The blog is supposed to be on hiatus, but this is too good to keep under wraps. As you know if you’ve been following the comments to the entries on Irvin Brooks (here and here), a couple of Brooks’s relatives—Mike Nealy and Liz Heath—have been in touch. Mike has shared some fantastic photos and newspaper clippings, as well as Brooks’s military records. There’s certainly no doubt left that Irvin Woodberry Brooks is the well-known Royal Giants’ outfielder, the one Posey was talking about in the 1944 Negro Baseball Year Book. Plus we now know a great deal about his family history in Key West, extending well back into the nineteenth century.
As Mike has already commented, Irvin was actually in the Navy from 1909 through 1917 (he was discharged in 1913, then reenlisted later in the year), and was assigned to ships based at Key West, where he anchored the naval station’s baseball team—and where, possibly, Rube Foster discovered him in 1917.
A couple of unresolved questions remain:
1) Where did the name “Chester” come from? We know now that his legal name was Irvin Woodberry Brooks, and that his family only knew him under that name; in addition, though I’ve hardly been able to read every single contemporary source, I’ve only ever seen the name “Irvin” or “Irving” Brooks in the 1920s press. If anybody knows the source of the Chester Brooks name, post a comment, or email me.
2) It seems certain that Irvin Brooks was born in Key West, as was his father, and that his mother was born in the United States. So why was “Chester” Brooks supposed to have been from Nassau in the Bahamas (as Riley has it)? That idea, like the name Chester, goes back at least as far as Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball Was White (which, incidentally, lists Irvin Brooks and Chester Brooks as different people). One answer is that the Brooks family in Key West lived among and sometimes with many Bahamian immigrants; Irvin’s father, also named Irvin, appears in the 1870 census at the age of 17 living with a Bahamian fisherman named Joseph Curry. It’s also the case that the elder Irvin Brooks’s parentage remains obscure (though we think we know the identity of his grandmother), so Irvin Brooks the ballplayer could be the grandson of a West Indian immigrant.
Mike Nealy has graciously sent me these photos of Irvin Brooks to post:
If you magnify this last one, you can see the “B” on his cap and the ends of the words “Royal Giants” on his sleeve, meaning he is posing as a right-handed batter, confirming Robert Peterson’s statement about “Chester” Brooks in Only the Ball Was White (p. 245).
And here is an article on Irvin’s passing published in the Key West Star in 1966. I don’t know whether “Brooks’ Giants” is just a misunderstanding of “Brooklyn Royal Giants,” or whether Brooks really did lead a traveling team bearing his own name at some point.