Adventures in Baseball Archeology: the Negro Leagues, Latin American baseball, J-ball, the minors, the 19th century, and other hidden, overlooked, or unknown corners of baseball history...with occasional forays into other sports.
I had long ago (more than a year, in fact) promised to post an article from the Baltimore Afro-American authored by the Brooklyn Royal Giants’ greatIrvin Brooks—the player who has mistakenly been called Chester Brooks in most histories and reference books. I’ve finally managed to dig it up from my files, so here it is.
I recently ran across the following note in a column called “Tavern Topics” in the New York Amsterdam News (October 17, 1942):
For several of these players (Williams and Thomas in particular) their careers as bartenders/raconteurs are well-known; some of the others I (at least) hadn’t heard of before. As it happens, men over 45 had just registered for the draft a few months earlier (April 1942), so you can see their places of employment. Here are Joe Williams and Clint Thomas:
Oscar Levis was not old enough to be part of this particular draft registration phase (the only one from World War II that has been made public so far). I don’t know who John Crain is. Brooks, of course, could be Irvin Brooks, though there was also the catcher Ameal Brooks (John Beckwith’s half-brother), who lived in New York at the time. Here is Irvin’s draft card again:
I was able to find this ad in the Amsterdam News (August 9, 1941), announcing the Harlem Moon Bar and Grill’s grand opening, and giving the name of Irvin Brooks’s employer, Eugene Prince, as one of the bar’s proprietors:
But the most interesting find here (to me, anyway) is “Knux” James, a well-known infielder from the 1900s and 1910s whom I hadn’t pinned down in any records. In Riley he is listed as “W. “Nux” or “Gus” James; the nickname is also sometimes rendered as “Knucks” (it pretty obviously comes from “Knuckles,” though I haven’t yet found an origin story for it). Here’s another Tavern Topics item about the Orange Blossom Bar and Grill, again from the Amsterdam News (March 14, 1942):
And here is the draft card for one William James, employed by Edward Crolley at 570 Lenox Ave:
Here’s his World War I card:
UPDATE 4/4/2009 Back when I first wrote this I should have linked to this post on Williams’s post-baseball career by Mark Gretchen at his Smokey Joe Williams blog. It includes a photo showing the Cornell Bar at 547 Lenox Avenue in about 1940 (as well as one showing the building in 2007).
I had been looking for sources that named Irvin Brooks as “West Indian.” Courtesy of Paul Wendt, here is Cumberland Posey, writing about Brooks in the Pittsburgh Courier (April 3, 1943):
Brooks, you’ll remember, was not literally “West Indian”—he was born in the United States, and so were his parents, as far as we can tell; but he and his family lived among (and sometimes with) Caribbean immigrants in Key West, and he could well have had more substantial connections to the Bahamas of one sort or another.
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.
Check out the comments to the entry on Irvin Brooks, where Brooks’s great-great-niece (if that’s the correct term; that is, the great-granddaughter of his sister) has written in to tell us what she knows of him. I thought I’d go ahead and post what other information I have relating to him.
Here is his draft card from 1942:
This is his record in the U.S. Veterans’ Gravesites database:
Irvin Woodberry Brooks Born 5 June 1891 Served in the U.S. Navy starting 19 October 1913 Died 4 February 1966 Buried Long Island National Cemetery.
I still need to dig up the article “Irving” Brooks wrote about the Royal Giants for the Baltimore Afro-American in 1924; I should be able to post it in the next couple of days.
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.