The argument that racism cost Chet Brewer the chance to make an impact on the Major Leagues is certainly valid. Brewer was one of the greatest pitchers never to make it out of the Negro Leagues, spending as much time pitching in Latin America as he did in the United States during a playing career that spanned almost three decades.
Though Brewer, who is on this year's Hall of Fame Negro Leagues ballot, never had the chance to pitch in the Major Leagues, it doesn't mean that his influence wasn't felt for decades after he retired. Brewer served as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates for nearly 20 years and was a larger than life figure in southern California up until his death in 1990, mentoring young men, making them better ball players and more importantly better people.
The list of players who starred for Brewer's traveling All-Star teams reads like a Who's Who of Baseball in the 1960s and 70s. Bob Watson, Reggie Smith, Bobby Tolan, Roy White, Willie Crawford, Doc Ellis, Don Wilson, Bobby Darwin, Leon McFadden and Paul Blair all played for Brewers amateur squads at one time, often overlapping to form powerful teams in the Los Angeles area.
While Brewer taught them about baseball, his compassion and enthusiasm for helping youngsters made more of an impression on the lives of the players with whom he came in contact.
"He was probably the most knowledgeable and kindest man I've ever known in terms of what he's done for young African-American players, especially players in the L.A. area itself," said former Dodgers and Red Sox great Reggie Smith. "He got me started as well as 70 to 80 percent of the kids in the L.A. area in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Chet Brewer's name was synonymous with having talented young players that played in the Major Leagues.
"He was a huge influence, especially as it related to becoming a professional. He taught what it was all about in terms of expectations. We gained more experience than any 18-year-old playing today. As an 18-year-old, for that matter, we were getting more experience than college players."
Smith was signed by Minnesota in 1963 and broke in with the Red Sox in 1966. He went on to play 16 years in the Major Leagues, appearing in four World Series, seven All-Star games and working as a coach on the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team that won a Gold Medal in Sydney.
Despite all his success, Smith, who runs a hitting academy in southern California, says he never forget the lessons he was taught by Brewer.
"The one thing he wanted us to know was about the hardships that he went through and that existed for us," Smith said. "He wanted us to share in those experiences. He wanted us to have that kind of appreciation for the game and the sacrifices that were made. More than anything else, though, he had a love of the game, period. And he wanted us to experience that."
Watson, meanwhile, hasn't lost sight of the lessons he from Brewer as a teenager either. He spent the bulk of his 19-year career with Houston, earning a pair of All-Star Game nods before closing out his career with the Red Sox, Yankees and Braves. Watson was named baseball's first African-American general manager when was given the task of running the Astros in 1993. He took the same position two years later with the Yankees and is currently Major League Baseball's vice president for on-field operations.
When Phil Pote, Watson's high school coach, sent him to see Brewer in the early 1960s he knew the former Negro Leagues star would help his player as he had helped so many others. Watson was a catcher at the time and it was Brewer who helped him become a better receiver.
"Because I was the catcher, I talked to him all the time," Watson said. "He would show me how to set up and how to use my pitcher's stuff. That's how I learned how to catch and handle a staff. He taught me how to call the game.
"He was older at that time and didn't pitch anymore. But he would show the pitchers grips and how to put pressure on the ball to make it sink and move, how to throw a little cutter or a tight slider, those types of things."
Brewer's personality and his love of the game, along with an impressive resume, certainly played an integral role in his quest to give back to the youth of southern California. Overall, he is said to have won nearly 100 games in the Negro Leagues despite spending so much of his time outside the United States. His .597 winning percentage is 10th among Negro League pitchers and his career win total, which some outlets report as 87 -- was 13th. His lifetime Negro Leagues ' ERA was 2.89.
In addition, Brewer was 43-13 in the California Winter League, America's first integrated professional league. The league's three-decade run ended in the 1940s. Brewer was the first black player from the United States to play in the Mexican League and was elected to its Baseball hall of Fame in 1966.
Brewer was also part of one of what is considered by many to be among the greatest games in Negro League history. Brewer and Smokey Joe Williams squared off on Aug. 2, 1930 as the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays played a game under a portable light system in what could be the first night game in baseball history, some five years before the Reds did it in the Major Leagues.
Williams, considered to be the greatest of all the Negro League pitchers by many historians, tossed a one-hitter, striking out 27 in the questionable lighting to defeat Brewer in 12 innings. Brewer, meanwhile, fanned 19 and allowed only four hits.
"He would tell us stories about Satchel [Paige] and all those guys he played with all those years," Watson said. "It was fascinating and at the time I was like a sponge. I soaked it all up and without a doubt he was a tremendous influence on how I played the game."