longtime administrative and clerical assistant in the state capitol. She still had time, however, to get fried chicken and biscuits and the like on the table for dinner every night.
The Robinson family lived in a tiny house on Lloyd Court. When Brooks was in junior high, they moved up to a larger two-story house nearby on Dennison Street. They lived in the Capitol View/Stiff’s Station district, a solidly middle-class, older, well-established, rolling, tree-filled neighborhood in west-central Little Rock, not far from the capitol. The houses were close together, small, single-family dwellings, mostly built in the 1920s, and as a rule contained two-parent families. Everyone knew everyone else. People left their doors unlocked. There were lots of kids around and they enjoyed the freedom to play and explore at will with little concern about crime or other bad things that modern parents worry about. Both grandmothers lived in the neighborhood, but otherwise there were few relatives around. As Ethel’s father had died at age fifty-four in 1933, Gary and Brooks never knew either of their grandfathers.
The Robinsons grew up relatively unfazed by the horrors of the Great Depression and World War II that affected some of their neighbors. Brooks Sr. had a steady, respected job, and with the addition of Ethel’s salary, they had enough money to be comfortable—certainly not frivolous, but comfortable. By all accounts, it was a happy, loving family atmosphere fostered by Brooks Sr. and Ethel. Both were generally soft-spoken; there was little yelling in the Robinson household. Brooks and Gary learned about honest work and treating people with respect from example.
Ethel, much more outgoing than her husband, was the type of polite, pleasant southern woman who had surprising steel when she needed to make a point, such as with disciplining her children or making sure everyone got to church on time. Brooks Sr. was laid-back and low-key, sometimes enjoying nothing more than sitting on the porch and chewing tobacco or having an occasional cigar. Working as a fireman, he had an irregular schedule—frequently two or three full days on, then two or three days off—which gave him a lot of time to be at home. And he used that time to be with his kids.
“We were a middle-income family,” says Gary. “We grew up in a good family. We didn’t have fancy cars or things like that, but our parents taught us good values. I think I appreciate that more now that I’m older. You don’t realize it so much when you’re growing up, but later when you have a family of your own, you look back and think, ‘Hey, I’m glad I was taught good values growing up.’”
“I spent a lot of time at their house in junior high and high school,” says Buddy Rotenberry, one of Brooks’s best friends. “His parents were good people; common, down-to-earth, unassuming, kind people. I really respected the kind of man Brooks’s father was. Mr. Robinson was a model father in my opinion. I envied Brooks so much for having a mother and father who created a happy environment.”
“They were both just nice people,” says Harold Ellingson, a teammate on Legion baseball teams. “It wasn’t an accident that Brooks and Gary turned out so well. They had a good upbringing.”
Part of that good upbringing was discipline and respect. “Although Mr. Robinson was a man of few words, you didn’t want to mess with him,” says Rotenberry. “He could be very stern. Brooks’s mother, Ethel, was very nice, but she also laid down the law to Brooks and Gary when it needed to be done. They taught them good values and if they strayed, they jerked them back in line pretty quick.”
Sometimes, that included applying a belt to the butt, such as the time when Brooks was 12 and he and Gary took a trolley downtown to watch a movie. After the movie, Gary, as younger brothers are wont to do, was making such a pain of himself that Brooks left him downtown, telling him, “Find your own way home.” Even though Gary did indeed find his way home safely, this did not sit well with their parents, and Brooks received one of his worst spankings from his father.
Usually the punishment was less traumatic, but more unbearable—having to endure a lecture. Recalling one discourse, Brooks said, “My dad should have been a lawyer. What he was, was a good parent. Both he and Mother were. Though Gary and I may have gotten our share of spankings as kids—all deserved—more often than not Dad’s method was to sit down with us ‘and reason together.’ After discussing some misbehavior, he might say, ‘What kind of punishment do you think you deserve?’ The end result was often a loss of privileges, such as seeing a movie or playing ball for a couple of days. There was also a loss of face at such times. When I did something I shouldn’t and then confronted Dad or Mom, I always felt ashamed that I let them down. A spanking would have been so much quicker, but usually I was made to suffer through a discussion of the offense.”
Brooks didn’t suffer too often though, as he was generally a good-natured, agreeable, trouble-free kid. “He was always a well-organized boy and you could talk and reason with him,” Brooks Sr. would tell reporters in 1964. The influence of his parents was immeasurable in contributing to the foundation of Brooks Robinson: personality and character; responsibility and sense of duty; politeness, and the easy acceptance of authority. These traits would only grow over time.
Brooks’s recollections of his parents in his autobiography and interviews paint a portrait reminiscent of a 1950s black-and-white family television show, like Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. And that’s not too far from the truth. There were no demons in Brooks Robinson’s past that needed to be wrestled into adulthood. There was no timidity in the Robinson household—no fear of a stray comment causing an explosion. There was no apprehension of mistakes. If there were skeletons in the Robinson closet, they were buried deeply. It was a good environment in which to cultivate a happy, outgoing, trusting personality. The Robinson kids were confident of dinner being on the table every night and of their father coming home from work and spending time with them.
* * *
While he took his outgoing personality from his mother, Brooks Jr., called Buddy by his parents growing up, was very much the product of his father. Sports created an indelible bond between father and son. Brooks Sr. was still athletic and played a lot of fast-pitch softball and semipro baseball. The fire department had a baseball team as did the Methodist church. In 1937 he was on an International Harvester softball team that went to the world championships at Soldier Field in Chicago, losing to a team from Cincinnati 2–1 in the finals. When Brooks was still a toddler, his father started him out playing catch with tennis balls so the ball wouldn’t hurt. He taught him how to hold the ball, how to throw, how to hold a bat, and how to hit. But he was not a taskmaster—it was all done as fun. And the little kid loved it; he couldn’t get enough of it. “He’d wake up every morning saying, ‘Play ball, Daddy,’” said his mother in 1970. As Brooks got older, he tagged along to games with his father as often as possible to be the batboy. They spent a lot of time in the yard playing catch. For Brooks, it was the start of a love affair with the game of baseball that would last a lifetime.
Often Brooks, either alone or with a friend or two, would visit his father when he was on call at the fire station. They would enjoy a quiet game of catch or pepper in the grassy area behind the small, two-garage station or shoot baskets on the goal near the parking lot. When older, they would join in basketball games there with the other firemen. Brooks Sr. would get his son out of school to go to the Little Rock Travelers Field every year when the St. Louis Cardinals came to town to play the Chicago White Sox in the last exhibition game before the season opener.
Brooks’s friends enjoyed the attention of his father as much as he did. “His daddy had been, in his own right, one of the best schoolboy athletes growing up in Little Rock,” says Rotenberry. “He spent a lot of time playing with us. They lived in an old two-story white frame house on kind of a hilly lot. Out in the backyard, attached to the garage, was a basketball goal. When his dad was home, we were always out there. We would play HORSE and 21. His dad was a great shooter. He would sit out there at sixteen to eighteen feet with his two-handed set shot and just make shot after shot after shot. When we were in high school, and you have to understand that Brooks was an All-State basketball player in high school, he still couldn’t outshoot his daddy.”
Brooks recalled that his father had the perfect attitude for a sports parent. “My dad had the great insight to keep just the right balance between play and practice,” he said in 2007. “He never put any pressure on me, and he never corrected me about how I played in a game unless I asked. If I wanted to field some grounders, he’d drop everything to go out and hit them to me. Then he’d pitch me hours of batting practice. But he never told me, ‘You’ve got to do it this way.’ It was always, ‘Why don’t you try this?’”
“He’s the one responsible for my love of baseball and especially my desire to do the best I can every day,” Brooks wrote in 1974. “He’s also the one who instilled in me the ability to forget today’s game and prepare for tomorrow.”
Mr. Robinson was restrained in his praise when Brooks did well. This was important to help keep him grounded because it became obvious at an early age that Brooks had exceptional ability. He did not grow up on a pedestal because he had athletic talent; there was no hint of the spoiled, privileged athlete. Dad was just as reserved with criticism when son failed. “Some parents get their values confused and emphasize winning and individual accomplishment over everything else. They could learn a lot from my father,” Brooks later noted.
“Brooks’s father was not a sports parent from hell,” says Rotenberry. “He rarely instructed him or corrected him in sports in front of his peers. He always picked a quiet time alone, in the backyard or behind the fire station, for instruction. He was very thoughtful and helped Brooks achieve his goals but didn’t yell and wasn’t overbearing or pushy. And he left Brooks’s coaches alone and let them coach his kid. You don’t see that with a lot of parents of good athletes unfortunately.” The remarkably close bond between father and son would only grow through the years.
* * *
Young Brooks became an ardent fan and student of the game of baseball and its history. He devoured the box scores in the Arkansas Gazette each morning. Since there were no major league teams in the South at the time, Brooks followed the St. Louis Cardinals, as did most in the area, listening to their games every night on his Philco radio over the powerful KMOX. The Cardinals won National League pennants in 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1946 and were the dream team of all midwestern boys. Brooks idolized Stan Musial, and also followed players from Arkansas such as Dizzy Dean, George Kell, Preacher Roe, and Johnny Sain. He kept a scrapbook with pictures of his favorites and cut out articles of momentous occasions, such as when Babe Ruth died. He was much better at calculating batting averages than he was at doing math word problems in school.
Brooks spent hours behind his house hitting rocks with a cut-off broomstick. By the time he was seven or eight, he was strong enough to reach the woods across the meadow from the gravel road behind his house—envisioning he was hitting one out for the Cards at Sportsman’s Park. His mother could always tell where he was by the ping of rocks hitting the broomstick out back. Or from the thud of a ball hitting the front steps. Brooks put in a lot of time throwing a golf ball or tennis ball against the steps—making grounders or flies depending on how he threw them—inventing baseball games and dreaming of playing with his heroes (all the while helping his hand-eye coordination).
But Brooks was not a loner. He was friendly and always had plenty of kids to play with. He enjoyed both the competition and the camaraderie that sports provided. Sports dominated the boys’ childhood; whatever was in season—baseball, basketball, or football—that’s what they played. During winters the Boys Club, situated in a three-story brick building downtown, had well-organized basketball leagues, and the kids played one-on-one and shooting games on the backyard goal. As they got older, Brooks and a few friends would play basketball at the nearby Arkansas School for the Deaf gym—and not always when it was open. “Brooks was a good guy, but he was not an angel,” says Rotenberry. “Sometimes when the Deaf School gym was closed, we were not above breaking out a small pane and lifting a latch on a window to get in to play. Eventually Houston Nutt, Sr., who was the athletic director, talked to Brooks—I guess he figured he was involved—and just gave him a key. That was easier than fixing the windows.”
While they enjoyed basketball and football, it was baseball that held the most interest. At the time, baseball was the only professional team sport that mattered; unquestionably the national pastime. All the kids were crazy about baseball. There were endless games of pepper, hot box, workup, and other variations when there weren’t enough for a game—anything to hit and catch a ball. They all dreamed of the day they could be on a real team and wear a uniform.
* * *
It’s hard for someone not from Little Rock to understand what a big deal Lamar Porter Field was. The field’s namesake, Lamar Porter, had been the son of a wealthy Little Rock family who had been killed in a car accident at the age of twenty-one while attending college in Virginia. The family donated the land to the Boys Club as a memorial to their son. The park was constructed at a cost of $120,000 by the Works Progress Administration, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to put Americans to work, and was completed in 1937.
Lamar Porter became a community center for all ages. There was a large playground with slides and swings; little kids played in a sandbox or skipped rocks on a nearby creek and hunted for crawdads and tadpoles. There were clay tennis courts, areas for shuffleboard, marbles, horseshoes, and volleyball, and a picnic grounds. The prize jewel of Lamar Porter, however, was the baseball diamond. It had built-in, sunken dugouts complete with lockers and showers, and a covered grandstand that extended well beyond first and third bases and seated 1,500, and it was the only field in the state to have lights at the time. Kids couldn’t help but feel like big leaguers when they trotted out on the Lamar Porter baseball field. The field was in near-constant use by all ages. The youth leagues were coordinated by the Boys Club, as Little League did not start in Little Rock until 1951.
Brooks Robinson spent most of his youth at Lamar Porter Field. He lived only a short bike ride away and it was right across the street from his elementary school. When not playing, he was making money. Employment opportunities for youths at the field started at seat duster for a quarter a day and worked up to ball shagger, concession worker, and finally, the prestigious job of scoreboard operator—paying 50 cents a game. The scoreboard was a giant steel monster located in left center field about 400 feet from home plate. The scorekeeper climbed a ladder, sat on a catwalk, and hung large metal number signs onto pegs, frequently performing this duty while dodging rocks and dirt clods flung by well-wishing friends.
The entire city supported baseball. Youth and American Legion games were carried on the radio. Crowds of adults would watch the kids, to enjoy the game and to see who the stars of the future would be. “Little Rock was a great place to grow up back then,” says Tommy Lauderdale, a Legion teammate of Brooks’s, “especially if you loved baseball. It would have made a good Norman Rockwell picture—us kids walking to Lamar Porter Field, carrying our gloves, with our bats over our shoulders.”
The kids learned the value of competition at an early age. There were only so many spots available on the Pee Wee League teams. Those who didn’t make it knew the only way to get a uniform next year was to work hard and get better. There were certainly no participation awards in those days; no trophies just for showing up. It was the ideal environment for the development of a professional baseball player.
Brooks’s future American Legion coach, George Haynie, long remembered the first time he ever saw him play in a Midget League (eleven- and twelve-year olds) game. Brooks pitched and lost 1–0. “I’ve never seen anybody so mad at himself in my life,” Haynie said. “I told a friend that [Brooks] had the makings of a good player because [he] hated to lose.” But he didn’t lose often. Brooks played on a Midget team that won the Boys Club State Championship in 1948. His 1949 team won the city title, and his Standard Paints Company fourteen-and-under Boys Club team won the State Championship in 1950.
His play left a lasting impression on those who watched. Tommy Lauderdale, a teammate from the Pee Wee League through Legion ball, recalls, “He was always a great fielder. He could play any position. Even when he was a little kid, he had a great glove.” The ability to catch a ball, to handle anything hit his way—Brooks seemed to have had that from the earliest age. Was there a secret to the development of his great fielding? Something a father could use to teach his son to become another Brooks Robinson? One thing that certainly helped was that Brooks was naturally left-handed—he wrote, played Ping-Pong and tennis, and did most other activities with his left hand—but played baseball right-handed. This allowed him to wear his glove on his dominant hand, improving the coordination he was able to use in wielding it. Otherwise, there were the hours he spent in the yard fielding grounders from his father and catching a tennis ball bounced off the steps of the front of the house. But this only placed him in a select group of perhaps one million other kids at the time who did the exact same thing, all dreaming of a professional baseball career. None of them went on to win 16 Gold Gloves.
Unfortunately, there was no real secret; nothing that can be replicated. While Brooks definitely put in the time and worked at it, he also possessed a magical, special talent; a unique combination of hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and body control. While Brooks often shared his methods with reporters over the years, those tips could not help anyone else become a great fielder. Just like Ted Williams, who possessed an inimitable ability for hitting but, although he became a prophet for the science of hitting, could not teach anyone else to hit .400, Brooks could not pass on his secret by mere words. The supernatural ability was there; it was honed and improved through constant repetition and would evolve over the years, but it was there from the start. It was something that would always make him different from everyone else.
* * *
As he grew, Brooks became known around town as one of the better athletes. He showed that he had a better arm than most kids his age when he won a prize in the junior distance softball throw in a Fourth of July contest when he was ten. Buddy Rotenberry recalls Brooks’s reputation among the local kids: “We first met in grade school. We went to different schools. Back then, the elementary schools competed against each other in different sports. We played a touch football game against Woodruff, where Brooks went. Brooks played tailback in a single wing; kind of like a quarterback position. During pregame warm-ups, somebody came over and pointed him out, ‘Look out for that guy throwing passes, he’s really good.’ We found out during the game that the guy had been right. He could throw the football 50 yards in sixth grade.”
“His athletic ability in every sport was very obvious to everyone,” says Robert Baird, one of Brooks’s best friends in junior high and high school. “Everybody knew who he was going into junior high because of that.”
In the ninth grade at Pulaski Heights Junior High, some friends on the football team talked Brooks into going out for the team. Coach Winston Faulkner, a tall, calm, slow-speaking man nicknamed “Preacher” by students, saw the talent and made Brooks the starting quarterback. Arkansas at the time was a football-mad state. The coaches usually picked the best athlete and groomed him to be quarterback—they didn’t give the keys to the offense to just anybody. Brooks was a good quarterback, calling his own plays and helping the team to a 9–0–1 record and the junior high State Championship.
“He was smart and he could really throw the football,” Faulkner recalled in 1978. While the team had two good backs for running the ball and didn’t need Brooks to run, “we threw an awful lot, especially for a junior high team. We had a lot of stars … but we couldn’t have done it without him.”
Brooks was popular in junior high for his likable personality as well as his athletic talent. The first issue of the school paper in October 1951 had Brooks’s mug gracing the front page in two separate spots: once, along with two other kids who were elected student council officers, and once as the paper’s choice for the “Hall of Fame.” The caption read, “For the first issue of our Tip Top Times this year, Heights has chosen for the Hall of Fame a boy who needs no introduction. He has made an outstanding record in his school work and athletics.… This last summer he played on the American Legion Doughboys, and last year he was on the Panther Basketball team. He was also president of Mr. Romine’s boys in the eighth grade, and has done monitor’s service for the school.… Yes, you’re right; it is none other than Brooks Robinson.”
Copyright © 2014 by Doug Wilson