In the 1944 Negro Baseball Pictorial and Year Book, Cumberland Posey gives his all-time team (“Posey Picks Immortals,” p. 8). His three outfielders are no surprise: Pete Hill, Oscar Charleston, and Cristóbal Torriente (he calls him “Carlos Torrienti,” and says he was the “greatest of the selected three”). But he also comments that he picks those outfielders “[w]ith regret, that Brooks of the old Brooklyn Royal Giants must not be included.”
This would be the player usually known as Chester Brooks. Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia says he was from Nassau in the Bahamas, and he has gotten some attention from Negro League historians—he was nominated during the recent Hall of Fame process, though he did not make the final short list of 39.
But there does appear to be a little confusion surrounding Brooks. Riley gives his name as “Chester (Irvin) Brooks.” He also has another entry on “Beattie Brooks,” in which he says, “It is believed by some that this is the same player as Chester Brooks”:
Beattie Brooks, 2b, ss, c
Philadelphia Giants 1918
Brooklyn Royal Giants 1918-1919
Lincoln Giants (n.d.)
Chester (Irvin) Brooks, cf, rf, 2b, p
Brooklyn Royal Giants 1918-1933
I haven’t yet formed an opinion on Beattie Brooks, and whether or not there were two players named Brooks playing for the Royal Giants in the late 1910s. I’ve found a couple of black men of that name who would be about the right age (one was really named Bates Brooks, but shows up as “Beattie” in the 1900 census), but I can’t link either to baseball or to any location associated with Beattie or Chester/Irvin.
However, on the question of the longtime outfielder for the Royal Giants, the one Posey was talking about, I can say this: I have only seen references to him as Irving or Irvin Brooks. For example, here’s Lloyd P. Thompson in the Philadelphia Tribune (10 May 1924; my copy is not clear enough to scan in):
“When Irving Brooks was forced out of the Brooklyn Royal Giants’ lineup, one of the best all around men in the game had hung his harp on the willow [;] beside having the distinction of playing every position on the club, Brooks is one of the most dangerous sticksmiths in baseball. A few blows from Brooks might land the Royals up higher than third station where they finished last season, who can tell? At any rate the ever-ready Irving is back on the job announcing that he will stack his under-pinnings against any pair in captivity and capering with reckless abandon around the Eastern Circuit.”
There are a number of references to Irvin[g] Brooks, dating from 1920 to 1928, in several different newspapers: Pittsburgh Courier (23 February 1924); New York Age (18 July 1925); Chicago Defender (24 April 1926); Pittsburgh Courier (26 May 1928). And these are just the ones I’ve been able to find in the past day or two. So far I’ve seen zero references to Chester Brooks. I’m not saying definitely that there aren’t any, but it would be very interesting to know where the name comes from.
Riley also says this: “A Nassauan, one source indicates that he began his career as a pitcher and was discovered by Rube Foster in the Florida Keys in 1917.”
When tracking the travels of the Royal Giants through upstate New York in 1920, I found the following in the Oneonta (N.Y.) Daily Star (16 August 1920):
That would be two sources linking Brooks to the Florida Keys. And there does happen to be one African-American man by the name of Irvin Woodberry Brooks who was born in Key West, Florida, at about the right time (June 5, 1891; I have seen a reference from 1928, though I haven’t been able to put my hands on it, to Brooks being considered rather old at that time). He died in New York City February 4, 1966; a Navy veteran, he’s buried at Long Island National Cemetery.
I can’t definitely say this is Brooks of the Royal Giants, though he’s obviously a very good candidate. The records I’ve found include a World War II draft card (but not a World I card, as he was evidently already in the military) and an entry in the U.S. Veterans’ Gravesites DB. Like the ballplayer, Irvin Woodberry Brooks was from Key West, and moved to New York (he was living there by 1942). I have not, however, been able to find him (for sure, anyway) in the census for 1920 or 1930; this could be crucial, as he would likely have described himself as a professional ballplayer in at least one of those years.
An obvious complication is that Irvin Woodberry Brooks seems to have been in the Navy in 1917-18, about when Brooks’s career was supposed to have been getting started. Of course, this could be explained if Beattie (or Bates) Brooks really was a player at that time, or perhaps Irvin Brooks was on leave (just as Bullet Rogan was in the first half of 1917, when he played for the Los Angeles White Sox and the All-Nations). Besides, I don’t know for sure he was in the Navy then (I don’t know when he left the service); it’s just that there is no draft card, which probably indicates he still had a military affiliation.
What about the West Indian connection? If Irvin Woodberry Brooks is the right guy, he was evidently not from the Bahamas, and neither were his parents, at least according to the census. I was able to find the family in Key West in both the 1880 and 1900 census. His father’s name was also Irvin Brooks, and he was listed in 1880 as 29, born in Florida, and a sailor. He had apparently passed away by 1900, when the family was headed by the mother, Elizabeth Brooks (also born in Florida). One interesting point is that Key West was home to a large Caribbean immigrant community, many of them cigarmakers (like Juan Padrón’s family). Though most were Cubans, there were also some Bahamians. In fact, living next door to the Brooks family in 1900 was a certain Samuel Brooks (perhaps a relative), who had a lodger named William Young, a cigarmaker from the Bahamas. So it would not be outlandish for Irvin Brooks to have had a West Indian connection of some sort, especially given that his father was a sailor.
Again, I wouldn’t say for sure that Irvin Woodberry Brooks is Brooks of the Royal Giants; but it seems like a decent hypothesis.
UPDATE 1/30/2008 I have since found a number of mentions of “Irving Brooks” (with the “g”) in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1923 and 1924, including an article by Brooks himself (February 22, 1924), in which he discusses the Royal Giants’ signing of Cyclone Joe Williams, as well as his own broken leg (suffered in August 1923). No sign of Chester Brooks yet.