A Local Life: Melvin 'Strawberry' Brooks

One-Pocket Pool Player Goes From Hustling to Hall of Fame

Melvin "Strawberry" Brooks, 73, died of cancer Dec. 17. As a colleague in the one-pocket pool ranks noted, "Top players like Strawberry are not to be confused with low-stakes 'scufflers.' "Another called him "good as gold." (Dennis Wilson)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

In his 73 years, Melvin "Strawberry" Brooks was many things -- an Army veteran, an operator of after-hours social clubs, a ladies man with at least nine children, an unpredictable but often loyal friend, a criminal twice jailed on drug-related charges and a Muslim convert called Askia El Amin.

Brooks, who died of lung cancer Dec. 17 at his home in Washington, also was very much a celebrity of the one-pocket pool world. When he entered a pool hall with his trim, muscular build, he had a confident strut that one friend described as "Frank Sinatra walking into a restaurant in 1958." He was scheduled to be inducted Jan. 9 into the One Pocket Hall of Fame in Louisville.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, before he went to jail the first time, Brooks had few equals in Washington as a one-pocket pool hustler. The game, often compared strategically with chess, involves two competitors trying to sink eight balls into a designated pocket while blocking the other player from doing the same.

At his peak, Brooks made and lost tens of thousands of dollars a trip while traveling on the professional pool circuit. "If there's a dollar in Chicago, ol' Berry's gonna come back with at least a quarter of it," he bragged to one of his ex-wives before a trip to the Midwest.

Rarely entering official contests, he preferred after-hours matches against such major pool talent as Grady Mathews, Richie Florence and Bill Staton. He also was a favorite at private, invitation-only games filled with millionaires looking for gambling action.

Steve Booth, a New Hampshire-based one-pocket player who administers the OnePocket.org Web site, wrote in an e-mail: "Top players like Strawberry are not to be confused with low-stakes 'scufflers' that are the kind of guys that slip into a bar and clean out the locals for $5 or $10 a game.

"Guys like Strawberry went after the very best high stakes players they could find -- fellow hustlers that were good enough themselves that it was no sure thing that 'Straw' would win, but of course much more often than not, he would."

Until the late 1960s, black players were widely prohibited from professional tournaments. Booth wrote that "even when the color barrier was finally broken, many of them, like Strawberry, still avoided making the switch to tournament play because frankly, they could make more money 'undercover.' "

Brooks's signature at the pool table was patience and a tendency to avoid an easy shot if it meant long-term advantage. Those who knew him best said that, when not at the table, Brooks's temperament veered wildly from crass and angry to suave and generous with his money.

"He was good as gold, and if you cross him, he could be as mean as a snake," said a friend, Dennis Wilson. "One extreme to the other."

Mathews, a one-pocket legend, said of Brooks: "His background wasn't easy. He spent time in jail, admitted he did wrong and paid his debt to society. He was always kind of a warrior at pool, and he had a gruff personality. But he donated to charity, he raised a family. And if someone does that, in spite of problems, it's all the more to be admired."

Melvin Alonzo Brooks, born Dec. 10, 1933, was the oldest of eight children. He was raised by his maternal grandmother, Ada Stukes, whom he called "Miss Ada."

Lorraine Rudolph, a club singer and the second of Brooks's three wives, said Brooks told her that he got his nickname as a child when he and friends stole their lunch from grocery stores. Assigned the drinks, he always took strawberry pop.

Gayl Ziegler, a former legal secretary who started to ghostwrite Brooks's autobiography, said Brooks attended Armstrong High School and briefly tried to be a tailor until he ran a needle through his finger. A stint as a postal employee lasted two weeks, until he was fired for lying on his application. He served in the Army from 1952 to 1955.

As a young man, he was a regular at pool halls near the Howard Theater. He learned a lot from players known only as "Napoleon" and "Mr. Perfect." Brooks did well at straight pool, but, as he liked to say, "you can make money playing nine-ball, but you can get rich playing one-pocket." He spent the next three years training himself before emerging as a dominant one-pocket player.

In the early 1980s, he had a pool hall, but it faltered amid what he considered harassment by the police. Ziegler said Brooks believed he was a target because of his earlier stint in jail and his friendship with Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams, a onetime kingpin in the Baltimore drug trade.

Williams served a long prison sentence and appeared on the HBO show "The Wire," a police drama set in Baltimore. Through Williams, Brooks also was on the program, playing various street characters.

"He was a straight and upright person," Ziegler said of Brooks. "He said the best games were never seen by anyone except the players, but you can take that as metaphor for his life as well. The best part of him was not seen by a whole lot of people unless they were right there and affected by him directly, by that best-game part of him."

At his wake, Brooks was placed in a coffin with an unscrewed, custom-made pool cue worth thousands of dollars and a folded American flag.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company