Ken Hubbs played for the Chicago Cubs from 1961 until he died in an airplane crash in 1964.
Hubbs’ career in Major League Baseball was short, but his influence was long because of an act of kindness to a little boy.
Robert Brinton would have been 9 or possibly 10 when he hung around Rendezvous Park and watched the second baseman practice.
By one account Hubbs was in his rookie season when he noticed the boy watching him through the fence. He went over and talked to the boy and signed his autograph, and from that day forward the boy idolized the player and the game and the Cubs.
The boy would grow up to serve two terms as president of the Cactus League Association and become known for his role in mobilizing Arizona two decades ago to keep the league from collapsing and the teams from relocating to Florida.
And he was the man to whom the city of Mesa turned to help negotiate an agreement reached days ago on a new stadium in west Mesa for the Cubs, and to work with as many as five other Cactus League teams over the possibility of their making Hohokam Stadium their new home.
• • •
I stood in Brinton’s office Monday afternoon and pondered a whimsical Chicago Cubs teddy bear.
Only a couple of hours earlier, Mesa Historical Museum director Lisa Anderson had told me about Brinton’s fascination with vintage Major League baseball toys, particularly those connected to his beloved Cubs.
A collector of baseball memorabilia, Brinton had donated many of his antique toys to the museum’s growing Cactus League collection.
It’s funny, but in the recent past I had sat on the chair in front of Brinton’s desk at the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau asking for his thoughts on the museum’s future and how it could support the community. But I hadn’t noticed the teddy bear.
Maybe it just got lost among all the autographed baseball bats and balls, posters and photographs of people like Harry Caray that hung on the walls and were resting in the corners and on every surface in Brinton’s office.
Or maybe it was in some ways like Robert — a quiet listener who blended so well into the community’s tapestry that he was easy to overlook.
It is my loss that I overlooked Robert during the many years that I edited the Tribune. It is my loss that at the time I hadn’t made the effort to understand his contributions to the community and his role in keeping the Cactus League from collapsing in a flight to Florida two decades ago. It is my loss that I waited so long to seek his counsel.
It wasn’t until I had retired and had time to fall in love with the lower Salt River Valley on Mesa’s northeast doorstep that I sought Brinton out.
I approached him outside Mesa City Council chambers with the idea that the city needed to do more to market Mesa as the gateway to recreational opportunities of a flowing oasis in the desert.
“I know who you are,” he said, interrupting my introduction in what I took as a mild it’s-about-time-that-you-introduced-yourself rebuke.
It wasn’t the beginning I had expected and it didn’t get better as he told me in so many words that there are many good ideas, but few people willing to work hard enough to make them happen.
Soon afterwards we were colleagues on the board of the Mesa Historical Society and involved in a brainstorming session on what contributions to the community the museum could make in addition to its Cactus League exhibits.
Brinton’s thoughts led us to focus on the history of aviation in Mesa. That led to an exhibit that I researched and wrote for on the role the city played in bringing two combat pilot training fields to town shortly before World War II. It led to a commemoration ceremony to recognize how important those fields have become to Mesa’s economy. And it led to more than a yearlong city celebration called Mesa Takes Flight.
Sometime in mid-summer he paid me a compliment on the work I had done on the ceremony and exhibit. I hadn’t just talked; I had made something happen — and I had a new friend.
• • •
The Mesa Historical Museum’s Lisa Anderson remembers “when I came to him four and a half years ago, and I had the idea of doing a spring training program.”
“What do you think?” Anderson asked Brinton.
“He sat and looked at me, a big smile came on his face and he just said, ‘That’s my life-long dream. I’ve always wanted to have a Cactus League museum. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’
“From the very beginning he was the heart of the project. He supported it in so many ways.
“Through the fact that he is so important in the community, he was able to create enthusiasm and build partnerships. He brought us the connections we needed to get started.
“He contributed a great deal of his own memorabilia to get the collection of the ground. I would get a call from him a couple of times a month and he would be so excited because he found a new item for the collection. It was always like Christmas.
“He grew up with his dad (Dilworth Brinton) working side by side with Dwight Patterson in getting the Cubs to come to Mesa. His dad was a founding member of the HoHoKams.”
That civic organization was instrumental in the Cubs’ decision to locate in Mesa, and it continues to support the Cubs by providing volunteers for parking and other services.
“Above all, he loved his community. He was so pleased to bring his two loves — baseball and his community — together. I think he should be called the second father of spring baseball. He was the heart of Mesa in so many ways.”
• • •
Last Friday evening, Lisa Anderson and several other museum volunteers stood on North McDonald in downtown Mesa glancing anxiously up the street.
Any minute we knew we would see Robert lumbering toward us.
The museum hosts a history and ghost tour every October, and Robert had volunteered to lead one of the tour groups on a taxing two-hour trek through downtown streets and buildings.
No matter that he had had a busy week marketing Hohokam Stadium to Cactus League teams. No matter that his week began with the city’s approving an agreement to build a new stadium for the Cubs. No matter that a hip replacement had affected his gait and perhaps made walking painful. (He never complained.) When word reached us that Robert Brinton, at the age of 60, had died at his office that afternoon, Lisa burst into tears in front of her tour group and my knees went weak and I couldn’t help but think:
What will the museum do without Robert? What will the city do without Robert?
• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org