Photo courtesy Jeremy Krock
Is it OK to laugh at someone’s death? What if it’s a character on TV or the movies or a book (yes, those do still exist)? What if it is really, really funny?
We laughed when Ol’ Blue keeled over in the kiddie pool of, ahem, lube while looking at two nekkid coeds. We chortled when Danson and Highsmith’s hubris spurred them to splat themselves on the pavement while trying to catch a few crooks. Hell, Tarantino turned a teenage boy getting shot in the head by a mob hitman/disco champion into a guffaw getter.
Many of the cartoons and slapstick classics my generation and earlier ones grew up with — Tom and Jerry, Looney Toons, Laurel and Hardy — made us laugh when the characters turned into skeletons or flew up to the sky as harp-plucking angel or ended up flat on the ground with those black Xs in place of their eyes.
Even real-life going-to-the-great-beyonds can be and have been used as glib, comedic launching pads. One of the post popular sections of “News of the Weird” was “Thinning the Herd,” about idiots and doofballs dying absurd deaths because of their own dumbassery. The “News” writer, Chuck Spepherd, eventually stopped doing the section because some people, for some insane reason, felt that mortality-induced Schadenfreude was lacking in taste, but the weekly column still features bits about actual people actually almost killing themselves in the most elaborate-yet-birdbrained ways.
And what about just the term “kicking the bucket”? You don’t find too many obits that begin, “John M. Putzwad kicked the bucket Monday after a lengthy bought with cancer …” It’s a goof term created to make light of death.
That brings us to my/our role as baseball historians, researchers and writers. Because every so often we come across an archival item about death on a baseball field, and we’re made aware of how easily our society can morph such a tragedy into humor on the big screen or smartphone. Say, Adam McKay or the Wayans Brothers or Judd Apatow writes a movie script about a dumb or nasty or old player getting his/her hilarious comeuppance, which then triggers the develop of the hilariously wacky hijinks that ensue.
St. Paul Globe, June 17, 1895
But when I was at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., delving into the official archives of the Evangeline League, I came across a yellowing newspaper with a huge banner story about 23-year-old Crowley Millers outfielder Andy Strong in July 1951 being struck dead by a bolt of lightning while he was manning the outer garden during a game. When the lightning hit his head, Strong collapsed and died immediately.
Again, this is something that could be played off in films or cartoons as a nutty plot device, or it might be something found in the occasional macabre story in The Onion.
But in real life, such an occurrence is without a doubt horrifying to everyone involved. Strong was in his very first season of pro baseball and left behind a wife and 1-year-old child, while teammates, opponents and fans in the stands were stunned that such a tragedy could even occur on a laidback evening in bayou country.
As I learned when putting together this post about the recent efforts of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, a similar misfortune occurred to pre-Negro League outfielder Gus Brooks, one of the recent beneficiary of the NLBGMP’s work.
On June 15, 1895, the famed Page Fence Giants, a groundbreaking 19th-century “colored” team under the capable charge of Bud Fowler, squared off against a local white team in Hastings, Mich. Brooks, a seasoned base ball veteran from St. Louis who had just joined the Giants a couple months earlier, was stationed in center field when he suddenly collapsed and died about two hours later. Early reports asserted that severe sunstroke had caused his death, but later articles stated a heart ailment had been the primary factor in his passing at the reported age of 26. Here’s how the June 16, 1895, issue of the Detroit Free Press described it:
“G. Brooks, of the Page Fence Giants, colored, dropped down with heart disease to-day while playing ball in the center field. He was taken to the hotel, where he died two hours later. He joined the team in April and was one of their best players. His home is in St. Louis, Mo., where he has a grandmother living and is supposed to have no other near relatives. After his removal another man was substituted, and a hotly contested game was finished. The Hastings team was strengthened by players from other clubs, Miller, the Nashville pitcher going late into the box.”
The Giants ended up winning, 10-9, but news of Brooks’ fate spread across the Midwest, with papers in Chicago, St. Paul and elsewhere.
Brooks — full name Gustavus B. Brooks — had made his name in top-level colored base ball (two words back then) by then, first in St. Louis with the Black Stockings in 1888, and the West Ends from 1888 to 1892. Although little if anything has been ferreted out about his early life — or his private life at all, really — he quickly showed off his hardball skills. In August 1889, he clubbed three doubles to help the West Ends trounce the pride of Southern colored base ball, the New Orleans Pinchbacks, for example, while manning first base. Brooks stuck with the West Ends through 1892 (he also suited up for the Red Onions in St. Louie).
Brooks then trekked to the Windy City, where, over the next three seasons, he donned his spikes for the Unions, Goodwins and Ward Unions. Although any claim the title of “colored champions” in the 19th century was always tenuous and decidedly not official, while Brooks — who had settled into his prime position in center field by now — played in Chicago, various newspapers bestowed the Unions and Ward’s Unions with that mythical crown.
After promising stints in St. Louis and Chicago, in 1895 Brooks was ready to move on to what was arguably the first all-star team in blackball history — the Page Fence Giants of Adrian, Mich. With the great Bud Fowler as its manager and leading recruiter, the Giants were a conglomeration of youthful but talentged hired guns coming together from all corners of the colored base ball world into one mega-team, a professional operation through and through, both on and off the field. The Page Fence Giants heralded a new era in blackball and brought the sport into the 20th century by serving as a model for future aspirants.
In fact, Hopkins and Holland joined Brooks in the Giants’ troika of standout recruits for the ’95 campaign. In February of that year, the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean made a point of noting the arrival of the three on the Giants roster as the team was preparing to launch a tour of the South. After the Giants came back north in the early spring, they criss crossed the Midwest as a premier barnstorming unit, crossing bats with white and black teams. In April, the Inter Ocean, when previewing a contest between the Michiganites and the Chicago Edgars, the paper discussed the Page Fence newcomers thusly:
“Three of the players — Hopkins, Brooks and Holland — were for years the mainstays of the local colored club, the Chicago Unions.”
So the Giants proceeded to jaunt across Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, with mixed results. Brooks anchored the outer garden most of the time.
Which brings us to Hastings, Mich., on the ill-fated date June 15, 1895, when Brooks, to use a term from a St. Paul Globe headline, expired. Early reports, such as that Globe dispatch, claimed that Brooks collapsed from sunstroke and died a little while later. The article stated that Brooks “joined the team in April and was one of their best players. His home is in St. Louis, Mo.”
Further newspaper reports stated that a search commenced in hopes of finding and relatives in St. Louis or Chicago, but none, apparently, could be found. And there’s where it gets a bit confusing. Initial coverage asserted that Brooks’ body was immediately being shipped to Adrian for burial. However, a Dec. 19, 1895, dispatch in the Grand Rapids Evening Press quoted Grand Rapids native and Page Fence Giants co-owner Len. W. Hoch, who, in addition to confirming that the franchise would field a team for the 1896 campaign, gave an update on the search for a Brooks relative that threw a wrench in the works:
“It is strange, but we never have found a clew [sic] to that boy’s relatives. After hunting in vain for some one who knew him or his friends were buried him there at Hastings. No, it wasn’t drink that killed him. If every team manager experienced so little trouble from that source as we have they would all be happy.”
As a result of that burial discrepancy, last week I called Riverside Cemetery in Hastings to confirm Hoch’s claim, but there was no record there of any Brooks being buried in all of 1895 as well as a few years earlier and later.
(Hastings is quite a small town; as of 2010, the population stood at 7,350, and at the time of the 1895 game, roughly 3,000 made Hastings their home. It officially became a city in 1871, just a couple dozen years before the Page Fencers arrived. The burgh’s black population seems to have always been miniscule; in 2010, only 0.5 percent of residents were African-American.)
In an effort to wrap up this post, I asked Jeremy Krock whether he and other NLBGMP workers had found any type of burial records or death certificates at all for Gustavus B. Brooks. He responded in the negative, added that the only thing he had to go on was a newspaper article.
Hence, with no record of any burial and Hastings and/or exhumation and transporting to Adrian, the home base of the Page Fence Giants, we might never know what truly happened to Gus Brooks, aside from the quirky tragedy of his death. I dare say that, until a few years ago, Brooks — with no known family to speak of and so little documentation or contemporary media coverage — might very well have been even less than a footnote in history. He would have been at best a ghost, a fleeting last name in an almost ethereal box score. With that type of actuality, laughing at the near cinematic circumstances of his death — the type of demise that’s been the subject of guffaws and belly laughs throughout movie, TV and literary history — seems just plain morbid.
However, from a certain point of view, combing through decades-old cemetery records and painstakingly reading and noting grave markers and headstones could be viewed as macabre, if it wasn’t for the higher purpose of bringing recognition and respect to these baseball men and women of yore.
Locating and marking a forgotten soul’s burial site elicits passion, dedication and fascination from those who pursue it. In an online article titled from this past February titled, “Speak Their Names,” writer Shakeia Taylor quotes Dr. Krock thusly:
“A person dies three time. First when their body stops functioning, second when they are buried, and finally, the last time someone says their name. My goal is to keep the names of Negro Leagues ballplayers and others connected to it alive.”
Taylor’s article also details the circumstances of Gus Brooks’ death and the reasons his memory was chosen by the project, including his enduring status as a blackball mortality milestone:
“Gus Brooks, a Page Fence Giants center fielder, died of a heart attack while running out a fly ball during their inaugural season. Black baseball teams often performed acts and hijinks during games to attract crowds. Because of this, many in attendance did not realize Brooks had died; they thought his collapse was part of the entertainment. His was the first death associated with black baseball. Brooks’ family was unable to claim his body, and in 1895 he was buried in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Michigan.”
Many thanks to James Brunson for supplying a bio of Gus Brooks. One facet of James’ article that’s worth noting is that it states that neither Brooks’ grandmother in St. Louis, nor his relatives in Chicago were able to pay to ship his body back, an assertion somewhat different from contemporary articles’ claims that no family could be found at all.