All he wanted to do was play the game he loved.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1879, Richard “Dick” Brookins began the 20th century with a professional baseball dream, but had it dashed after several stops with a handful of teams.
At nearly every turn, he found controversy because of the colour of his skin.
It was an era when baseball was slightly more accepting of Indigenous athletes, but not at all welcoming to African-Americans.
Brookins posed as being of Caucasian ethnicity, then passed himself off as Cherokee when accusations started to swirl that he was a light-skinned African-American.
It led to several address changes between 1907 and 1910, with the final of his documented diamond days coming in the Western Canada League, as a member of the Regina Bone Pilers.
Not only was his background a mystery at the time, but more than a century later, his family is still hoping to find some answers.
THE RACE CARD
After spending the first two seasons of his professional career bouncing between Class-D teams in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Houghton, Michigan, among others, it appears his race became a question in early-1908.
A headline in a January edition of the Moberly Weekly Monitor in Missouri read “Is Brookins an Indian?”
The story went on to tell of how American Baseball Association officials would be looking into the background of Brookins, who was considered a “gentleman” and “popular player.”
“Telegrams have been sent out from Cincinnati that Brookins is not what he claims to be and a committee will loop up the fleet-footed third baseman’s record in St. Louis shortly,” the article read. “If Brookins is a negro, he will not wear an Indianapolis uniform, but if he is a coal red-skin, he may be a member of the Hoosier team.”
The question of race was brought up when Brookins was a member of the Moberly Signals, but one of Brookins’ teammates came to his defence.
“Captain Jack Sheridan assured the fans that he knew Brookins’ parents well,” the article continued. “His father is a German and conducts a coal yard in St. Louis, while his mother is a Sioux Indian.”
Brookins went on to spend that season with the Fargo Browns of the Northern League, hitting .247 in 65 games.
FIRST TRIP TO CANADA
Heading into 1909, Brookins had become a coveted third baseman.
The Vancouver Beavers of the Class-B Northwestern League were able to attract him north in what would become a three-horse race for the keystone sack, alongside Ole Snyder and William Smith.
“He (Brookins) is confident he will deliver the goods this season,” wrote an early-March edition of the Vancouver Daily World.
Considered a solid contender for a roster spot, the question of race didn’t seem to initially come up on the west coast.
“Dick Brookins is booked for a trial in the game today if the teams play,” wrote The Province on April 27th.
“Brookins, who is an Indian, has shown up very well in practice and Captain Nordyke wants to see him work in a real game.”
However, he didn’t get that expected opportunity. By May, Brookins was said to “likely be carried as a utility infielder if he doesn’t actually become a regular.”
Then a surprise came when The Province reported that he and outfielder Johnny Cahill had been released.
“They received the blue envelope this morning,” a May 4th story read.
“Brookins is a clever player, but for obvious reasons there was no place for him on the Beaver team.”
Those “obvious reasons” were not laid out by any of the newspapers in the Vancouver area until a year later. In fact, The Province account was the only one to mention Brookins being released, while two others only mentioned Cahill.
Heading into the 1910 season, Roxy Walters was hoping to build a contender with the Regina Bone Pilers.
In March, the manager announced a handful of signings, including Brookins.
“Brookins is considered to be one of the best infielders in the union leagues, and several other Western Canada League teams have been trying hard to land him,” wrote The Leader-Post newspaper.
Brookins made his exhibition debut with the Bone Pilers in Winona, Minnesota in late-April.
“Brookins fielded in great form, making two or three sensational plays,” wrote Walters.
The trouble started for Brookins when league play started.
Not only did their first game against Winnipeg result in a forfeited game after eight innings because a league umpire wasn’t present, but Brookins’ race was called into question once again.
“Word was received yesterday from league headquarters that the Medicine Hat and Calgary teams had protested Brookins on the ground that he has negro blood in his veins,” wrote The Moose Jaw News. “Is it right? So long as the negro is accepted to citizenship why should he not have equal rights with the Red Man on the diamond. The Anglo-Saxon ideal is to treat all men white.”
THE RUMOUR MILL
The issue really started to gather steam as the newspapers began pushing the story.
“There is some talk of Brookins … being protested on the grounds that he is a coloured man,” wrote the Calgary Herald on May 12th.
“Last season, Brookins was with Vancouver the early part of the year and the same trouble arose, the result being that Brookins was released by Vancouver.”
The Herald went on to say that according to the rules of the national agreement, “colored players are barred in organized baseball.”
Regina powered on through the distraction, jumping out to a 6-2 record through the first eight games, while continuing to defend their teammate.
“The Regina club intends to stand by Dick Brookins, the Indian third baseman, to the finish,” wrote The Edmonton Daily Bulletin on May 18th. “He has been protested by several clubs on the grounds that he has negro blood in his veins, but, on reputable information, the writer believes this to be false.”
Brookins had reportedly shown the reporter a certificate to show “he is a graduate from a United States college for Indians.”
This was, however, where things took another wild turn.
In that same article, the Daily Bulletin wrote that league president C.J. Eckstrom had taken it upon himself to request that Regina release Brookins.
Moose Jaw and Winnipeg also entered objections, and a request was made to declare Brookins’ eligibility.
While they claimed “a dusky player has no place in organized baseball,” some scribes seemed sympathetic to the player.
“He (Brookins) is a cracking good third baseman, and it is only the strain in his blood that keeps him out of good company,” wrote the Edmonton Journal on May 21st.
It seemed like the issue was settled when, five days later, the Leader-Post published a story with the headline “Brookins is vindicated.”
A letter from the editor of the Sporting News in St. Louis had written to clear the air about Brookins’ background.
“I can find no record of the finding of any committee appointed authoritatively to pass upon Brookins’ eligibility to play in organized ball,” the letter read.
“If the National Commission has never barred Brookins for alleged negro blood, and even though the American Association may have done so as a family affair, the matter will be strictly up to the Western Canada League for adjudication.”
The letter went on to say Brookins’ family was well-known in St. Louis and “lives in a neighbourhood exclusively for whites and are classed as whites.”
A week later, the league president went against the advice he had received and exiled Brookins from the league.
“Apparently acting on the dictation of the Medicine Hat club, C.J. Eckstrom, the nominal president of the Western Canada baseball league, yesterday decided that Dick Brookins, the Regina third baseman, could not play,” wrote the Leader-Post.
“Manager Walters, acting on instructions from the officers of the club, declined to play without Brookins and as a result the game was declared forfeited to Medicine Hat.”
Walters faced a $50 fine for pulling his team off the field after the game’s umpire received a wire from Eckstrom instructing that Brookins was ineligible to play. Medicine Hat refused to take the field if the third baseman was in the Regina lineup.
“As there is no reason to believe that Eckstrom has received any information from the national commission that Brookins is ineligible to play, his actions can only be characterized as not only decidedly arbitrary but a rank injustice as well to both the Regina club and Brookins himself,” continued the Leader-Post.
The article went on to describe how Brookins hadn’t broken any rules, adding his behaviour has been “exemplary.”
“A special meeting of the Regina club has been called for tomorrow and present indications are that Eckstrom must withdraw his ultimatum and leave the matter for the chief authorities to settle or Regina will retire from the league,” wrote the June 3rd edition of the Edmonton Journal.
Eckstrom, meantime, claimed he was given instructions by the national commissioner, Secretary Farrell, to deal with the matter.
The entire situation had many people wondering what led him to ban Brookins. Was it racism, or was it something else?
MATTER OF PURE SPITE
One possible answer may have been found in the June 4th edition of the Edmonton Bulletin.
“Great indignation is felt among local fans, who consider that the president’s action is largely actuated by the feeling owing to Regina having signed on a Lethbridge player,” the article read.
More light was shed on that potential explanation in the same paper the next day.
“According to information received in a letter from Manager Walters yesterday, a threat was made in Lethbridge that Brookins would be forced out of the game, and that it was a matter of pure spite,” the story said.
There was an allegation of collusion, where player/manager Chesty Cox was being let go by Lethbridge, but before he was, Walters had convinced him to release first baseman Harold O’Hayer, who was reportedly “anxious” to join the Regina contingent.
One of the Lethbridge players, Benton Hatch, learned of the plot and demanded that O’Hayer be returned, to which Walters refused.
“Walters says Hatch made the statement that he would see ‘that n***** did not play any more,’” the article continued.
“Brookins was in the room at the time and there was pretty near being a trip through the window for Mr. Hatch, but he apologized for his remark.”
The day after that scuffle, Medicine Hat protested the game against Regina, leading to Brookins being barred.
The ongoing controversy might have had an effect on the Bone Pilers as they fell to a 9-16 record by June 10th.
Meantime, Regina president J.W. Smith wasn’t done trying to get justice for Brookins.
He traveled to Lethbridge to meet with Eckstrom in hopes of a meeting to answer four key questions:
- What was the resolution passed at the Medicine Hat meeting regarding the Brookins case?
- What was the wording of the messages sent to Secretary Farrell?
- What was the reply received?
- What steps did you take towards investigating Brookins’ status before disqualifying him?
“Mr. Eckstrom would say little or nothing in the course of the interview, so Mr. Smith submitted four questions to him in writing,” wrote the Leader-Post. “It wasn’t until just before his train pulled out that Mr. Smith was handed a reply.”
Eckstrom’s answers were vague, and he failed to answer the last question, stating he needed more time to get documentation and affidavits.
According to the paper, the league president also “made a bad blunder” in what was called a “minute of forgetfulness” when initially confronted by Smith.
“When he first saw Mr. Smith, he broke out with, ‘Well, there is just one man at whose door you can lay the blame for all this trouble,’” wrote the paper. “’And who is that?’ asked Smith.”
READ MORE: At The Plate’s story on Dick Brookins
Eckstrom replied with Roxey Walters, characterizing him as rowdy.
“Later, when Mr. Smith had a chance to talk matters over with the president, he brought this matter up again and asked if Walters was responsible, why Brookins should be made the goat,” the Leader-Post continued. “Eckstrom, by this time, realized what a blunder he had made and tried to bluff – that is his strong game so long as he has the stack.”
The paper went on to claim that Eckstrom believed Walters was to blame for bringing Brookins into the league in the first place.
WALTERS SPEAKS OUT
Roxy Walters wasn’t having any of the allegations as his team went on a western roadswing through Alberta.
In an interview with the Morning Albertan in Calgary, Walters let his opinion on the situation surrounding Brookins be known, making Eckstrom his prime target.
“He’s a big stiff and you can put that down in the biggest, blackest type you’ve got and sign my name to it,” he told the newspaper.
It appeared as though legal action was also on the way, as Smith was reportedly ready to charge Eckstrom for slander on Brookins’ behalf.
“Look here,” Walters continued. “Do you think I would play that man if he was a negro or had any negro blood in his veins? No, I would not.”
He said Brookins’ mother was French and his father was from Puerto Rico, adding he would play the third baseman upon their return to Saskatchewan.
“It is the intention of Regina to enter a suit for damages against President Eckstrom,” Walters added in an interview with the Calgary Herald. “Brookins was my best man and I won’t let him go for nothing.”
Then his attention returned to Eckstrom.
“He’s no good, I tell you,” Walters said. “I told him so to his face the last time I saw him, too.”
The interview, which also lambasted the president for what he perceived as bad umpire crews and other bad calls, drew the ire of Eckstrom, who suspended Walters for six games.
“Eckstrom has evidently handed out so many raw deals that he is getting decidedly thin-skinned,” wrote a mid-June edition of the Leader-Post. “Judging by the remarks heard about him around Regina, his ears must be pretty nearly burned off.”
The writer claimed other teams around the league looked at Eckstrom as a joke, but the Brookins debacle was still no joke in Regina.
In a letter to Smith, Eckstrom claimed he was still finding the evidence he needed to show the grounds for the ban.
“Something like hanging a man and then trying him afterwards,” the scribe said. “Comment might also be made on the injustice of that six days’ suspension, in addition to the $10 fine for the run-in at Calgary. But what’s the use?”
Writers in Lethbridge were none-too-impressed with the allegations being thrown toward their local team in the Albertan, with the Daily Herald coming to the community’s defense.
“If the Calgary Albertan ever had any prestige in Lethbridge, it surely has been cut asunder now,” the paper wrote. “Yesterday’s issue gave prominence to one of the most absurd and silly articles that probably has ever been seen in print in this province.”
The writer took issue with mentioning that Lethbridge had protested against Brookins, which wasn’t the case. They also said the issue around Regina claiming O’Hayer was prohibited by Western Canada League constitution.
“The article is couched in cow-barn language and supposed to be what Walters had to say about the president of the league,” the article continued. “Those who are acquainted with the manager of the Regina club know to what class he belongs.”
Walters was called a “confirmed kicker,” with the writer saying “anything he says carries no weight with persons of intelligence.”
A QUIET SENDOFF
And that was it.
Brookins’ final statistics line would show a .223 batting average with 12 runs scored, three doubles, a triple, 20 runs batted in and four stolen bases in 20 games with the Bone Pilers, who would end up folding before the end of the season.
No Canadian newspaper would make mention of him again, not even to find out where he had gone, nor get a quote from him – although he may not have wanted to speak out about what had happened.
The Leader-Post did say on June 7th that he had returned to Regina from his team’s roadtrip in Alberta, adding “he has accepted the situation in the stoical manner natural to his race.”
The story also made headlines all over the U.S., which may have led to him either not being able to play professionally again, or him deciding it wasn’t worth the hassle.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Brookins left for Hibbing, Minnesota, where he played third base for nine more seasons while working as a fireman in local mines.
He eventually moved his family to California, where he passed away in 1933.
In June 2019, Kelly Barnes found herself going down a rabbit hole of information to find out information about Dick Brookins.
However, her interest wasn’t about the baseball – it was about her family.
“My aunt had been searching through her family history and on findagrave.com, she found my great grandma, Marie Victoria Brookins Shaw, who was the sister of Dick Brookins,” Barnes told Alberta Dugout Stories. “I don’t think anyone in my family was aware of the relationship until my aunt discovered it.”
As Barnes searched for information, she was awestruck by what she was seeing.
“I had never heard of him before, so I was shocked when I was reading the stories,” she said. “To be so talented and repeatedly denied the right to play is just horrible.”
While it was clear Brookins had a desire to play, it didn’t appear to be something that was pressed upon younger family members, as Barnes says her father played baseball when he was young, while her brother also played a little growing up.
As to whether she knows anything about his actual race, Barnes isn’t sure, although she does remember receiving a lot of Native American jewelry that had been passed down through the generations.
“As of now, nobody in my family knows the truth about Dick Brookins’ heritage,” Barnes said. “I’m hoping to get some more answers through my pending Ancestry DNA results.”
All she wants to do is help honour the man who loved the game he played.