Sports writer R. Gordon Beard once said that, unlike Reggie Jackson, legendary Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson “never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore, people named their children after him.”
So this summer, when the Hall of Famer, who played his entire 22-year career in my native Charm City, opened a letter about yet another little namesake, it was probably just business as usual, another pleasant reminder of a life well spent - and well-loved.
But to the letter writer, that neatly typed page and a half introduction between the first Brooks Robinson and the latest one, was special. She and her husband had batted around (pun intended) several Baltimore sports-related monikers for this boy they had waited so long for - Ripken, anyone? - but came back to Brooks, chosen not only in homage to his athleticism but to his class, his devotion to a city and its fans, and even his efforts in ensuring cross-racial harmony in the Orioles dugout.
Mostly, it was the fulfillment of a promise made to the younger Brooks’ daddy, a task he’s no longer here to do. I promise you that to the person who penned that letter, who carefully pored over each word, being able to tell that story meant absolutely everything. And I know, because I wrote it.
“Dear Mr. Robinson,” I typed, “I am writing today to tell you about my son, who as of July 22 will officially be named Brooks Robinson Streeter-Zervitz. He has been my foster child since he was six months old – he’s now almost three! – born, like my husband and I, in Baltimore City. Sadly, Scott will not be here to see (our adoption) finished. He passed away last year…He always said that he wanted to one day tell you the story of our boy, and how he came to be named Brooks. So now it’s my job.”
My Brooks, who up to now I have only referred to in print, in passing, as a child that I was caring for first with Scott and now with my awesome mother, does not really understand yet who the original Brooks Robinson is. But he’s been hearing his name and seeing his face for most of his life. He refers to him as “The Baseball Man,” seen in a figurine in our living room, and as the face on several baseball cards that he’s not yet allowed to touch, because toddler fingers are sticky.
But here’s what I want him to know about Brooks Robinson, whose name was synonymous with the Baltimore Orioles for kids like me and Scott growing up near Memorial Stadium. He retired in 1977, when I was six years old, so I’m sure I saw him play at the childhood games my Daddy took us to, although I mostly remember the popcorn. But I do remember him as a community fixture, the nice man who read “The Little Engine That Could” to me and other kids at a public storytime, and the guy who not only presented me with a city-wide history competition prize, but actually chatted with me and asked what my project was about.
If Brooks Robinson was a hometown hero to me, a casually devoted O’s fan, he was the sun, moon and stars to Scott, the biggest sports fan I ever met, whose dowry mostly consisted of Orioles and Ravens jerseys. Brooks Robinson was, as I wrote to him in my letter, “his favorite ball player of all time,” and was, I added, buried in his throwback Brooks jersey.
“He fell in love not only with the way you played, but with what a good guy you were, how devoted you were to the team and to the city. He even got to be a bat boy for the day when he was a kid, when his parents won a raffle, and was very proud to say that (legendarily argumentative Orioles manager) Earl Weaver once cursed at him and wondered why there was a kid in his dugout.”
Scott’s knowledge of the original Brooks’ career was at best detailed and at worst endearingly obsessive, from his batting statistics to his place in various lineups. And he was looking forward to sharing that obsession with his boy. But there was a lesson he thought that Brooks Robinson could teach our kid that was more important than numbers.
It was a bit of history about the other famous Oriole named Robinson, outfielder Frank. The black Oakland, Ca. native and the white Arkansan third baseman shared a last name, but came from different worlds. Still, team legend has it that when the reportedly prickly Frank joined the team in 1966, Brooks was the first person to greet him. They started both a team partnership and then a friendship, one that lasts to this day. That meant a lot to my husband.
“Scott always talked about how he’d read that you embraced Frank Robinson as a colleague when he came to the O’s, and that as he grew up, he came to understand what a risk that could have been,” I wrote. “Our Brooks was going to be raised in a household where different cultures were coming together to form a family. That meant something to Scott, to name him after someone who felt that everyone could come together. We need that lesson more than ever.”
I ended the letter by assuring him that I wasn’t asking for anything and didn’t really expect him to write back. Rather, I wrote, “I needed you to know that you meant something to Scott, who was the most generous, loving and sports-obsessed person I know, who wanted to pass something good and pure down to his son. So I know that Scott would want me to tell you about our Brooks…I am proud that my son has your name, Sir. Be well, and go O’s.”
A few weeks after, Brooks and I went up to Baltimore County, where his adoption was finalized and the name we’d been calling him all along was, at last, really his. I even got a chance to go down and have a drink across the street from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where a statue of the first Brooks Robinson stands. We had been back home for a couple of weeks when I stopped by our house to check the mailbox, and pulled out a large manila envelope much like the one I’d sent.
I reached inside and pulled out a vintage color photo of Brooks Robinson, kneeling propped up on a bat in the outfield at Memorial Stadium. Written across it, right next to his shoulder, was a message written in wavery but bold blue.
“Brooks,” it said, “I’m honored you have my name. Hope to say hello one day soon,” and was signed “Brooks Robinson, Hall of Fame 1983.”
I understand, like I said, that there are more kids named Brooks running around than you can shake a baseball bat at, and that as far as I know, the Original Brooks might have a stack of these things pre-signed by his bed to send to the next eager parent who writes. But everything I know about him proves that he’s a stand-up guy, that he cares about his fans. And I hope that he was touched by the prospect of a kid with an Afro in West Palm Beach eagerly holding his photo and carefully touching the writing, as if he knew it was important.
“That’s the Baseball Man!” he eagerly told my mom when she got home. That’s when I knew. There are a million things we could have named our son. But I’d say we made the right decision.