#CardCorner: 1990 Fleer Tom Brookens
Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.
To be quite honest, I didn’t care too much about Tom Brookens for most of his major league career.
He was a utility player and sometime starting third baseman for the Detroit Tigers, a guy who didn’t hit very much. Then in the spring of 1989, the New York Yankees acquired Brookens in a trade. Being a fan of the Bronx Bombers, I developed a sudden interest in Brookens. He played for one season with the Yankees and didn’t play particularly well, resulting in his release that winter. Once again, I lost interest in his career. I know that sounds bad, but as fans we can be pretty callous about players, especially when they struggle for our team.
I forgot about Brookens for many years, until 2006. That’s when I had a chance to meet him for the first time. Long since retired as a player, Brookens was now managing the Oneonta Tigers, Detroit’s affiliate in the New York-Penn League. Oneonta is located only 22 miles from Cooperstown, so this gave me the perfect chance to interview him for a book about unusual characters, which included a chapter on his former Tigers teammate, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
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Prior to the interview, I asked John Horne, who works in the Hall of Fame’s photo department and served as the public address announcer for the O-Tigers at the time, what Brookens was like. John absolutely raved about Brookens, telling me that he was knowledgeable and hardworking, along with being cordial and willing to talk. John told me that Brookens would be great to interview.
I was not disappointed. Not only did Brookens provide me with useful and specific information about Fidrych, but he also came across as thoroughly organized and prepared, while still maintaining a down-to-earth quality. I could tell that Brookens just liked to talk baseball. Just that quickly, I became a fan of Tom Brookens.
As a manager and coach, Brookens moved up quickly through the Tigers system. Others took notice of him, just like John and I did. One of his biggest fans was Oneonta owner Sam Nader. “He can identify with the kids,” Nader told the Oneonta Star. “He’s a winner and wants to win. He has a theory that you can develop and win, and that’s my philosophy.”
Brookens certainly did win, including stints with Class A West Michigan and Double-A Erie, taking 54 percent of his games as a minor league manager. His achievements included a division title and a Midwest League championship. In 2007, Baseball America voted him the top managing prospect in the Midwest League. On the one hand, Brookens developed positive relationships with his players, but he also had a fiery streak that made it clear he would not tolerate a lack of hustle from his players or a lack of competency from the umpires. He seemed like a can’t-miss managerial prospect.
After the 2009 season, the Tigers promoted Brookens to their major league coaching staff, where he worked as Jim Leyland’s first base coach. The hiring of Brookens led to speculation that Brookens might be in line to replace Leyland whenever he decided to retire.
For some reason, that never happened. The Tigers bypassed Brookens, instead giving the job to Brad Ausmus when Leyland left the bench following the 2013 season. Not only that, but the Tigers released Brookens from his coaching contract. Rather than continue his career back in the minor leagues, Brookens decided to retire. He would never manage the Tigers, and never manage any major league team. As a fan of Brookens, I felt disappointed that he never received the chance. If there was a guy who deserved the opportunity to manage at the highest level, it was Brookens.
Knowing what I now know about a good man like Brookens, I look back at his baseball cards far more fondly. One of my favorites in the group is this one: The 1990 card issued by Fleer. One of the last cards issued for Brookens, it’s an action shot that shows him playing his best position, third base. As always, Brookens appears to be on his toes, his eyes glaring toward home plate. He looks ready and prepared for the ball to be hit to him, which was typical of his approach to the game.
The card also gives us a look at Brookens’ trademark mustache. Fully formed above his lip, that mustache makes Brookens look like a throwback to one of those tough, hell-bent-for-leather ballplayers from the 19th century. Like those old-time players, Brookens would have been comfortable playing without a helmet or even without a glove. He was a gamer, a player who simply outworked many of his contemporaries.
Brookens had to play the game in such a way, tough and all-out. That’s because he lacked the natural talent of many other ballplayers of his era. He did not have a smooth swing, possessed little power, and had only average speed. In the absence of superior skills, Brookens compensated with an extraordinary work ethic and a high level of intelligence. Those qualities allowed him to last a dozen seasons in the big leagues, which is far longer than many players of similarly modest talents.
As it turned out, Brookens played about as well as the rest of the 1989 Yankees, which is to say that he struggled mightily. He batted .226 (his lowest average in six seasons), posted a career low on-base percentage of .274 and stole one base in four attempts. Even Brookens’ steady defensive hand fell by the wayside, as he committed seven errors in only 51 games at third base. Brookens’ performance so disappointed the Yankees that they released him in November. From there, Brookens signed a free agent contract with the Cleveland Indians, who used him as a utility player. He played better for the Indians than the Yankees, but Cleveland still allowed him to become a free agent at the end of 1990.
By now Brookens was 36 years old. Given his age and the perception that he was merely a utility infielder, he found the free agent market soft. Brookens opted to retire.
Now that his coaching and managing days are also done, Brookens is fully retired from the game to which he has contributed so much. But he did receive one last hurrah this past winter, when Leyland offered him a coaching position for the USA team in the World Baseball Classic. Brookens, a longtime friend of Leyland, gladly accepted the offer. Team USA won the WBC, giving Brookens a fitting sendoff.
That only seems fair. Tom Brookens, a good man who has given his life to baseball, deserves to leave the game while he’s on top.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum