Gee, Thanks Brooks
BY KEVIN KERNAN
The first thing you notice about the painting is the incredible detail.
Everything is correct, including the fact that Brooks Robinson, a right-handed hitter and right-handed thrower, was signing his autograph for a young Orioles fan with his left hand.
Yes, Brooks Robinson was left-handed; and that, plus hard work, explains his legendary glove work at third base.
Two years ago at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I was fortunate enough to see the Brooks Robinson painting in person, entitled, “Gee, Thanks Brooks.” The painting was on loan from a private owner. I was mesmerized by the 1971 oil painting of the Orioles Hall of Famer.
This was the only time Norman Rockwell painted an individual ballplayer.
How fitting. America’s painter and America’s ballplayer.
Brooks Robinson didn’t just belong to Orioles fans, he belonged to all baseball fans because of the way he played the game – and as the painting showed, he really belonged to all the youngsters who wanted to be just like Brooks Robinson.
Brooks passed away on Tuesday at the age of 86, and that made me think back to that delightful day in Stockbridge and the painting. The museum announced on Wednesday the painting will be put back on exhibit until October 29th as a way to honor Robinson and the AL East-leading Orioles.
I was in the area for my induction into the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame, and this was the perfect painting for me to see, especially since I watched Brooks Robinson star for the Orioles – and then for many years, was able to talk baseball with him in Cooperstown at the Otesaga Resort Hotel, on Hall of Fame Weekend.
Each morning you could find Brooks out on the veranda eating breakfast. He was there with a smile and a kind word for both the game and people and by now you’ve seen all the touching tributes to Robinson, who, as Rockwell painted, was as American as apple pie and baseball.
Thinking back on that painting today, it says so much about where baseball once was, the special place it held in our hearts, the little things that made it America’s Game, and where the game is going today.
With all that in mind I reached out to baseball friend Dan Carubia, who is a docent at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Dan is also an usher at the Tri-City ValleyCats, the three-time NY Penn League champions, now a member of the Frontier League. Dan, 76, is from Queens, and is a former left-handed pitcher, who pitched up until the age of 65 in the Men’s Senior Baseball League – so he knows his baseball and he knows Mr. Rockwell.
Like all the docents at the museum, Dan refers to the artist as “Mr. Rockwell.”
Mr. Rockwell was in the painting, he’s got the cigar in his mouth and he is looking like he’s ready to chomp on the cigar, ‘Yeah, you get him!’
While living in Stockbridge, Mr. Rockwell was known as “The Painter;” and was beloved and chose many of those from the community to be in his paintings.
As a tribute to Brooks Robinson, here are some of the details about Mr. Rockwell’s painting, which was purchased by Robinson for $200,000 in 1974 and years later, in 2015, sold by Robinson to a private owner for a much higher price – with 100 percent of the profits benefitting the Constance and Brooks Robinson Foundation.
Brooks Robinson gave his all, both on and off the field.
“This is the only painting that Mr. Rockwell painted of one individual baseball player,” Carubia told BallNine on Wednesday. “In looking at the painting and all of the fans that are looking at Brooks Robinson, signing an autograph for a kid, there are about 11 different facial features that are all different. Not one face in the stands is the same. Mr. Rockwell was in the painting, he’s got the cigar in his mouth and he is looking like he’s ready to chomp on the cigar, ‘Yeah, you get him!’ And the gentleman with his hand to the side of his face behind Brooks is Mr. Rockwell’s photographer.’’ A local Stockbridge family, the Bergmans, are sitting in the front row, Henry and Sally Bergman and their children. Hank is getting the autograph and his sister Johanna is looking on, next to Rockwell.
Brooks Robinson came up to the studio in Stockbridge, Carubia said, to pose for the painting and it was photographer Louie Lamone who took all the pictures that set up the painting. In Lamone’s pictures on the museum website, you can see Mr. Rockwell posing Brooks in front of the ballpark wall that was created.
That made me think back to the great artist Armand LaMontagne, who when I visited him in his Rhode Island studio many years ago, told me how Ted Williams used to come there to pose for several sculptures and paintings he made. In fact, as you enter the Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery, down on the left side, are two lifelike side by side sculptures, both by LaMontagne, carved from wood, of Babe Ruth in his batting stance and Ted Williams finishing his swing.
The Babe and the Splendid Splinter remain in their prime at the Hall of Fame for all the world to see. In this painting, Brooks Robinson, the gentleman Charm City ballplayer, the fan favorite, will live forever as well.
I asked Carubia what people said about the painting when it was on exhibit. The first thing they said was that Rockwell, a master of details, got a key detail wrong.
“They’d say, ‘He got something wrong. Brooks Robinson is a right-handed batter and thrower,’ and here he is signing with his left hand.’
“No, Mr. Rockwell didn’t get it wrong because Brooks Robinson was left-handed in writing letters and everything else,” Carubia explained. “What’s really cool about that attention to detail too, is that you can see the hair on his arms, and you can see the name Rawlings on the glove, and the Adirondack on his bats, and it’s painted the same way the bats looked at that time.”
There’s also Rawlings on the tongue of Brooks’ spikes – so no detail was missed.
“To me,” Carubia said, “you can look at that painting and you can go back in time when players signed autographs like this and the fans were right on top of the player. And all the facial expressions are wonderful. I do remember watching Brooks Robinson play in the 1969 World Series against the Mets; I went to all three games at Shea Stadium.
“His shortstop, Mark Belanger, was a roommate with my cousin Michael Carubia in 1962 when my cousin signed a contract with the Orioles; and they played in Bluefield, West Virginia.”
That was in the Appalachian League, a short season D League. Both players were 18. Michael Carubia went 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA, and 50 years later his cousin is a docent at the Norman Rockwell Museum where the Brooks Robinson painting was on display.
Baseball is, indeed, about connections.
It was the 1970 World Series where the 33-year-old Robinson was named MVP and made that once in a lifetime play, robbing the Reds’ Lee May of a double, reaching far across the third base line and throwing out May at first base. In the stands that day at Riverfront Stadium was a college third baseman from Ohio University named Mike Schmidt, and that play left an “indelible” mark on Schmidt, who would go on to join Robinson in the Hall of Fame.
Robinson’s personality comes through in the painting as he truly is enjoying signing the autograph for the young fan. No one signed a bolder autograph and no one signed more free autographs than Brooks Robinson.
The fans being so on top of the action speaks to how the game was, back when Brooks played. There’s no security guard in the painting, hovering over Brooks. There’s no netting between player and fans, there’s no moat like in some ballparks. These appear to be everyday fans, not fans with corporate seats placing a bet on the over/under on the number of strikeouts by the starting pitcher.
If such a situation occurred today, all the cell phones would be out and it would be Selfie Time with Brooks at the ballpark.
Everyone, including the ballplayer, is enjoying the moment. Remember when players enjoyed the moment?
The player is not on an iPad, he is not underneath the stadium in a lonely batting cage, perfecting his lift and separate swing for maximum home run and strikeout numbers. He has his trusty Gold Glove under his arm and his two bats alongside him leaning against the wall.
Batting practice on the field – remember those days – was just about to begin, or perhaps just ended, and that’s why he is carrying his glove, ready to do some pregame infield work.
It’s a simple yet complex 37 by 27 portrait of what made baseball great, an intimate glimpse at a moment lost in time. Yes, Brooks Robinson was a superstar, but he also was just Brooks.
“Brooks Robinson was all class and he represented himself and the team so well,” Carubia said. “Just remembering watching the Orioles play on a summer’s day in Yankee Stadium brings back such good memories.
“Mr. Rockwell was able to put you in that painting,” Carubia added.
Here’s what Mr. Rockwell once said of his work, “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
That is perfectly said.
The comments Carubia would hear from fans at the museum included, “I remember when players signed autographs like this.”
Noted Carubia, “People could relate immediately to that painting.”’
Brooks Robinson had his process to reach greatness. He personified what was to become known as “The Oriole Way” as he earned the nickname “The Human Vacuum Cleaner.” His manager Earl Weaver once said, “Brooks was maybe the last guy to get into the clubhouse the day of the game, but he would be the first guy on the field.”
Brooks Robinson believed in the value of pre-game infield practice, something that has been lost to this generation of number-crunching front offices.
It all paid off. Robinson homered in Game 1 of the Orioles’ four-game sweep of the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series. In the five-game win over the Big Red Machine in 1970, he batted .429. Robinson won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves and was an 18-time All-Star and was the AL MVP in 1964.
Mr. Rockwell too had a process, a work ethic that was off the charts.
“The photographer would take photos of Brooks Robinson without people in the background,” Carubia said of the multi-layered program. “He would take an individual photo of everyone in the background. They would pose on an individual basis, three or four photos of each individual, and then it would be developed in black and white. Mr. Rockwell would look at details and then he would have selected one that was based on a smile or looking differently or their eyes wide open. That’s how he would begin to formulate it all. He had a machine that would magnify the individual photos, too, so he could look at more detail, up close and personal.”
All this was done step-by-step in his Stockbridge studio.
One of the things I love about the Robinson painting is that the young fan who is getting the autograph has a baseball glove on his left hand and is wearing an Orioles cap in much the same fashion as Brooks Robinson is wearing his cap; and from that you can imagine that this fan might one day grow up to be an Oriole himself, the beginning of a dream.
No matter what, the fan had this lifetime memory.
This is present and future in one painting.
“That is correct,” Carubia said. “Weren’t we all thinking growing up, ‘I’m going to be a Brooklyn Dodger or a New York Met.’ Everybody could relate to that. These little things show how precise Mr. Rockwell was in his process and that is why it would take him three or four months to do a painting.”
Mr. Rockwell fully utilized the community in his paintings. First in Arlington, Vermont where he lived and then later in Stockbridge. Just as in the baseball world, it was a home team happening.
“He would use neighbors,” Carubia said. “He made everybody feel right at home.”
There is no doubt, Brooks Robinson is completely at ease in the painting.
“The painting brings people back to another time,” Carubia said. “It brings you back to common place people, common place stories in a time so many people can relate to. I remember one man saying at the museum how he used to go to Yankee Stadium and get all the autographs of the visiting players by their dugout. I told him I did too. He said ‘You used to be able to get down there real quick, there were no gates or anything.’“
No moats, either.
Mr. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings are a huge hit at the museum. Mr. Rockwell had attended a town meeting where someone got up to speak and that’s when the “Freedom of Speech” painting moment came to him.
In every way the museum is a must-see event.
“This is my sixth year,” Carubia said, “and to be able to talk on Mr. Rockwell’s paintings for so many different years, and with people who come from all over the world to look at his story and to see commonplace people in his paintings, to watch people’s faces as they see something in the painting they see for the first time or something they see that they can relate to, it’s really so wonderful.”
The same goes for people who watched Brooks Robinson play baseball.
And just like in his painting, faces tell the story. Even today, at The Joe where the Tri-City ValleyCats play, in an independent league, when a player signs a ball for a young fan, it’s special and Carubia enjoys that moment.
“You can see at those times,” Carubia, the 17-year usher happily said, “once they get a ball signed or a program signed, it’s the same features that you see in that painting of that young man getting that ball signed by Brooks Robinson.”
Gee, Thanks Brooks.