The day Brooks Robinson stuck around with a young photographer in West Palm Beach
Updated: Oct 8
IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, the Baltimore Orioles star Brooks Robinson is standing on a baseball field, holding a bat and looking at the camera with an almost incredulous expression.
As if he were saying to himself, Who’s this little kid taking my photograph?
The little kid behind the camera was 11-year-old Tommy DiPace of Boynton Beach, a rabid baseball fan who, when he wasn’t in class at St. Mark’s Catholic School, spent most of March 1972 carrying his Kodak 126 Instamatic to spring training games in Pompano Beach, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
Like most boys his age, DiPace went to the ballparks to collect autographs from Hank Aaron, Rico Carty, Richie Allen and other baseball stars who passed through South Florida each spring.
But unlike most boys his age, DiPace also carried a camera and photographed many players, an early passion he would develop (pun intended) into a long and successful career as an acclaimed sports photojournalist.
Today, DiPace’s work can be found in Sports Illustrated, TIME, ESPN, Wheaties boxes and numerous newspapers — images of athletes like Aaron Judge connecting for another home run, Jose Altuve making another play and Tom Brady throwing another touchdown.
But long before he became a fixture on NFL sidelines, NBA courts and Major League Baseball fields, he was a precocious 11-year-old leaning against the railing at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach, creating his first photographic sports images.
Remember: This was 1972, decades before smartphones with cameras became ubiquitous pocket fixtures at ballparks and concert venues. Here was some kid at the ballpark working a Kodak Instamatic like a seasoned paparazzi.
“Mr. Singleton!” he’d yell from the end of the dugout. And as Orioles outfielder Ken Singleton turned in the direction of the young voice, 11-year-old Tommy DiPace clicked his camera.
“Mr. Garvey!” (Click!)
“Mr. Alston!” (Click!)
“Mr. Belanger!” (Click!)
At Pompano Beach in 1975, Rangers manager Frank Lucchesi turned his cap and clowned for the young teen’s camera.
In 1972, the fiery Orioles manager Earl Weaver offered the kid the same kind of no-nonsense expression he was known for before erupting into one of his many screaming rants at umpires.
All eventually made their way onto prints and into DiPace’s scrapbook, a collection of player and manager portraits with expressions of bewilderment and amusement from seeing such a determined young photographer in action.
DiPace had started taking photographs as a 10-year-old in 1971 on family vacations to Disney World and Monkey Jungle, unaware his father was scouting homes for a move from Long Island.
Not long after his family arrived in Boynton Beach that December, he learned about another South Florida attraction: Spring Training.
Of all the ballplayers lured into little Tommy DiPace’s lens in March 1972, Brooks Robinson — who died earlier this week at the age of 86 — left the most lasting impression on the budding photographer.
And it wasn’t because of a photograph.
ON A MARCH afternoon in 1972, DiPace walked out of West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium after a productive day collecting autographs and photographs of players with the Atlanta Braves and the visiting Orioles.
As he always did, he seated himself on a bench next to the stadium parking lot and waited for his personal chauffeur — his mother — to pick him up in her Lincoln Continental.
The sun was dropping over the west end of Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and the parking lot was just about empty, except for a few remaining cars belonging to stadium staff and players.
The Orioles trained in Miami at the time, and Brooks Robinson — the 1964 MVP whose crafty glove helped Baltimore win championships in 1966 and 1970 — was among the players who preferred to drive themselves to West Palm Beach instead of taking the team bus.
As Robinson walked out of the clubhouse expecting to go straight to his car, he noticed the young boy sitting alone on the bench. The Orioles great was wearing street clothes, but DiPace recognized him immediately as he approached the bench.
“Hey, whatcha doing here?’’ Robinson asked, according to DiPace’s recollection of his encounter with the future Hall of Famer.
“I’m still waiting for my mom.’’
“Well, where is she?”
“I don’t know. She was supposed to be here a half-hour ago.’’
“Well, I’m not going to let you sit out here by yourself. I don’t think this is the safest place for a boy your age to be sitting alone. I’m going stay with you until your mom gets here.’’
For the next 20 or 30 minutes, Robinson chatted with the awestruck kid from Boynton Beach.
“He was as sweet as he could be,’’ DiPace recalled. “He asked me how well I loved baseball. Why do I love being at the ballpark? Why do I love taking photographs?”
As they waited, Robinson signed an autograph for DiPace, scrawling his signature on a colorful magazine photo.
“Eventually my mom showed up. We shook hands and said goodbye and I thanked him for hanging out with me.’’
For a long time, DiPace enjoyed bragging to his envious friends about the time he hung out with the great Brooks Robinson after a spring training game. But as he grew up and began his career as a photojournalist, the encounter faded into the recesses of his memory.
Over 40 years, DiPace has captured the action at 29 Super Bowls, 10 World Series, and many All Star Games and NBA Finals. His photographs have been published in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites.
He developed a reputation as a photographer players could trust. Friendships formed with stars like Willie Stargell, Gary Carter, Tim Raines and Aaron Judge, among others.
In July 1991, DiPace was at Toronto Pearson International Airport waiting to board his flight home after covering baseball’s All-Star game. Stargell, a retired slugger and former Braves coach, was sitting at a high-top table and called DiPace over to join him.
“Next thing you know, Johnny Bench walks over and then Bob Costas and Brooks Robinson,’’ DiPace recalled. ‘’I remember sitting there: This is so surreal. Here I am hanging out with these giants of the game and who am I? Just some photographer.’’
After a few minutes, the mortal photographer realized he had a story to share with his idols. He spoke up and told the group about the day in 1972 when Robinson, who won 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards during his career, made a memorable defensive play off the field when he kept an 11-year-old boy company outside the West Palm Beach ballpark.
When he finished, he said, Robinson looked at him with a big grin.
“Golly, I remember that and I remember you! You are definitely all grown up now!’’’ Robinson said according to DiPace.
“I said, ‘But I will never forget that.’ Then Johnny Bench starts ribbing him, ‘Oh, Brooks, you sweetheart, you little softie.’’’
OVER THE PAST 30 years of taking photographs and raising a family, DiPace had rarely if ever thought about his 1972 encounter with Robinson. That changed this week.
A day or two after Robinson died on Tuesday, DiPace, 62, got to wondering if he’d ever taken the Hall of Famer’s photograph.
He dug out his childhood scrapbooks at his home west of Lake Worth Beach and was pleasantly surprised to find both the photograph he took in 1972 and the magazine photo that Robinson autographed.
And then the floodgates opened again, taking DiPace back 51 years to the time Robinson waited with him for his tardy mother to arrive.
DiPace shared the photos and story on a Facebook post.
“It’s just such a special memory for me to know that he cared enough to wait until my mom arrived. It made such an impact on me!’’ DiPace wrote.
“Brooks Robinson, is one of the greatest players to play the game of baseball and from my point of view (and many others) he was one great human being!’’
DiPace grew up a rabid baseball fan, bitten by the 1969 Miracle Mets. His photojournalism career would take him onto the same fields — even West Palm Beach's old Municipal Stadium — as many of the players he idolized as a kid.
As he reflected this week on his 1972 hang-out with Robinson, he realized a new appreciation for how the encounter impacted his career as a photojournalist.
“As a professional you can't be, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m interviewing Pete Rose!’ You’ve got to have professionalism,’’ he said. “I lost the enamorment slowly.’’
His encounter as an 11-year-old with Orioles All-Star Brooks Robinson probably helped him lose that enamorment, he said.
“I always remember how Brooks Robinson took the time to pay attention to me as a child,” he said.
“Brooks would be the first person to really enlighten me that (star athletes) are just people, too,’’ he said. “They are ballplayers. We idolize them. It’s human nature. But what it did for me at a very, very early age, and it really pounded into me later in life with (his friendship with) Gary Carter, was just the humility, that they’re people, too.’’
It also gave DiPace an appreciation for the professional friendships he has developed with athletes over his career.
“We’re friends. We care about families, we care about life and I believe it all started right there with Brooks Robinson,’’ he said.
© 2023 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach who interviewed Brooks Robinson in 2011. Joe spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.