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Robin The Bat-man

Yount Was a Boy Wonder During His Valley Days, and He Continued to Star for 20 Years With Brewers

July 23, 1999|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the summer of 1956, Phil Yount was living on a farm in Covington, Ind., with his wife and three young sons when an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune caught his attention.

Rocketdyne was hiring workers to test rocket engines at its field lab in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. The Cold War was heating up, the space race was about to begin and Yount was an engineer working at a plant north of Terre Haute that made heavy water for the hydrogen bomb.

He was interested in moving his family to Southern California, and Rocketdyne presented the perfect opportunity. Little did he know the impact his decision would have on his youngest child, 11-month-old Robin.

"At the time, baseball wasn't one of the main reasons for doing it," Phil said of the move.

Soon, the family was living in Woodland Hills and making the neighborhood Little League their second home. No one benefited more from the sunny weather and year-round sports than Robin, who became so good in baseball he'd play in the major leagues at 18 and end up in the Hall of Fame.

"I'm probably more surprised than a lot of people," Robin said. "It is the last thing I ever considered."

For a father who helped build powerful rocket engines and was privy to his share of national secrets, Phil Yount said there is no mystery to having a son reach the Hall of Fame.

"You put him on the field and turn him loose," he said. "They have to enjoy it. They're putting the effort in. It had never been an objective to be an all-star or whatever. The objective was trying to have him play his best. He was quite capable of doing it himself. He didn't need any help."

On the eve of Robin Yount's induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., to honor his 20-year career with the Milwaukee Brewers, friends, family members and former coaches and teammates all say Yount's days growing up in the San Fernando Valley helped mold his character.

He grew up during an era when urban sprawl had not yet reached his quiet neighborhood. Yount could ride his bicycle for hours without encountering a car. He could go horseback riding at a neighbor's house. He could explore the nearby hills with a bow and arrow, hunting for rabbits.

"I think we probably got the lizard and not the rabbit," best friend Steve Whitehead said.

Unassuming, rarely boastful and fun-seeking, Yount loved baseball but refused to sacrifice other childhood activities.

During spring break in 1973, "The Waltons" and "Hawaii Five-0" were popular TV programs, "High Plains Drifter," starring Clint Eastwood, had just been released, Levi's jeans cost $12 a pair, a dozen eggs went for 59 cents and the 17-year-old senior shortstop for Taft High was making plans for a ski trip.

Ray O'Connor, Taft's baseball coach, pleaded with Yount not to go skiing for fear of injury, even telling Yount's mother, Marion, to hide his skis.

"This is your last year," O'Connor said. "You've got scouts looking at you. An injury could cost you a lot of money."

Yount ignored the warning, went skiing and had no regrets.

"There were certain things I grew up doing since I was young and was never willing to give up--riding motorcycles, sports car racing, skiing," Yount said. "My attitude has always been things usually happen for a reason. You could get hurt taking a stroll down the street."

Whitehead said fearlessness was part of Yount's personality, whether diving for a line drive or racing a motorcycle down a steep hill.

"He had unbelievable courage," Whitehead said. "After the start of this [motorcycle] race, there was a big drop-off. He didn't slow down. He was like Evel Knievel going through the air."

The Yount family home, with its swimming pool and large backyard, was a mecca for sports activities.

Robin created his own 18-hole golf course with cans, holes and water hazards. He designed his own baseball field, where a ball hit over a tree branch was a home run and a ball hit under the branch was a double. He'd spend hours making diving catches in the pool with friends as they imagined playing in the seventh game of the World Series.

"We'd play 18 holes, then we'd pitch, then throw little tiny golf balls at each other," Whitehead said. "We had sawed-off bats and played nine innings. Then we'd go off and play at Sunrise Little League."

The Younts lived down the street from Woodland Hills Country Club. Robin and Whitehead sneaked onto the golf course so often people thought they were regulars. When Robin was 16, he made his first hole in one--unofficially.

It came on No. 6 at Woodland Hills. A group of women golfers saw it happen and wanted to publicize the feat. But Robin chose to remain anonymous, considering he wasn't supposed to be on the course.

"They started hollering, 'Let us know who you are so we can get your name in the paper,' " Robin said. "We said, 'It's OK ladies, it happens all the time. We'll keep going.' It took me 20 years later, but I made another hole in one."

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