- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

At the end of the season, baseball will tally the votes in its mismanaged Hometown Heroes promotion. The results will be meaningless in Washington, where the candidates are a mix of former Expos who mean nothing to fans here and Nationals players who have been here barely long enough to establish residence.

In Baltimore, however, there is the interest sparked by an intriguing choice between two hometown favorites. The question is, which favorite — Brooks Robinson or Cal Ripken — will come in first and which in second?

Ripken probably will win this beauty contest. He is far more familiar to younger generations of Orioles fans — fans more likely to vote in such a contest — than Robinson.

The case could be made for either player.

Ripken changed the shortstop position, and his offensive numbers are better than those of Robinson. But Robinson set the standard for play at third base and was an integral part of a team that, from 1966 to 1971, won four American League pennants and two World Series.

Robinson, though, enjoys a special place as a national icon that neither Ripken nor anyone else who played the game can claim: He was the only athlete Norman Rockwell ever painted alone.

Robinson will appear tomorrow at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore as part of the “Rockwell’s America: Celebrating the Art of Norman Rockwell” exhibit, signing lithographs of that famous painting, “Gee Thanks, Brooks!”

“He painted lot of other baseball scenes, but this is the only one with a player in it by himself,” Robinson said.

Robinson is the Norman Rockwell of baseball, the representative of the era of American innocence that may have had its last gasp in Stockbridge, Mass., in January 1971. Robinson went to Rockwell’s studio then to pose for photos for the painting — a work commissioned by Harry Figge, president of the company that owned Rawlings Sporting Goods and Adirondack Bats, as an advertisement.

“It shows me signing an autograph [on a baseball for a young boy], with the Rawlings label on my shoes and my glove, and the Adirondack bat, very prominently,” Robinson said. “And he put himself in the picture, up in the right hand corner. He has a cigar in his mouth.”

Rockwell was 76 years old at the time and a fan of the game.

“I had a wonderful time with him,” Robinson said. “He was a very knowledgeable baseball fan. I was surprised how much he knew. I saw a lot of things in his studio that I recognized from various Saturday Evening Post covers.”

Figge sold the company in 1994 and put the Robinson painting and several other Rockwell works up for auction, even though Robinson wanted to buy the piece directly from Figge.

“I had been a little upset that Figge didn’t offer it to me,” Robinson said. “I certainly would have paid whatever he wanted me to pay for it.”

Robinson learned through a friend that the painting was going to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York. He was in St. Croix at a golf tournament at the time, so he sent his son to New York with a friend familiar with auctions to place a bid.

“There was a lady who lived in Baltimore who worked at Sotheby’s,” Robinson said. “She was on the phone with my wife while I was on the golf course telling us what was going on. The bidding started at $125,000. I told my son to go to $175,000, but I didn’t want to pay any more than that for it.

“The price is going up, $150,000, $160,000, $190,000. The lady told my wife that the bidding had stopped at $190,000. There was a lady from West Virginia who was a big Rockwell collector who was the only one bidding against me. My wife said go up to $200,000, and he did, and I got the painting.”

After paying $20,000 in taxes, Robinson got the painting home, where it has been displayed in his study at his home. He owns the copyright for it and uses it from time to time for charity events and exhibits like the one at the center. “I’ve had a lot of fun with it,” he said.

It is likely worth far more than what Robinson paid for it — some Rockwell paintings are valued at seven figures — but, as they say in the promotion business, a painting of Brooks Robinson by Norman Rockwell? Priceless.

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