SABR

Heinz Becker

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

Heinz Becker, the only German-born big-leaguer who played during the years of World War II, had a modest four-year career and appeared in just 152 games for the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. In 1945, his only full season in the majors, Becker became a fan favorite for the pennant-winning Cubs, and his feet were the topic of headlines. The switch-hitting Becker suffered from severe bunions and bone deformations on each foot as well as arthritic ankles that made walking, let alone swinging a bat and playing first base, a lesson in excruciating pain. The Sporting News reported that Becker had the “worst pair of feet any player ever dragged into a diamond.”i A classic line-driver hitter, Becker enjoyed his greatest success with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association for whom he batted .340 over a five-year period (1942-44 and 1947-48).

On August 26, 1914, the Battle of Tannenberg, one of the most destructive early battles of the Great War, involving the German and Russian Empires, began. The date also marks the birth of Heinz Reinhard Becker in Berlin, the fourth and youngest child of Reinhard and Amanda Becker.ii The Great War (World War I), which had started just four weeks before Heinz was born, had far-reaching consequences for the Beckers. When it ended, in 1918, Berlin, the capital of the German Empire, was in chaos. The Kaiser had abdicated, leaving a political vacuum that democrats, communists, monarchists, and a host of other extremists attempted to fill, with violent consequences for Germans, and a civil war ensued. Reinhard Becker, a well-established brewer in Berlin, had a difficult choice: face the unknown or emigrate. In 1921 the Beckers and their four boys (Harry, Kurt, Hans, and Heinz) left Germany and settled in Venezuela, where Reinhard attempted to start a cattle ranch. Encountering financial problems and the collapse of the ranch, the Beckers migrated to the United States in 1924 (before the passing of the Reed-Johnson Immigration Act, which limited the number of immigrants to the US) and were settled in Dallas by 1925.

Heinz (whom his parents called Reinhard) was an athletic youngster. “As soon as I got to school [in the U.S.]," he recalled, “baseball fascinated me.”iii A natural right-hander, Heinz learned to bat from both sides of the plate and preferred to play first base “because you're close to the action.”iv Agile, quick, and versatile, he was also an accomplished soccer player, an amateur boxer with at least 50 bouts, an avid ice skater, and a fan of roque, an American version of croquet played with a mallet on a hard surface. With a muscular physique, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Becker was an excellent basketball player and played on local semipro championship teams in 1938 and 1939. But baseball was his passion and by the age of 16 he was a regular sight at local sandlots. After the end of Prohibition in December 1933, Heinz followed his father and began working at a local brewery and also playing outfield and first base for a semipro team the brewery sponsored.

In 1937 Becker caught the attention of scouts from the Chicago White Sox (in all likelihood the legendary scouting duo Roy and Bessie Largent) who signed him to his first professional contract. He was assigned to the Rayne (Louisiana) Rice Birds in the Class D Evangeline League to start the 1938 season. Becker was among the league leaders in several batting categories (second in doubles and fourth in home runs and slugging), but his campaign came to a curious and abrupt end in August. Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis informed Rice Birds manager John Fitzpatrick that the White Sox had made an error in filing Becker’s contract and he was a free agent effectively immediately. “The judge’s wire was handed to me while our club was on the field,” recalled Becker. “I thought it would be wise to quit then and there.”v He signed with the Oklahoma City Indians in the Texas League, where he played the final week of the season.

George Schepps, president and scout for the Dallas Rebels of the Texas League, bought Becker’s contract in the offseason. Farmed out to the Tyler Trojans and the Palestine Pals of the Class C East Texas League in 1939 and to the Longview Texans of the same league in 1940, Becker developed into a dependable line-drive hitter, batting .328 and .319 respectively while playing the outfield and first base in 1939 and exclusively at first in 1940.

Promoted to Dallas in 1941, Becker responded with a fine season. Described by the Associated Press as a “promising, improving player, whose work for Dallas in 1941 has been scintillating,” Becker batted .319 (second-best in the league) and rapped 35 doubles and nine triples among his 180 hits for the Rebels in the highly competitive Texas League.vi The fourth-place Rebels won the Texas League playoffs, but were swept by the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association in the Dixie Series. The postseason tournament brought additional national exposure to the 26-year-old Becker.

In the offseason, Becker lived in Dallas with his wife, Hattie Lee (Brumley) Becker, a native Texan whom he had married in 1934. The Beckers raised two children, Betty and Bobby. Once described by the Chicago Daily Tribune as “more Texan than a Berliner,” Heinz often complained throughout his playing career about leaving his adopted hometown and especially his family.vii

Bill Veeck, who (along with minority owner and former big leaguer Charlie Grimm) had recently purchased the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, bought Becker’s contract for a reported $6,250 in November 1941.viii “I scouted Becker … during the Texas League playoffs on the strength of his batting. I realized that he was a crude first sacker, but I overlooked the fault because I figured Grimm would improve his fielding,” Veeck said.ix Under the tutelage of Jolly Cholly, Becker worked to develop his fielding but suffered from limited mobility, the result of his rapidly deteriorating feet. Hampered by a sore right shoulder affecting his hitting for the first half of the 1942 season, Becker was benched. “I was thinking about quitting,” he recalled. “I hated to leave Texas. But the wife insisted that I spend a year with the Brewers.”x Despite homesickness, Becker found his line-drive stroke in the second half of the season and was the American Association’s hottest hitter, finishing as runner-up to teammate Eddie Stanky for the batting title, .342 to .340, as the Brewers lost the league flag on the last day of the season. Among Becker’s 170 hits were 30 doubles, 12 triples, and 6 home runs; he drove in 94 runs, third best in the league. Shortly after the season, his contract was purchased by the Cubs.xi

First base was a mess for the Cubs. An experiment with the aging Jimmie Foxx was a disaster (he batted .205) in 1942. At spring training in French Lick, Indiana, in 1943, Becker beat out Phil Cavaretta, Ed Waitkus, and Rip Russell for the job. On Opening Day, April 21 at Wrigley Field, Becker made his major-league debut. Batting cleanup against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he went 0-for-4. He started the first 15 games of the season, but struggled mightily, hitting just .155 (9-for-64) with no extra-base hits and just two runs batted in. In early June, his average down to .145, Becker was reassigned to Milwaukee. He made another of his seemingly annual threats to quit baseball and return to his family, but eventually reported to the Brewers. Cubs beat reporter John Hoffman noted that the big first baseman was too hard on himself. “He was just perplexed over his failure to hit and field in accordance to his own appraisal of himself,” Hoffman wrote.xii

At Milwaukee Becker was reunited with Charlie Grimm. Milwaukee’s Borchert Field was ideally suited to Becker’s line drives. It resembled the Polo Grounds in New York and had football-field-like dimensions with short foul lines (approximately 267 feet), deep power alleys (about 435), and a center field measuring approximately 400 feet (though dimensions periodically changed).xiii Becker batted .326 in 101 games for the first-place Brewers.

After his second spring training with the Cubs and manager Jimmie Wilson in 1944, the 30-year-old Becker was returned to Milwaukee, where he enjoyed another typical season. He batted .346 and set career highs with 115 runs scored and 115 runs batted in for new Brewers manager Casey Stengel. The Brewers led the league with a team batting average of .307 and won their third consecutive regular-season title.

In 1945 Becker arrived at his third consecutive Cubs spring training with his mentor, Charlie Grimm, at the helm. (Grimm had been named manager in May of the season before.) Grimm had an innate understanding of Becker’s “sensitive” personality and recognized that he was a player who needed kidding and cajoling to play well.xiv He decided to give Becker another shot at the first-base job.xv Grimm knew that Becker and former Cubs skipper Jimmie Wilson didn’t get along, and suggested that Wilson had given up on the switch-hitter too early in 1943. “He can hit,” said Grimm of Becker. “He’ll be a lot of protection.”xvi

Becker suffered from excruciating pain in both feet caused by bunions (enlarged bone around the joint of the big toe) and arthritis in both ankles, the result of a broken bone in childhood. He walked with a pronounced limp. He also had arthritis in his wrists. Becker’s gait had worsened noticeably in the three years since the Cubs acquired him from Dallas. Cubs trainer Andy Lotshaw taped Becker’s toes, feet, and ankles just so he could slip on his spikes. After games, whether he had played or not, Becker soaked his feet to reduce the massive swelling. In games he had difficulty moving around the first-base bag and breaking on sharply hit balls, and looked clumsy in the field; consequently, he was considered a defensive liability for his entire career. Despite his hitting abilities, Becker often fell when swinging the bat. His painful grimaces in the batter’s box became one of his trademarks. Though sportswriters referred to Becker occasionally as “Bunions,” his teammates were taken aback by his willingness to play despite his pain. “How the hell that guy ever stands up is beyond me,” said a Cubs player in 1945.xvii

After 16 consecutive pinch-hit appearances, Becker replaced Cavaretta at first base and made ten consecutive starts from June 3 to 14. He hit .333 (12-for-36), scored eight runs, knocked in nine, and cranked his first big-league home run, a two-run shot off the Reds’ Ed Heusser on June 10. Just when it appeared as though he had won the first-base job, he was called to Dallas for military induction on June 18. After an examination he was rejected because of his flat feet, bunions, and bad ankles. Cavaretta meanwhile was back at first base, went 12-for-17 (.706) during Becker’s absence, and regained the position.

“Heinz-a-poodle,” Jolly Cholly’s nickname for Becker, got his second chance to start when Cavaretta was sidelined with a shoulder injury in August.xviii The Cubs, who had taken over first place on July 8, were in a tight pennant race with the St. Louis Cardinals. From August 12 to September 3, Becker made 15 starts at first base (and three pinch-hit appearances), batted .322 (19-for-54), scored 14 runs, knocked in seven, and hit his second (and final) big-league home run, a two-run blast off Brooklyn’s Art Herring in a 20-6 Cubs victory. “Heinz Becker Proving Big Help to Cubs in Batting” read a headline over a United Press story about the switch-hitter.xix The media often had a field day with Becker, the only German-born player in the major leagues during World War II. (As of 2013 there had been 39 German-born players in the major leagues, including children born to US servicemen stationed in the country.) “Dogs Bark, but Heinz Becker Keep Going to Town. Cubs’ Berlin-Born Slugger proves Value Despite Misery in Pins,” announced The Sporting News.xx Like many players with German ancestry before him, Becker was sometimes referred to as Dutch in newspapers; however, his teammates did not call him that.xxi Other articles reported (what is sure to be a far-fetched tale ostensibly to underscore Becker’s loyalty to the US) that he turned down a personal offer from Adolf Hitler to return to Germany.

With his feet worsening, Becker made only three pinch-hit appearances in the final 27 games of the 1945 season. He finished with a .286 average (38-for-133) and 27 runs batted in. Grimm led the Cubs to their first pennant since 1938 and the team faced the Detroit Tigers, the overwhelming favorites, in the World Series. Becker pinch-hit three times in the Series: He struck out in the Game Two loss, singled off Dizzy Trout in the Game Four loss, and was intentionally walked in the Cubs’ Game Six victory. The Cubs lost the Series in seven games.

Immediately after World Series, Becker underwent operations on both feet. Dr. Walter R. Fischer at the Illinois Masonic Hospital removed bones at the joint of the big toes to reduce swelling and pain, and attempted to change the placement of existing bones.xxii Considered a medical success, the operation enabled Becker to continue playing baseball, but he never had full mobility in his feet and required regular medical treatment for the remainder of his playing career.

Five months after his operation, Becker began spring training at Catalina Island, California, but his feet were so weak and still swollen from the surgery that he could not wear baseball shoes and practiced in athletic socks.xxiii As if his foot problems were not bad enough, he was diagnosed with color blindness during camp.xxiv Once the 1946 season began, Becker, unable to play first base, made just nine pinch-hit appearances in the first 21 games. Frustrated by his health and lack of playing time, he demanded to be released or sold. “I’m through with baseball unless I can play regularly, regardless of whether as a major, minor, or semipro,” he said.xxv The Cubs granted Becker his wish and sold him to the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association. In his first at-bat for the Vols, on May 29, Becker hit a home run.xxvi

One of the hottest hitters in the Southern Association, Becker (.379 average in 51 games) was purchased by Bill Veeck, new owner of the Cleveland Indians on June 26 (first baseman Mickey Rocco was later sent to the Cubs to complete the deal). Describing Becker as a “stadium hitter,” Veeck thought his former Brewers first baseman was ideally suited for the deep power alleys in Cleveland Stadium. “He hits line drives between outfielders,” said Veeck.xxvii Taking over for Les Fleming at first base, Becker went 3-for-4 with two doubles and two runs scored in his debut on July 16. Off to a blistering start (15-for-34 in his first ten games), he hit a walk-off single in a 9-8 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics on July 25. Batting well over.300 for most of the season, Becker injured his hand in late August, and started only five games in September. In less than a half-season with the sixth-place Indians, Becker hit .299 (44-for-147).

Becker was released by the Indians on May 14, 1947, after just two at-bats. Given his age (31), his limited mobility at first base, and the fact that the Indians thought they had their first-sacker for the future (Eddie Robinson) and a capable backup (Les Fleming), they felt no need to keep Becker on the roster. Becker was signed by the Boston Braves two days later. His stroke of luck came when the Braves assigned him to the team he had enjoyed his most success with, the Milwaukee Brewers, now affiliated with the Braves. With Milwaukee’s large German community, Becker was a fan favorite. Teammates and sportswriters began calling him Der Schlager (the slugger).xxviii Back in the friendly confines of Borchert Field, Becker led the American Association with a .363 average (166-for-457), slugged a career-best .521 and knocked in 90 runs for the third-place Brewers. In the playoffs he hit a three-run home run to defeat the Louisville Colonels, 5-4, giving the Brewers their first American Association championship since 1936. Then Becker went 11-for-28 and scored eight runs to help lead Milwaukee to the Junior World Series title over the International League’s Syracuse Chiefs.xxix

As if on cue, Becker hit .321 for the second-place Brewers in 1948, barely missing out on a second consecutive batting title when he slumped at the end of the season. He still suffered from foot miseries and had limited range around first base, but he became adept at digging out bad throws to first, which earned him the nickname “The Claw” from manager Nick Cullop. In light of rumors that the Braves would soon call him up, Becker responded, “I want to play as a regular and I’m sure of that in the American Association.”xxx In fact, he never made it back to the big leagues. In December 1948 he was traded to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League.

After playing in a career-high 155 games for Seattle and batting a robust .313 with a personal-best 16 home runs and 101 runs batted in, the 33-year-old Becker was released after the season. Despite his gaudy offensive numbers, he was a defensive liability at first base (the only position he could play).  Paul Richards, the Rainers’ new manager, insisted on fundamentally sound baseball and good defense, and thus Becker was released. He returned to Dallas anticipating retirement from baseball, but was lured back to the diamond by Charlie Grimm, now the manager of the Dallas Eagles in the Texas League. The 35-year-old Becker hit .267 in 92 games and retired again at the conclusion of the season. In 1953 he made an abbreviated comeback. He signed with the Corpus Christi Aces of the Class B Gulf Coast League in midseason and batted .331 in 118 at-bats. His season came to an unexpected close when he seriously injured his shoulder trying to catch a boy who had fallen from the grandstand.xxxi

Der Schlager played in 152 big-league games and batted .263 (94-for-358) in parts of four seasons. In his 13-year minor-league career, he played in 1,538 games and batted.325.

On December 4, 1953, Becker was involved in an altercation with a man outside a Dallas tavern. Newspapers reported that Becker hit B.B. Sanders, who fell and fractured his skull, and died four days later. Becker was charged with murder, but the charges were dropped in March 1954 after a grand-jury investigation.xxxii

Becker remained a lifelong baseball fan in retirement. He participated in reunion games in Dallas and Milwaukee. Always competitive, he suffered a separated shoulder in an old-timer’s game that pitted former Milwaukee Brewers against the Braves in 1960.xxxiii

On November 11, 1991, on the 73rd anniversary of the armistice that ending the fighting in World War I, Heinz Reinhard Becker died at the age of 77 in Dallas. He was buried at the Restland Memorial Gardens. On March 22, 2001, his wife of 57 years, Hattie Lee Becker, joined him.

 

Sources

Chicago Daily Tribune 

New York Times 

The Sporting News 

Ancestry.com.

BaseballLibrary.com.

Baseball-Reference.com.

Retrosheet.com.

SABR BioPoject: http://sabr.org/bioproj/park/7d552f91 (Borchert Field).

 

Notes

i The Sporting News, October 4, 1945, 4.

ii According to documentation found on ancestry.com, including Becker’s social security number, death certificate, and burial information, he was born in 1914. Baseball-Reference.com gives 1915 as his date of birth.

iii The Sporting News, October 22, 1942, 14.

iv Ibid.

v Ibid

vi “All Star Teams Appear Well Matched,” (Associated Press) San Antonio Express, July 15, 1941, 3A.

vii Edward Burns, “Grimm’s Protégé Stakes Out Job as Cubs’ First Sacker,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 4, 1943, B5.

viii The Sporting News, November 13, 1941, 3.

ix The Sporting News, October 22, 1942, 14.

x “Heinz Becker Credits Wife for Success,” (Associated Press) Milwaukee Journal, April 2, 1943, 14.

xi “Cubs Acquire Becker on September 30,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 1, 1942, 32.

xii The Sporting News, June 10, 1943, 10.

xiii Jim Nitz, “Borchert Field (Milwaukee),” SABR BioProject. http://sabr.org/bioproj/park/7d552f91.

xiv The Sporting News, October 4, 1945, 4.

xv “Grimm Plans to Give Becker Trial at First Base,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 21, 1945, 25.

xvi The Sporting News, October 4, 1945, 4

xvii Ibid.

xviii The Sporting News, September 6, 1945, 4.

xix “Heinz Becker Proving Big Help to Cubs in Batting,” (United Press), The Daily Times (Beaver and Rochester, Pennsylvania), August 11, 1945, 7.

xx The Sporting News, October 4, 1945, 4.

xxi The practice of calling Germans “Dutch” has a long history dating back to pre-Colonial times in the United States. However, it should be noted that it is a corrupted form of the German word Deutsch (which is pronounced phonetically “Doich” in German). The Dutch, those from the Netherlands, are different than the Deutsch.

xxii “Operate Today on Heinz Becker to Help Foot,” Chicago Daily Tribune. October 18, 1945, 26.

xxiii The Sporting News, March 7, 1946, 7.

xxiv The Sporting News, March 28, 1946, 15.

xxv The Sporting News, May 23, 1946, 20.

xxvi Burns Bennett, “Cracker Hurler Adds to Record,” (United Press) Blytheville (Arkansas) Courier News, May 30, 1946, 6.

xxvii The Sporting News, July 10, 1946, 8.

xxviii In German, the word “hitter” is spelled Schläger; however, American newspapers usually could not print the accent mark called the umlaut, so the ä was typically changed to a. The word Schlager in German means “pop song.”

xxix “Becker’s Home Run Wins Championship for Milwaukee Nine,” San Jose Evening News, September 26, 1947, 11.

xxx The Sporting News, July 7, 1948, 19.

xxxi The Sporting News, August 12, 1953, 34.

xxxii “Murder Charge Dropped Against Heinz Becker,” Milwaukee Journal, March 22, 1954, 1.

xxxiii Red Thisted, “Braves’ Old Timers Just too Good, 11-5,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 10, 1960, 2.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.