Negro Leagues historian Phil S. Dixon was speaking to former Major League Baseball great Darryl Strawberry when he asked if Strawberry had ever heard of Negro Leagues pitcher and Leavenworth-native Chet Brewer.
Strawberry responded quickly and adamantly.
"Absolutely," Strawberry said. "Who hasn't heard of Chet Brewer?"
Chester Arthur Brewer, or "Chet" was born in Leavenworth on January 14, 1907 to father William A. Brewer who had moved to the town for work.
As a boy, Brewer's foot was run over by a Leavenworth trolley car resulting in the loss of his big toe and second toe.
The loss of his toes marked the most significant occurrence he had in Leavenworth as his father moved the family to Des Moines, Iowa while Chet was still a child.
It was in Des Moines that he was first exposed to black baseball in the form of the Tennessee Rats, a barnstorming team that, in addition to baseball, performed music and acted to draw more fans according to Baseball Reference.
The Rats eventually signed Brewer as a pitcher before he went on to play for the Gilkerson Union Giants. At age 17 in 1924, he was signed by the Kansas City Monarchs and thus was the spawn of his Negro Leagues pitching career.
"The Good 'ol Days"
The Monarchs saw some of Brewer's best years in baseball, and Brewer acted as a bridge between the two most famous pitching eras of the Monarchs’ history.
When he joined the team, Brewer was in the Monarchs' starting rotation behind storied Negro Leagues pitcher Charles "Bullet" Rogan.
As a 19-year old, Brewer's 14-1 record tied Rogan for the third-highest win total in the Negro National League.
After a few slow years, Brewer once again emerged as a star for the team, finishing with a 2.86 run average and a record of 17-3, the second highest win total in the Negro Leagues that season. He threw a wide array of pitches, most notably the infamous "Emery ball," a pitch coined for the Emery board, or nail file, that pitchers would use to tear up the ball before throwing it.
Dr. Raymond Doswell, the curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said it wasn't uncommon for pitchers to throw an Emery ball in that era, adding that it helped Brewer balance his strong fastball and his notable sinker and screwball.
“He was crafty and he took advantage of it just like many of his contemporaries,” Doswell said. “Someone who could throw hard but also could get you off balance so to speak, of course the occasional scuffed ball didn’t hurt.”
Brewer's Emery Ball starred in a 1930 game that baseball historians later coined the "Battle of the Butchered Balls" between the Monarch's Brewer and Homestead Grays pitcher "Smoky" Joe Williams.
Between Brewer's Emery Ball and Williams' "Goo ball," a pitch that was marked by Williams covering the ball with pine tar to alter ball movement and also make it nearly invisible to opposing hitters, the two pitchers collided in an instant classic. On the stat sheet, the doctored baseballs helped Williams tally 27 strikeouts and Brewer 19 while the Grays earned a 1-0 extra-inning win over the Monarchs.
In his later years, Brewer pitched in the same Monarchs rotation as Satchel Paige, who Dixon said has overshadowed Brewer's presence in the annals of baseball history.
“Satchel Paige always stole the spotlight from Chet Brewer,” Dixon said. “But Chet Brewer was pretty darn good in the 1930s. He was pretty good in the ’20s but he was awfully good in the ‘30s.”
Brewer also pitched against Paige in many instances.
Dixon recalled a game in which Brewer and Paige battled during a game in Canada to a 0-0 tie after the game was called due to darkness.
In the winter, notable Negro League players, including Paige and Brewer would pitch for teams in Middle America.
As part of a Dominican professional baseball league, Brewer pitched against Paige, who played for the Trujillo All Stars alongside Negro League greats James "Cool Papa" Bell, often considered one of the game's best-ever baserunners, and Josh Gibson, dubbed the "Black Babe Ruth" for his power hitting prowess.
Doswell contends that Brewer pitched a one-hitter against the Trujillo All Stars.
An arrival ticket in 1941 shows that Brewer arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico on a ship with another Monarchs player, Thomas "TJ" Young, to play offseason baseball.
Dixon said Young was Brewer's best friend during his playing days.
Shortly after Brewer began play with the Monarchs, a fight ensued between he and Monarchs catcher Frank Duncan, which resulted in Duncan cutting Brewer's arm with a knife.
Their relationship was never mended, leading the Monarchs owner to sign Young as Brewer's personal catcher.
It is unclear what Brewer's relationshiπp was to Leavenworth while with the Monarchs, though a 1934 Leavenworth directory shows that Brewer resided in Leavenworth with his wife, Mary.
His listed occupation — "ball player." It would remain his occupation until 1952.
Major League Scouting
After Brewer ended his playing career, he turned to scouting.
He served as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Los Angeles Dodgers as well as for the Major League Scouting Bureau, operating primarily in southern California.
While there, he managed a team dubbed "Chet Brewer's Rookies," which he used to develop players.
Former Major Leaguer Bob Watson, most notable for scoring baseball's one-millionth run, played for the Rookies, but he was far from the only future pro to play for Brewer.
“Just for the contribution he made in signing players, he should be in the Hall of Fame,” Dixon said. “He found these kids on the sandlot. He’d go around and sign them to his ‘Chet Brewer’s Rookies.’ Bob Watson told me that at one time, he had eight teammates that would go on to play in the Major Leagues.”
The list of players scouted and signed by Brewer is extensive, to say the least.
Notable players include former National League stolen base leader Bobby Tolan, Roy White, the first New York Yankees outfielder in history to play an entire season without an error, Reggie Smith, who played in the 1967 World Series as part of the Boston Red Sox. His most notable is former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, known for pitching a no-hitter for the Pirates while under the influence of LSD.
The Brewer Legacy
Dixon came to know Brewer in 1987 after he compiled a playing card set named "Dixon's Negro League Greats," which featured Brewer. While promoting the cards, Dixon stayed at Brewer's house in Los Angeles, eventually taking him to his first-ever Negro League signing.
Through the years, Dixon said he developed a strong relationship with the former pitcher, and in the 1980s came to see Brewer in Leavenworth while Brewer was staying with a relative in town.
In the late 1980s, Brewer visited Leavenworth and the former Times sports editor wrote a feature on his return to his hometown.
Dixon said that Brewer's personable nature shone through every time he came back to the area.
“Chet was a people person,” Dixon said. “He would come to Kansas City, Kansas, and he would purchase a hotel room at the Holiday Inn. … Instead of him going to visit everybody, he would purchase a hotel room, have lunch catered and have all his friends come to him.
“I really haven’t seen too many people ever do that, and as a young guy I was pretty amazed by that.”
Though his name has fallen by the wayside, Brewer's name lives on through the work of Doswell and Dixon, among others.
Brewer's picture hangs in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and a quote of his is featured on the wall, as is his managers jacket from his time with his "Rookies."
Doswell said Brewer deserves to be known, if not for his pitching prowess than for his longevity in the game of baseball.
“Those in baseball circles know him,” Doswell said. “Those who are baseball historians certainly know him and his importance to the game. He had such a long career in baseball, as a player and then later as a coach and scout, he was a presence in baseball. Especially as an African-American.”
Despite his relative obscurity in baseball history, Dixon said he's starting a movement to get Brewer's name in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“If people dig a little deeper, they’ll find a diamond in the rough in Chet Brewer,” Dixon said.
Both Doswell and Dixon argued that Brewer's name should be known by any people in baseball.
As Brewer once told Dixon, there's only one name people should remember him by.
"You don't have to call me 'Mr. Brewer'," he said to Dixon. "Everybody calls me 'Chet.'"