The Crookston chapter of the life of Chet Brewer, one of baseball's unsung greats

Jacob Shames
Chet Brewer, a Negro League pitcher for nearly 30 seasons, pitched for the Crookston Red Sox in 1931.

It was supposed to be the biggest crowd of the year at Highland Park. For good reason.

On July 21, 1932, the barnstorming Kansas City Monarchs, perhaps the most famous Negro League team of all time, arrived in Crookston to take on the local baseball team, the Red Sox. The Monarchs were accustomed to drawing large crowds: fans wanted to get a glimpse of the team’s portable lightning system and experience night baseball, barely a decade old at the time. They wanted to watch some of the greatest talent baseball had ever seen, like Cool Papa Bell, Bullet Rogan and Newt Allen.

But Crookstonites had flocked to see one Monarch in particular.

The summer prior, a 24-year-old right-hander named Chet Brewer had played for the Red Sox and delivered one of the finest pitching seasons Crookston had ever seen. On this day, he was back with the Monarchs, the team he had played for from 1925 to 1930, and for the first time since that dominant summer, back in the town that had fallen in love with him.

Brewer spent the day catching up with old acquaintances before taking the mound in front of a crowd just as huge as projected. He didn’t disappoint. In seven innings of work, he didn’t allow a single hit, and the Monarchs rolled to an 8-0 win.

Brewer’s playing career was impressive, lengthy and yet unsung. It spanned nearly 30 years, taking him to over 30 teams in 10 countries and 44 states. And while pitchers such as Rogan and Satchel Paige overshadowed him for the bulk of his career, the Center for Negro League Baseball Research estimates that Brewer may have won over 500 games.

Just how did one of the best pitchers of his era end up in Crookston in the first place?

Black baseball in Minnesota

In late 1930, only one year after going 66-17 and winning a fourth Negro National League pennant, the Monarchs were in disarray.

The Great Depression weighed heavily on professional sports, and Negro League baseball felt its pressure more than most. Its existence was always precarious, and the stock market crash only compounded rampant financial insecurity, team instability and scheduling problems. Individual teams fared little better. That fall, the Monarchs were forced to drop out of the league entirely.

With the Monarchs playing an independent schedule and set for a late start to the 1931 season, many of their best players went their separate ways. Allen joined the St. Louis Stars. William Bell, Frank Duncan and L.D. Livingston headed east to play for the independent New York Harlem Stars. Brewer took a different route entirely.

To this day, the upper Midwest is one of the most predominantly white parts of the United States, and was no less white a century ago. The overt racism of the South was mostly absent, replaced by a more inconspicuous variety. According to sociologist James Loewen, it’s possible that Minnesota had, at one time or another, over 20 “sundown towns” — towns where Blacks were outright instructed, or strongly encouraged, to leave before nightfall. While signs weren’t always posted, the Monarchs knew where they were or weren’t welcome when they traveled through the Midwest.

In some towns, though, Blacks were embraced for their baseball ability. In the ultra-competitive Minnesota town team landscape of the 1920s, teams would sign what was known as a “Black battery”: a Black pitcher and a catcher on an all-white team, such as Little Falls’ duo of Webster McDonald and Sylvester Foreman, who led the team to a 64-8 record between 1928 and 1931. John Donaldson, who won more than 400 games in his career, pitched for seven different Minnesota teams in the late 1920s — a 1928 letter to the editor in a Melrose newspaper remarked that two-thirds of the crowd at one game came solely to see him play.

Brewer was attempting to make his mark just as they had.

From Leavenworth to Des Moines to Kansas City

Chester Arthur Brewer was born on January 14, 1907 in Leavenworth, Kan, the son of a Methodist minister. When Brewer was about eight years old, he and his father moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to join his uncle. There, he attended mixed schools and lived in a relatively integrated neighborhood, the opposite of his situation in Kansas.

In Des Moines, Brewer became a standout athlete, shining on the diamond in particular. He ultimately grew to an imposing 6-foot-4, with a fastball that moved, a curveball that swept and a “scuffed,” or emery ball (which was legal at the time), and combined his velocity with excellent control. This was in spite of the effects of a devastating childhood incident: while still in Leavenworth, Brewer got too close to a trolley car, which ran over his right foot and sliced off three of his toes.

“He somehow managed to get it to not affect his play,” said Phil Dixon, a Negro Leagues historian and author. “But he was essentially pitching with a handicap. … Somehow, he just figured out a way and worked through it.”

At the age of 15, Brewer began playing for Black semi-pro teams, first joining Brown’s Tennessee Rats and later joining the Gilkerson Union Giants, a barnstorming team based in Illinois. There, he caught the eye of Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson, who signed him to a contract in 1925.

After rookie pains that year, Brewer wasted no time establishing himself as one of the Negro National League’s most formidable hurlers. He joined the starting rotation in 1926, going 13-2 as a teenager, and was a mainstay there for the next four seasons. In 1929, his best season, he went 17-3, allowing 104 hits in 149 innings and recording a 1.93 earned-run average.

It isn't known why Brewer decided to play in Crookston specifically. But when the Red Sox signed him and Johnny Vann, a journeyman catcher from Frankfort, Kan., for the 1931 season, there was little doubt that he had what it took to succeed in northwest Minnesota, both on and off the field.

“He thought the experience he had in Des Moines prepared him better than what happened in Kansas for how to deal in society,” Dixon said. “He knew how to work with white and Black people very well. He had very few limitations. Him coming (to Crookston), that’s not a problem.”

A spectacular summer

Brewer and Vann arrived in Crookston on May 20 for the first practice, and manager Walter Kiesling immediately announced them as the opening day battery. On May 24, a Sunday afternoon, fans packed the new grandstand and bleachers at Highland Park to watch the Red Sox battle Pelican Rapids. Brewer went the distance, striking out four and giving up seven hits, as Crookston won 9-3.

Only one week later, in his second start, Brewer gave the Crookston fans the highlight of the season.

Donaldson and the barnstorming Colored House of David came to Crookston for a weekend two-game affair on May 30 and May 31. Sunday’s game was billed as the marquee, with Brewer and Donaldson — who, at 40 years old, “still (had) the necessary steam” per the Crookston Times — squaring off. It lived up to the hype. Brewer and Donaldson “had everything to their liking and had the powerful sluggers of each team at their mercy” through 12 hard-fought innings, which only ended then in a 1-1 tie due to the Sunday baseball law.

Brewer gave up a hit and a walk in the first inning, and then didn’t allow a baserunner until the seventh, when the House of David got on the scoreboard. But he took it upon himself to ensure his pitching effort wouldn’t be wasted. Only ever an average hitter, Brewer fouled off three pitches from Donaldson before he “slashed a terrific drive” to right field, which rolled under the scoreboard. As the ball ended up well over 300 feet from the plate, it was ruled a home run.

In the ninth inning, Brewer led off with a single, then stole second. With two outs, shortstop Joe Bach singled to left field, and Brewer rounded third for home. As the Times reported, the throw beat him easily, but Brewer somehow hurdled the catcher to avoid being tagged. However, he leaped so far he overshot home plate entirely, and was tagged out.

When it was all said and done, Donaldson had given up nine hits, striking out nine. Brewer struck out just five, but allowed only four hits.

At no point during the summer of 1931 were the semi-pro hitters of the upper Midwest any sort of match for Brewer. On June 15, he threw a no-hitter against Detroit Lakes, striking out nine. On August 2, he struck out eight in a two-hit shutout of Winnipeg. Brewer struck out eight batters in a two-hit shutout in Winnipeg the next day. He fanned 15 Jamestown Jimmies one week later. On August 16, Brewer allowed just six hits and struck out 11, squashing a ninth-inning Little Falls rally to win, 3-2.

If the 1931 Crookston Red Sox had a significant flaw, it was their defense. Newspaper reports credit the Red Sox fielders with multiple errors in just about every contest. Brewer was let down as a result on more than one occassion, most notably on July 19 when his old team, the Monarchs, came to town. He allowed just six hits to his old teammates, but the Monarchs took advantage of nine Crookston errors to leave with a 6-0 win.

Still, on August 1, the Times wrote “it is generally conceded that no club in the Northwest has a battery superior to Chet Brewer and John Van (sic), whose spectacular work has brought the fans flocking to Crookston games all summer.”

The day after the Little Falls contest, the Red Sox held a season-ending banquet in the Eagles Hall. Per the Times, Brewer gave a speech in which he “discussed baseball in general” before easily being voted as team MVP, winning a watch from Johnson Jewelry. Vann, who had hit .280 in addition to his work handling Brewer, received a pipe set from Schrieter’s drug store. Finally, Brewer was presented with a chocolate cake, after expressing a desire for one after beating Little Falls, and most notably, the key to the city.

After striking out seven in a 6-1 win over Chip’s All Stars the next day, Brewer gave a farewell address of sorts to Crookston.

“It seems to be the popular conception of baseball fans that Crookston had a two-man team,” he was quoted as saying by the Times. “But two men could not win 19 out of 20 games. Those who witnessed the Little Falls-Crookston contest Sunday should be convinced that it takes nine good players to make a ball club. The Red Sox had been just that and no less.

“I have been praised for my work, but I feel that my success was due largely to the fine assistance of my battery mate, John Van, and my team mates, who were with me all the way through. I want the fans to know that I truly have appreciated their moral support and it is my desire to return next year.”

The Center for Negro League Baseball Research puts Brewer’s record at 10-1-1. Crookston Times accounts, while missing a stretch of games in July, give Crookston a 17-6 record for the season. Brewer started 15 of those contests, pitching a complete game in all of them. He struck out 94 batters and allowed just 71 hits in 142 innings, with an earned-run average likely below 2.00.

Years later, per the CNLBR, Brewer looked back on Crookston as “one of the most pleasurable experiences of his lifetime.”

After Crookston

Per the CNLBR, the Red Sox owners offered Brewer a contract as player-manager for the 1932 season. While Brewer considered the offer, he ultimately declined, choosing to go on the road with the Monarchs instead. But his presence on the roster ensured that the team would always draw in Crookston, and the Monarchs eventually made it a regular stop: they played in 1939, even after they had rejoined an organized league.

Overall, the Negro League Baseball Museum gives Brewer a 127-79 record in “official” Negro League play, but he almost certainly won several hundred more against all competition. His credentials can be seen elsewhere — per the CNLBR, few Negro League pitchers were as effective against Major Leaguers as Brewer, who posted a 13-2 record in exhibitions against them.

Brewer played baseball until 1953, when at 46, he signed with a team in Carman, Manitoba as player-manager. It was the last stop on a career that had taken him to Mexico, Panama, China, Japan and the Caribbean, among many destinations.

Brewer died in 1990 at the age of 83. In 2006, Brewer appeared on the final two ballots for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame through a special election for Negro League players. However, he was one of the last to miss the cut.

“He was a really monumental figure,” Dixon said. “A lot of guys, they don’t get their due. ... He's the most underrated Negro Leaguer not in the Hall of Fame.”

Dixon, who's from Kansas City, came to know Brewer well in the late 1980s, and when he states his case for Brewer as a Hall of Famer, it’s clear he means every word. And the reasons aren’t limited to what Brewer did on the mound.

After his playing career, Brewer moved to Los Angeles. Having been denied the chance to play Major League Baseball, he took advantage of another opportunity. He was a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1957 to 1974, and worked for the Major League Scouting Bureau as well, where he would cull information on various players so that major league teams would draft them.

Brewer was also known for running a semipro youth team, Chet Brewer’s Rookies. Most notably, the Rookies won the Los Angeles city championship in 1965, in the midst of the Watts Riots, with eight players who would go on to play Major League Baseball.

All in all, Dixon says that Brewer got around 40 players to the big leagues, either through scouting, signing or coaching. These players are part of the fabric of baseball itself. Dock Ellis, who threw a no-hitter in 1970 allegedly under the influence of LSD. Bob Watson, one of baseball’s first Black general managers, credited with scoring baseball’s one-millionth run. Eddie Murray, a member of the 500 home run club, who was a bat boy for Brewer’s teams. Bobby Tolan. Roy White. Reggie Smith, who once called Brewer “the most knowledgeable and kindest man I have ever known in terms of what he’s done for young African-American players.”

If you want to understand Brewer’s legacy and place in baseball history, Dixon says, you should start here. His wasn’t merely a career in baseball, it was a life. It isn’t merely Negro League history, but baseball history.

And thanks to one stellar summer in 1931, it’s Crookston history too.

“He did so many things in baseball himself, but even the people he touched continued to touch baseball long after he retired,” Dixon said. “ … I would back into it. People won’t know who Chet Brewer is, but when you say that he did all those other things and mention those other people, that’s going to get them interested.

“He touched baseball for real.”

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