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Melvin `Strawberry' Brooks, 73; celebrated one-pocket pool player

January 02, 2007|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

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, D.C., was also a celebrity in the world of one-pocket pool. He was a trim man with a muscular build, and when he entered a pool hall, he had a confident strut that one friend described as "Frank Sinatra walking into a restaurant in 1958." Brooks was scheduled to be inducted into the One Pocket Hall of Fame in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 9.

In the 1960s and early '70s, before he went to jail for the first time, he 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 thing.

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 competitors as Grady Mathews, Richie Florence and Bill Staton. He was also a favorite at invitation-only games filled with millionaires looking for gambling action.

Steve Booth, a New Hampshire-based one-pocket player who administers, 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 barred 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' signature at the pool table was patience and a tendency to avoid an easy shot if it meant a long-term advantage. Those who knew him best said that when Brooks was not at the table, his temperament veered from crass and angry to suave and generous with his money.

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.

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

Gayl Ziegler, a former legal secretary who started to ghostwrite Brooks' autobiography, said he briefly tried to be a tailor after high school 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, Brooks was a regular at Washington pool halls. He did well at straight pool. However, 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.

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.

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