John Beckwith: Too big to forget

 

I’M GOING TO TELL YOU the story of one of the Negro League’s greatest home run hitters. This guy was so well-regarded in his time that sluggers like Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearnes, and Mule Suttles were measured against his prodigious blasts. Yet, today he rarely rates more than a passing mention in the history of pre-integration baseball. His name is John Beckwith, and if you are familiar with him, you have probably read things that make his having been passed over by the Hall of Fame and subsequent omission from history almost understandable.

Either way, I’d like you to read this piece with an open mind because I hope you’ll take one thing away from this story – John Beckwith is simply too big to forget.

John Beckwith was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1900. According to a 1924 article in the Pittsburgh Courier, Beckwith “received his preliminary education in the sandlots of his hometown.” While still young, the Beckwith’s relocated to Chicago where the husky boy made a name for himself by hitting tape measure blasts on the city’s South Side.

Despite his prowess with a bat, Beckwith’s early ambition was to box. However, after sparring with heavyweight champion Samuel “Boston Tar Baby” Langford, ranked by Ring Magazine as the 2nd greatest puncher in boxing history, the teen decided life in the ring was not for him.

Meanwhile, John’s older brother Stan was playing ball with several local semi-pro teams. Likely through Stan’s influence, John filled in on a few different traveling teams when they came through Chicago. Beckwith’s great attribute was that he could play every position on the field, but it appears he was primarily a catcher at this early point in his career.

By the time he was 19, John had grown into a massive 200lb, 6’-3” switch-hitting mound of muscle. He was soon signed by Joe Green for his Chicago Giants, an independent team that was a mixture of aging veterans and young prospects like Beckwith. He transitioned to shortstop and filled in wherever he was needed.

When the Negro National League was founded in 1920, the Giants were one of the original teams. With their mixture of aging and young talent, the Giants were outclassed by the other teams and finished last. However, people began to take notice of the power displayed by the Giants young slugger. In a July 4 game at Schorling’s Park, Beckwith hit the first of his several record-making tape measure home runs. Previously known as South Side Park, Schorling’s Park was the former home of the Chicago White Sox from 1900 to 1910 and infamous with hitters for its cavernous dimensions that made home runs a rarity. Beckwith’s shot came off Detroit Stars pitcher and future Hall of Famer Andy Cooper and was the first time anyone had hit a ball completely out of the park.

Beckwith was back with Green’s Giants in 1921, and this proved to be his breakout season. Swinging a giant 38 inch, 42 ounce bat, he averaged .378 for the season and finished 3rd for the league batting championship. His biggest moment that season came on May 22 against the Cincinnati Cuban Stars in Redland Field. Before a 5,000 strong Sunday crowd, Beckwith teed off on one of Claudio Manela’s pitches, sending it 30 feet above the left field wall and onto the roof of the laundry building across the street. It was the first time anyone had hit a ball out of Redland Field since it was built in 1912, and the feat was heralded in newspapers throughout the Midwest.

Back in Chicago, Rube Foster, owner and manager of the first place Chicago American Giants, had seen enough of Beckwith and decided he needed him on his club. The American Giants were the best team in Blackball, and Foster was a living legend of the game. Beckwith hit .361 as the American Giants won their third consecutive Negro League championship. The following season shows Beckwith hitting a more modest .304 but still averaging better than one RBI per game.

At this point, I think it’s time to start addressing the elephant in John Beckwith’s locker.

The one takeaway most modern readers will get from the existing literature on Beckwith’s career is his troublesome personality. The extent of his issues range from being argumentative, malcontent, and moody to alcoholic, violent, and lazy. These personality flaws are often put forth as the reason Beckwith moved between teams so frequently during his career and, in the long run, likely cost him his place in Cooperstown.

I bring this up at this point in Beckwith’s career because in 1924 he left the American Giants for the Homestead Grays. A few sources claim he left Chicago after a brush with the law. After hours of digging, I could find no contemporary mention of Beckwith getting into any trouble in Chicago. In fact, he continued to return to Chicago during the off season where he operated a popular poolhall. Newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American printed the address of Beckwith’s establishment, something a man on the run from the law would in all likelihood not publicize.

A perusal of newspapers from the spring of 1924 shows that the founding of the rival Eastern Colored League led to many players leaving the Negro National League for better paying teams of the east. A 1924 article in the Pittsburgh Courier reports that Beckwith was courted by several of the eastern clubs, but that Cum Posey, owner and manager of the Pittsburgh-based Homestead Grays, went to Chicago and convinced Beckwith to sign with his team. This kind of puts the kibosh on the image of Beckwith fleeing Chicago one step ahead of the cops before seeking shelter in Pittsburgh.

At any rate, Beckwith joined the Grays where he was immediately named team captain. Though stats-wise he did well as a Gray, it wasn’t a good fit. Off the field, Beckwith had financial issues with the team and, on the field, he openly disagreed with Posey over how to use his players. The breaking point came during a game in which Posey called for a pinch hitter, only to have Beckwith wave him back to the bench. The Grays went on to lose the game, 3-2. The June 21, 1924, Pittsburgh Courier reported, “Several of the players told of arguments which had ensued since the team began its regular playing season, which had proven injurious to the playing of some of the players” and Posey was quoted as saying, “we felt that we had to either let him go or ruin the moral of our club.”

This experience with the Grays would be the template for the rest of Beckwith’s Negro League career. An overblown sense of entitlement and demand to be paid what he believed his talents were worth were more often than not the reason he switched from team to team, not the inability to get along with his teammates, lazy play, or alcoholism. The story of Beckwith punching out pitcher Bill Holland after the latter rebuked the slugger for committing a costly error is often used to illustrate his temperament. Alternately said to have taken place in California or New York, I have been unsuccessful in finding its source. In fact, if one reads interviews with Beckwith’s former teammates, an altogether different picture of the man emerges.

Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe told historian John Holway, “He wasn’t a rowdy guy, but he didn’t take any foolishness. He would fight in a minute if someone did something to him.” And Norman “Turkey” Stearnes told Holway, “He’d fight in a minute, but if you didn’t bother him, he didn’t bother you. I never did have any trouble with him, and I played on the club right beside him.”

When Willie Powell was a rookie pitcher on the Chicago American Giants, he found many of the older players openly hostile to him. As Powell told John Holway in his book, Black Diamonds, “They were talking about beating me because I was little. John Beckwith was with the Giants then: that was their number-one slugger. Beckwith just came into the clubhouse, and he says, “Now look–all you little guys can try him if you want to, and if you get away with it, all right. But don’t none of you big guys fool with him. If you fool with him, you got to fool with me.”

When you read the words of his teammates and contemporaries, Beckwith becomes less of a dangerous bully and more like a guy who demanded respect and compensation for the talents he brought to a ballclub. A 1924 Afro-American story recounts how Beckwith responded to a negative remark by a teammate by going up to bat with his back to the plate and, using one arm, proceeded to hit a home run to show up his tormentor.

And far from being regarded as a cancer in the clubhouse, Beckwith was eagerly sought by team owners throughout his career. In fact, some of those teams welcomed him back multiple times–something that just wouldn’t have happened if he was a professional malcontent and lousy teammate.

As soon as the Grays announced Beckwith’s release, teams from both the Negro National and the Eastern Colored Leagues raced to sign the slugger. Charles Spedden, owner of the Baltimore Black Sox, beat them all out by chasing the slugger from Pittsburgh to Chicago until he was able to telegraph back to Baltimore, “On my way East with Beckwith.”

At the same time, Cum Posey had regrets about letting Beckwith go. After spending a week in Baltimore, Posey returned to Pittsburgh empty handed.
Just as he had with the Grays, the Black Sox named Beckwith team captain. He teamed up with slugger Jud Wilson to form a powerful one-two punch, and the Sox rose from last to second place. Beckwith took the league batting title with a .386 average and tied with Oscar Charleston for the home run crown.

In the post season, Beckwith demonstrated his mastery over big league pitching when he collected six hits – two of them home runs – in eight at bats against Philadelphia A’s pitchers Eddie Rommel, Fred Heimach, and Bob Hasty.

Beckwith returned to the Black Sox in 1925 after signing a contract that made him one of the highest paid players outside the majors as well as team manager. He and the rest of the lineup began the season hot, but poor pitching cost them dearly. Tough losses led to fan disillusionment and discontent in the locker room. Beckwith’s leadership qualities were called into question with some teammates telling the Baltimore Afro-American he was, “temperamental to handle a group of men.”

Tempers finally boiled over at the end of July. During a series with the Atlantic City Bacharachs, an umpire named Sewell made several of what the Sox considered one-sided calls against them. A week later Sewell was again umpire in a tough game in Harrisburg. After the game, Beckwith exited the team bus and gave the umpire a “severe lacing.” Beckwith managed to flee the scene, but somehow Sewell had Jud Wilson arrested and charged with assault. Wilson was quickly released but Beckwith eluded authorities. However, the Eastern Colored League gave him a standard $100 fine and suspension.

Though he was leading the league in batting and home runs at the time, Beckwith asked for his release so he could join a team in Chicago. Spedden refused, and Beckwith remained with the Sox, though Pete Hill replaced him as manager. In early August, Beckwith quit the team. The American Giants were chomping on the bit to sign the slugger, but he remained property of Baltimore. Beckwith returned to the Black Sox for 1925 and was leading the club with a .370 average when he was traded to the Harrisburg Giants in mid-July.

With Walt Cannady already playing shortstop, the versatile Beckwith was moved over to third base. This would be his primary position for the rest of his career, though he could be counted on to fill any other spot when needed. Beckwith finished the year with a .347 average, second best on the team behind Rap Dixon. After the season ended, Beckwith joined the Hilldale club for a six-game series against Earl Mack’s All-Stars. Hilldale won 5 of 6 while Beckwith was the series star, easily hitting the big league offerings of Lefty Grove, Jack Quinn, Rube Walberg, and Fred Heimlich. He later joined the Homestead Grays for a game against a team of American League All-Stars, going 2 for 4.

Beckwith returned to Harrisburg for 1927, and as was his modus operandi by now, had himself named manager. Against league teams, Beckwith hit .340 with 5 home runs in 48 games. Like all Negro League teams, in addition to league games, Harrisburg played in the range of 100-150 additional games against town teams, traveling clubs such as the bearded House of David, and semipro outfits that featured former big leaguers. Against these opponents Beckwith is credited with upwards of 65 more home runs for 1927.

When it became clear Harrisburg lost the pennant to Atlantic City, Beckwith was sacked as manager. He left the team and re-joined the Homestead Grays for the rest of the summer. In November, he returned to Baltimore for a game against a White all-star team where he went 4 for 4 with a double and pair of homers against St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bill Sherdel.

Beckwith then traveled to Los Angeles where the California Winter League season was starting. The California Winter League usually consisted of 2 or 3 teams made up from White major and minor league players who resided on the West Coast and one or two teams consisting of elite Negro League stars.

Beckwith joined the Philadelphia Royal Giants for the 1927-28 season. The Royal Giants boasted Beckwith’s Harrisburg teammate Rap Dixon along with future Hall of Famer Biz Mackey. The two White teams were Pirrone’s All-Stars and Orange County, who featured big leaguers Irish and Bob Meusel, Babe Herman, and Ping Bodie. The Royal Giants won the championship with Beckwith batting .310 in 19 games and tying for second place in home runs with 5.

Cum Posey outbid the other teams and landed John Beckwith for his Homestead Grays in 1928. The Grays were still an independent team, playing the bulk of their schedule on the road against White town teams and semipro clubs. Although not part of either Negro League, the Grays did play 20 games against league clubs, winning 12. In 11 games against White minor league teams, the Grays won 8 and tied 1.

Despite playing alongside future Hall of Famers Cyclone Joe Williams and Martín Dihigo, the undisputed star of the 1928 Grays was John Beckwith. Contemporary newspapers claim that he hit upwards of 72 home runs against all competition (Scott Simkus puts the number at 54, Pittsburgh Courier tallied 52, The New York Daily News reported 73, and The Charleston Gazette claims 64).

In one doubleheader in Uniontown, Pennsylvania against the Havana Red Sox, Beckwith hit five home runs, a single and two walks in 9 at bats. One of his victims that day was pitcher Luis Tiant, father of Hall of Famer Luis Tiant, Jr. The Charleston Gazette reported that 10 of Beckwith’s 1928 home runs were hit over the left field fence at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field – a distance of 360-406 feet and something rarely achieved by the best major leaguers of the time. In August, both the Warren Tribune and Baltimore Afro-American reported that Beckwith had recorded the longest home run ever hit at Forbes Field.

In the second week of October, the Grays played a traveling six-game series against an American League All-Star team. Unlike many postseason teams billed as “major league,” this one fit the bill with future Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx and Harry Heilmann plus standout stars Bing Miller, Rube Walberg, and Jimmy Dykes.

The Grays won three of the first four games. Beckwith collected three hits including a triple, but it is the fifth game that made him a legend. On October 11, the two teams met in Butler, Pennsylvania. The game was a slugfest, with 11 home runs by both teams, but Beckwith stole the show. Facing Philadelphia A’s ace Rube Walberg, Beckwith slammed out three home runs. This was the first and likely the only time a Negro Leaguer hit three homeruns off a White big leaguer in one game. And Walberg was no scrub – he’d won 17 games for the A’s that year and would win 18 in 1929 and 20 in 1930 as the Philadelphia A’s won back to back World Championships.

In the series, won 4 games to 2 by the Grays, Beckwith recorded 8 hits, 2 triples and 3 home runs. And his season was far from over.
On the east coast, Baltimore was hosting their annual postseason Black vs White series. Beckwith was able to get there for the 6th game of the series on October 21. Facing Jack Ogden, 15 game winner for the St. Louis Browns that season, Beckwith hit a 2-run homer that proved to be the difference in his team’s 2-1 victory. Beckwith then headed west for the California Winter League season.

Out in Los Angeles, Beckwith joined the Cleveland Giants, the Black entry for the 1928-29 season. Their White opponents were Pirrone’s All-Stars, Shell Oil, and White Kings (not what you’re thinking – they were sponsored by a soap company by that name). Beckwith was having a better year than 1927 when he suddenly disappeared from the Giants lineup. After three weeks, it was revealed that the slugger had been recuperating after being stabbed by his wife. According to a February 23, 1929, Baltimore Afro-American story, Beckwith had gone to bed after arguing with his wife “when she suddenly rushed to his bedside and stabbed him in the leg and side.” It is not clear whether Mrs. Beckwith was charged in the attack, but her husband had recovered enough to rejoin the Giants just as they began 5-game playoff against Shell Oil.

The series was a nail biting, seesaw battle. Shell Oil had future Hall of Famer Earl Averill along with Smead Jolley and at least seven others with major league experience while the Giants had Beckwith and Rap Dixon along with Hall of Famers Joe Rogan, Chet Brewer, and Turkey Stearnes.

The two teams split the first four games with Beckwith going 7 for 14 with one homer and two doubles. The Giants almost clinched the series in Game 4, but Beckwith’s failure to relay a throw home allowed the winning run to score in the bottom of the ninth. Beckwith believed his throw would have arrived too late to get the runner, so he held onto the ball. Giants’ manager Joe Rogan thought otherwise and stormed in from his outfield position to engage in a shouting match with his third baseman.

Beckwith redeemed himself in the fifth and deciding game by going 3 for 4 with two home runs and two RBI as the Giants won, 10-5. With the winter season finished, Beckwith packed up, presumedly sans his knife-wielding wife, and headed back east.

For 1929, Beckwith rejoined the Homestead Grays, now part of the American Negro League. The Grays still played the majority of their games against non-league teams including White minor league clubs. On April 25, 1929, Beckwith had another marquee 3-home run game, this time against the Charleroi Governors of the Middle Atlantic league. Beckwith added a double as well in the 11-10 win. At some point near the end of the 1929 season, Beckwith left the Grays and joined the New York Lincoln Giants.

The Lincolns were at the top of the American Negro League and were loaded with stars, including John Henry Lloyd, Chino Smith, and George Scales. The added pop of Beckwith’s bat helped the Lincolns clinch the pennant. In 25 league games he hit .386 with 7 home runs.

Beckwith then traveled south for the annual Black vs. White series in Baltimore. In the seven games in which box scores survive, Beckwith hit .391 in 24 at bats including a home run off the hero of that year’s World Series, Philadelphia A’s pitcher Howard Ehmke.

Around this time, John Beckwith apparently divorced his first wife and married Dorothy Hill, a minister’s daughter from Philadelphia. The couple settled in Harlem, where they would live for the next 25 years.

Beckwith rejoined the Lincolns for the 1930 season. All organized Negro leagues had collapsed due to the Depression, but the Lincolns played what Black teams remained in between their usual games against semipros and town teams. Though there are no clear statistics existing, surviving box scores show Beckwith having one of the best seasons of his career. Even with a few weeks on the bench due to a broken leg, Beckwith is variously credited as hitting between .452 and .480 against all competition. At the end of the summer, the Lincolns disbanded, another casualty of the Great Depression.

Beckwith returned to the Baltimore Black Sox in 1931. Now playing right field, he batted .339 in 33 games against top-tier Black teams, and his 12 home runs made him the champion of all the Black independent teams that season. On June 7, 1931, the Sox were in New York to play a doubleheader against the Brooklyn Bushwicks. With a lineup of former and future major leaguers, the Bushwicks were the best semipro team in the land, and their home grounds, Dexter Park, was equal to the best minor league stadiums. In the first game, Beckwith hit a homer off former Phillies and A’s pitcher Stan Baumgartner that traveled more than 450 feet and into the left field stands. The blast was declared the longest home run ever hit at Dexter Park, surpassing those hit by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and all the other big league sluggers who homered there.

At the end of the season, he joined the Hilldale club for a five game series against a team of White big league players in Philadelphia. Beckwith batted a robust .500 as Hilldale won, 3 games to 2.

Beckwith was hired as playing manager of the Newark Browns of the new East-West League, but the league collapsed in June of 1932. He jumped to the New York Black Yankees and played for them in 1933 and 1934 before quitting over money. Against top teams Beckwith was still hitting in the high .300s.

In 1935, Beckwith once again joined the Homestead Grays. This time he took on the job of catcher, a position he hadn’t played regularly since his early twenties. His stint with the Grays was short-lived; the story being that he quit after Cum Posey refused to reimburse him for the catcher’s gear he had purchased. According to John Holway’s book Blackball Stars, Buck Leonard and the Grays players sided with Beckwith, but Posey would not pay up. He returned to New York where he spent the next decade playing for and sometimes managing semipro teams around Manhattan. He worked various jobs for the New Haven and Hartford Railroad and Emerson Radio Corporation until he developed cancer in 1955. He fought the disease for a year before succumbing on January 4, 1956, aged 55.

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I want to revisit Beckwith’s alleged unsavory reputation one last time, because many of those stories apply to his final years. Several sources have the slugger retired by the early 1930s and turning to a life of crime, running illegal crap games, pimping out women and bootlegging. As we have seen, up through the late 1940s Beckwith continuously played on and managed baseball teams at all levels while holding down day jobs. Running dice games and pimping would have been hard to fit into his schedule. That prohibition had been repealed, thus ending any need for bootleg booze after 1933, also failed to deter some historians from encouraging that story as well.

* * *

So, how good was John Beckwith? The easy answer is, “we’ll never know,” but that’s a copout. From 1921 to 1931, he was consistently hitting in the .340-.360 range against the best Black teams. A few times, he’s credited with topping .400 and was regularly among the top five home run leaders each season. He hit record-setting home runs in Cincinnati’s Redland Field, Chicago’s Schorling’s Park, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and Brooklyn’s Dexter Park, all places used regularly by major league players.

If making sense of Negro League stats is too difficult, let’s look at what he did against White big leaguers. According to the data compiled by the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, Beckwith hit .381 with 13 home runs in 37 games against White major league pitchers. That’s .381 against men who were active major leaguers, not semipro scrubs or washed up minor leaguers.

Longtime big league catcher Cy Perkins played against John Beckwith many times. In a 1933 interview with Al Moses of the Associate Negro Press, Perkins said, “…not only can Beckwith hit the ball harder than any Negro ballplayer, but any man in the world.” At the time, Perkins was bullpen coach for the New York Yankees and had seen all the great sluggers of the era up close.

I’ll leave the final word on Beckwith to Scott Simkus, one of the foremost Blackball researchers whose work compiling Negro League statistics used by MLB and can be admired on Seamheads.com:

John Beckwith should be in the Hall of Fame. Of all the Negro Leaguers, his absence is one of Cooperstown’s most egregious omissions. This may sound odd, but I think he was overlooked due to the lack of statistics when the HOF started including Negro leaguers back in the early 1970s. What I mean is, by reputation, Beckwith has always been lumped in with Charleston, Gibson, Leonard and Lloyd, the greatest hitters in black baseball history. But without data for any of them, the committees needed ways to differentiate one candidate from another. This is where character and personality come into play. Leonard was a great guy, as was Lloyd. Charleston and Gibson were tough, but undeniable legends and proven winners. Beckwith was an elite slugger, but had the reputation of a brawler, a difficult teammate and personality, and I suspect this became the dominant factor whenever his name came up for consideration. So much so, that even after the stats emerged and people realized he was one of the top five black hitters before integration, Beckwith has been passed over several times. Being “tough with a prickly personality” has somehow become a disqualifying trait, even though there are dozens of similar personalities already enshrined in Cooperstown. Beckwith wasn’t a criminal. As far as we know, he didn’t steal from orphans or abuse women. And the only thing he killed was baseballs, and he did that about as well as anybody ever has. Put him in the Hall of Fame already.

* * *

There’s not much out there on John Beckwith. John Holway wrote an early piece on him called “The Black Bomber Named Beckwith” for the Baseball Research Journal in 1976. More importantly, as a pioneer of Negro League research, Holway preserved the recollections of hundreds of Blackball players, and it is through these interviews that we can begin to understand the real personality and legacy of John Beckwith.

From the 1980s through the 2010s, John Beckwith was almost all but overlooked by the numerous Negro League histories published. Relegated to not much more than a footnote with an unsavory reputation, it comes as no surprise that he failed to make the cut when he was finally placed on a Hall of Fame ballot in 2006.

Finally, in 2014, Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz produced the most comprehensive biography of the slugger for the Center for Negro League Baseball Research. I encourage everyone to visit the CNLBR website (cnlbr.org), they do wonderful and important work that unfortunately rarely receives the publicity and laurels that are given to better known Negro League organizations.

And finally, thanks to Scott Simkus for his take on John Beckwith. If his book Outsider Baseball is not already on your bookshelf, you have no business buying another baseball history book until you pick this one up.

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This week’s story is Number 55 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 5 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 054 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-53 can be purchased as a group, too.

4 thoughts on “John Beckwith: Too big to forget

  1. You mention Beckwith’s big home run on June 7, 1931, at Dexter Park against the Brooklyn Bushwicks. My grandfather, Paddy Smith, was the Bushwicks’ regular catcher at that time, and I can imagine him crouching behind the plate that day watching it sail away.

    1. That’s really cool that your grandfather is Paddy Smith! I just looked at the box score in my files and yes indeed, Paddy Smith was catching and batting 8th for Bushwick in the first game of the doubleheader in which Beckwith hit his record home run. Paddy went 0 for 3 against John “Neck” Stanley, the Black Sox pitcher who only gave up 5 hits in the game.

      1. Gary, I thought that a few years ago I had sent you a copy of my monograph, “Paddy Smith, Dexter Park’s Eternal Firebrand.” Scott Simkus was of invaluable assistance to me in putting that together. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown accepted it for their library. it is a self-published thing that I did for family and friends. If you do not have a copy, and are interested, please let me know. Tom

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