SABR

Fred Beebe

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

A hard-throwing right-hander, Fred Beebe began and ended his major-league career in fine style. As a rookie in 1906, he posted 15 wins and led the National League in strikeouts. Ten years later, he provided excellent spot starter-relief work as a midseason Cleveland Indians call-up. In between, Beebe suffered from bouts of wildness, arm problems, and mostly from pitching for awful St. Louis Cardinals teams. Still, Beebe persevered, even after Cleveland discarded him after the 1916 season. He continued to pitch, turning in first-rate minor-league seasons until he retired from the game six years later at age 42.

Frederick Leonard Beebe and his twin sister, Minnie (Mary Yates Beebe), were born on December 31, 1879, in Lincoln, Nebraska.1 They were the youngest of five children born to traveling salesman John Hillis Beebe (1846-1903) and his wife, the former Julia Titus (1844-1923).2 When Fred was a youngster, the family relocated to Chicago, where Fred attended local schools. At Hyde Park High School in suburban south-side Chicago, Beebe was a baseball standout, alternating between the mound and third base. When pitching, the large (6-feet-1, eventually 190 pounds) and overage (for some reason Beebe did not finish high school until he was 21) Beebe dominated opposing batsmen, usually registering double-digit strikeouts. In 1900 and 1901 Beebe and catcher Samuel Ransom were city league all-stars.3 They also formed Chicago’s first known interracial battery, with Ransom (black) succeeding Beebe (white) as Hyde Park team captain in 1902.4

After his high-school graduation, Beebe matriculated to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in electrical engineering. Once on campus, he also entered the domain of George Huff, the Fighting Illini baseball coach and athletic director. Given Beebe’s size and athletic ability, he was immediately drafted for the football program and placed in a starting eleven that featured halfback-captain Carl Lundgren, defensive tackle-fullback Jake Stahl, linemen Claude Rothgeb, and left end Jim Cook, all of whom would go on to play major-league baseball. At the right-end position of a nonpassing team, Beebe’s value to the team reposed in his right leg. He was an outstanding punter, an indispensible team asset in the days of field-position football.5 In two years on the gridiron, Fred played on Illini teams that posted a handsome 18-4-1 overall record.

While no more than a spear-carrier on the football team, Beebe was a Fighting Illini standout on the diamond. As a freshman, he pitched sparingly as big-game assignments invariably went to upperclassmen Lundgren and Cy Falkenberg.6 He did, however, post a complete-game 7-3 victory over the University of Chicago in a rare mound outing in early May of 1902. But for the most part, Fred, a good righty batter, played third base for the 1902 Western (later Big Ten) Conference champions. During the summer recess, Beebe sharpened his hurling skills pitching for amateur teams in Wisconsin.7 The following collegiate season, he was the ace of a 17-1 Fighting Illini nine that won a second consecutive Western Conference crown. Fred’s college career was now complete, as he left Illinois after the death of his father in August 1903. For the next year he “worked at his profession in electrical engineering, and played [weekends] with semi-pro teams.”8 In March 1905 the Beebe name was back on Chicago sports pages, with Fred coming to the aid of University of Chicago football star Walter Eckersall, a former teammate on the Hyde Park High School baseball team. Eckersall had been banned from competition by the Amateur Athletic Union for reportedly accepting payment for performance at a track meet, and a letter from Beebe was a significant factor in Eckersall’s exoneration and reinstatement by the AAU.9

Fred entered professional baseball in 1905, signing with the Oshkosh Indians of the Class D Wisconsin League. By season’s end he was the circuit leader in wins (27), strikeouts (291), and winning percentage (.727).10 At the urging of Coach Huff, who doubled as a scout for the Chicago Cubs, Beebe was drafted by Chicago,11 now poised on the cusp of National League dominance. Initial reports on the new Cubs acquisition were promising: “Fred Beebe, the young giant hurler signed by Chicago, is a rattling good third baseman and hitter. … Beebe has a good disposition and is always out to win. He has marvelous speed and George Huff thinks that he will make good with a vengeance.”12 But making the Chicago roster seemed a daunting proposition. In spring camp, Fred battled for the sixth position on the Cubs staff, behind established veterans Mordecai Brown, Ed Reulbach, Bob Wicker, and Carl Lundgren, and coveted lefty prospect Jack Pfiester.13 Despite the odds, Beebe made the club, cementing his position on the Opening Day roster by combining with Lundgren in a 2-0 whitewash of their alma mater in a late-exhibition-season game played in Urbana-Champaign.14

Beebe made his major-league debut on April 17, 1906, pitching a scoreless ninth inning in a 6-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton advised readers that Beebe showed “terrific speed” but had walked the bases full before striking out the final two batters.15 Another Beebe appearance impressed Sporting Life correspondent W.A. Phelon, who wrote: “The surprise has been the work of Beebe, a tall, angular college pitcher. Beebe has been sent in to finish twice games already lost, and the enemy were like clay in his hands each time. He whips the ball through like a bullet and the strikeouts come thick and often on his delivery.”16 On May 1 a complete game 5-1 triumph over the Cardinals gave Beebe his first big-league win. Over the next six weeks, he posted five more victories. But pitching chances in the overcrowded Cubs rotation came only irregularly, and on June 21 Beebe finally turned in a clunker, a 10-1 loss as a starter to the last-place Boston Braves. A week later he was gone, traded with catcher Pete Noonan and $7,500 to St. Louis for veteran right-hander Jack Taylor.

The transfer would prove a cruel blow to Fred Beebe. At the time of his departure from Chicago, his record stood at 6-1, with a 2.70 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched for a team headed toward the best regular season record (116-36) in major-league history and three consecutive NL pennants. Now he would toil for one of baseball’s worst teams, the St. Louis Cardinals. Their sorry 52-98 log for 1906 was hardly the fault of the club’s new hurler. He went 9-9 in 19 starts for the Cards, striking out 116 in 160⅔ innings pitched. In all between his two clubs, the 26-year-old rookie had gone 15-10. His 171 strikeouts were tops in the National League, while his on-base average against (.209) and hits-per-game ratio (6.67) were fourth-best in the circuit.17 From there, Beebe’s numbers took on the characteristics of the lousy clubs that he had to pitch for. But for the moment, life was good. On October 24, 1906, Fred married sweetheart Maude Stannard in Chicago, then honeymooned in North Dakota.18 In time, the birth of daughter Virginia (born 1907) and son Frederick (1911) would complete the family. Meanwhile on the baseball front, Beebe was reported to be “much delighted with the $3,000 contract sent to him by the Robisons [the St. Louis team owners]. He says that he was splendidly treated in St. Louis and more than happy to go back there.”19 But before returning to the Mound City, he spent the early preseason period back on a college campus, tutoring pitching staff hopefuls at the University of Indiana.20

The first of three nightmarish seasons in St. Louis began with the 1907 campaign. Despite hurling four shutouts, Beebe posted a dismal 7-19 record that included a midseason ten-game losing streak. The season, however, was not without a few redeeming features. Fred’s strikeout total (141) was fourth-highest in the NL, while his 5.32 strikeouts per game ranked second. His ERA (2.72) was Deadball Era-respectable, and the opposition had been held to a .230 batting average. But control problems – 109 walks issued and 15 wild pitches – also permeated the season. In the end, the last-place (52-101) Cardinals finished a whopping 55½ games behind the pennant-winning (107-45) Chicago Cubs, the club that Beebe had pitched for only a year before.

The following season brought more of the same for Beebe, in slightly smaller doses. Given only 19 starts, his 5-13 log was about on par with the 49-105 record posted by another noncompetitive St. Louis team. In 1909 the Cardinals (54-98) vacated the NL cellar, displaced by a Boston Braves club (45-108) that was even worse. But for the third straight season, St. Louis had not come within 50 games of the pennant-winner, the Pittsburgh Pirates (110-42). In 44 games, Beebe posted a decent 15-21 record with a 2.82 ERA, pacing the Cardinals staff in wins, losses, and innings pitched (287⅔). Control, however, remained a problem. Beebe’s walk total (104) was virtually the equal of his strikeouts (105), and his 15 wild pitches were the most in the NL. Relief from the situation took the form of an offseason trade to the Cincinnati Reds.21 Now pitching for a mediocre (as opposed to a terrible) club, Beebe posted a 12-14 record about in keeping with the 75-79 overall mark of the 1910 Reds. A multiplayer trade then sent Beebe to his third club in the calendar year: the Philadelphia Phillies.22 Unbeknownst to the Phillies, they had acquired damaged goods. A sore arm, which Beebe later attributed to overuse of his roundhouse curve, limited the now 31-year-old hurler to nine appearances during the 1911 season. When he was able to pitch, Beebe was ineffective, a facially-neutral 3-3 record belied by a high 4.47 ERA and 79 baserunners allowed in only 48⅓ innings pitched. During a July 20 game against Pittsburgh, a line drive struck Beebe on the pitching hand, necessitating seven stitches and putting him out of action for a month.23 Before the recuperation period was up, Philadelphia sent Beebe (and an undisclosed amount of cash) to the Buffalo Bisons of the Class A Eastern League in exchange for catcher Bill Killefer.24

Against the odds, Beebe’s career revived in Buffalo. Some years later, he explained that, once the roundhouse had been jettisoned from his pitching repertoire, he began experimenting with other types of breaking balls, pitches that proved both effective substitutes and easier to control. He also changed his pitching approach, forgoing constant hard stuff in order to pitch to batter weaknesses.25 The recipe worked. Pitching one rung below the majors, a rejuvenated Beebe went 16-10 in 272⅓ innings for a fifth place (71-78) Buffalo club. The following season, he fell off to 11-14 in a reduced 188⅔ frames, and drew no interest from the new arrival on the major-league scene, the Federal League. But Fred bounced back in 1914, going 22-10 as Buffalo (89-61) advanced to second place in the International League.26 Despite that fine performance and his prior big-league experience, Beebe went surprisingly unpursued by any of the clubs in the now-three major-league circuits. He therefore returned to Buffalo, where he was the outstanding pitcher in the International League of 1915. His league-leading 27 wins included an August 18 no-hitter against Montreal, and Beebe led IL pitchers in winning percentage (.794), as well. He also went a career-high 301⅓ innings for the pennant-winning (86-50) Bisons.

Beebe reasonably assumed that he would now receive another major-league shot, but his age and circumstance worked against him. Managers John McGraw (New York Giants) and Pat Moran (Philadelphia Phillies) deemed the now 36-year-old Beebe too old to be of interest.27 Perhaps more crippling to Beebe and others aspiring to advance in status, the demise of the Federal League after the 1915 season drastically reduced the number of berths available in major-league baseball. The Buffalo Bisons tried to take advantage of the situation. Notwithstanding his superb pitching the previous year, Buffalo offered Beebe a 1916 contract with a pay cut. Fred rejected the pact, choosing instead to become head baseball coach at the University of Indiana.28 That spring, he guided the Hoosiers to an 8-4 mark. Thereafter, Fred pitched for a semipro team in Peru, Indiana, where he caught the eye of the pitching-strapped Cleveland Indians.29 It cost Cleveland owner James Dunn $5,000 to secure Beebe’s release from Buffalo,30 and he reportedly told Beebe that “he was being taken merely on trial and that if he didn’t make good, he would be released.”31 Beebe thereupon informed his new employer that “You won’t have to release me. If I can’t pitch the sort of ball that I know is my best and that ought to win games, then I’ll quit of my own accord.”32

Beebe soon rendered the issue academic. In his Cleveland debut, on June 26, 1916, Beebe fired a three-hit shutout at the Chicago White Sox, winning 3-0.33 He was almost as good the next time out, beating the St. Louis Browns 3-1 on a five-hitter. Hampered by a swollen pitching hand, Fred was hit hard by Detroit in his next start, but returned to form with a fine four-hits/no-earned-runs performance against Boston days later. The sports press was enthralled by the success of a grizzled pitcher unseen in the majors for the past five seasons, giving Beebe’s comeback plenty of newsprint.34 Fred continued to be useful in spot starter-relief duty for the remainder of the season, finishing 5-3, with a 2.41 ERA in 100⅔ innings pitched for the sixth place (77-77) Indians. Notwithstanding such fine work, Beebe did not figure in Cleveland plans. That December the club sold his contract to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League.35 The major-league career of Fred Beebe had come to its close.

In seven seasons, Beebe had compiled a record of 62-83 (.428), the promise of his rookie season stiffed by assignment to the awful St. Louis Cardinals of the era. In 1294⅓ innings pitched, he posted a commendable 2.86 ERA, and had been difficult to hit, as reflected in a .227 opponents batting average. But Beebe had been hampered by control problems, with a walks/HBP total (580) that approached his strikeouts (634) number. Some years later, a news feature on former University of Illinois pitching stars maintained that “Beebe had more stuff than [Carl Lundgren and Cy Falkenberg] but was wild and erratic. … He was unhittable when he was running right.”36

Notwithstanding his age and the demotion, Beebe still wanted to pitch – but not for Portland. He declined to report, effectively compelling the sale of his contract to the Louisville Colonels of the American Association.37 Beebe became a rotation regular in Louisville, going 16-13, with a 2.26 ERA in 226 innings for the second-place (88-66) Colonels. He returned to Louisville the following year but was less effective, posting a 4-6 record before the American Association season was suspended on July 21, 1918. Fred then returned to his home in Paonia, Colorado, listing himself as a self-employed farmer on his World War I draft registration form. He declined to return to Louisville when the American Association resumed operation in 1919 and was placed on the club’s suspended list.38 Rather, he stayed close to home, organizing an unrecognized baseball league on the western slope of Colorado.39 Fred continued to play in Colorado and Wyoming the following year, all the while remaining on the Louisville suspended list.40

In 1921 Beebe expressed a desire to return to Organized Baseball. Louisville promptly obliged, reinstating the now 41-year-old hurler and then selling him to the Wichita Witches of the Class A Western League.41 The new association proved a happy one, as Beebe went 19-9 in 255 innings for the pennant-winning (92-61) Witches. In 1922, Fred posted a 12-15 mark in 38 games for a repeat WL champion (106-51) Wichita club. He then hung up the glove, having won a combined 216 major/minor-league games.

After his retirement from the professional game, Fred signed to become an assistant baseball coach at Purdue University.42 But shortly before Beebe was scheduled to take up his duties, the university announced that he had been released from his contract “so that he might accept a permanent business position.”43 From then on, Fred worked as an engineer for the People’s Gas Company of Chicago, until an unspecified illness precipitated his retirement in 1937. He lived on for another 20 years, cloaked in the anonymity of private life.44 Beebe’s final years were darkened by the death of his wife, Maude, in 1952 and that of his son, Fred, the next year. In May 1957 Beebe was admitted to Elgin State Hospital in Elgin, Illinois. He remained hospitalized there until his death from pneumonia on October 30, 1957. He was 77. After funeral services conducted by a Presbyterian minister, Frederick Leonard Beebe was laid to rest in Parkholm Cemetery in LaGrange, Illinois. Survivors included his daughter,Virginia Beebe Patterson; his older sister, Julia Beebe Fowler; and his twin, Minnie Beebe Curry.

 

Notes

1 Sources for the biographical data presented herein include material in the Fred Beebe file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; Beebe family tree info accessed via Ancestry.com; Retrosheet; The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd ed., Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1997), and certain of the newspaper articles cited below, particularly the Beebe obituary published in the LaGrange (Illinois) Citizen, November 6, 1957.

2 In addition to twin sister Minnie (1879-1969), Fred’s siblings were William Melvin III (1875-1949), Julia (1876-1963), and John Jr. (1877-1935). The Beebe family descended from English colonists who arrived in Connecticut in 1650.

3 Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1901.

4 “Colored Boy to Captain Hyde Park Nine,” Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1901. Ransom was re-elected Hyde Park baseball team captain for the 1903 season.

5 In the run-up to the game against arch-rival University of Chicago, one press dispatch reported that “Beebe’s kicking has been as good as any seen on Illini fields for several years and his punts are expected to gain ground for Illinois [in the Chicago game].” Chicago Tribune, October 25, 1902.

6 Both Lundgren, 91-55 in eight seasons with the Chicago Cubs, and Falkenberg, a 130-game winner with seven major league clubs, would later have fine professional careers.

7 Primarily, Beebe pitched for the Olivers of Woodstock, Wisconsin. Late in the summer, he also pitched for the Kenosha Athletics and lost a 9-1 exhibition game to the New York Giants, as reported in the Chicago Tribune, August 27, 1902.

8 Alfred Henry Spink, The National Game (St. Louis: The National Game Publishing Co., 1910), 122. Press reports indicate that Beebe pitched for semipro clubs in South Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois. See, e.g., Chicago Tribune, April 13 and September 11, 1904.

9 As reported in the Chicago Tribune, March 5, 1905. His eligibility restored, Eckersall went on to lead the Maroon to the unofficial national championship of 1905. He was posthumously inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

10 Baseball-Reference has no data for Beebe’s 1905 season. The statistics provided above were drawn from contemporaneous newspaper accounts and The Official Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 147.

11 As reported in Sporting Life, October 7 and November 18, 1905.

12 Sporting Life, February 10, 1906.

13 As per Sporting Life, March 10, 1906.

14 Chicago Tribune, April 15, 1906.

15 Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1906.

16 Sporting Life, May 5, 1906.

17 Beebe was not the only former University of Illinois pitcher to perform well in 1906. Carl Lundgren had gone 17-6 for the pennant-winning Cubs, while Cy Falkenberg had struck out 178, second-most in the American League, in posting a 14-20 record for a bad (55-95) Washington Senators club.

18 As per Sporting Life, November 3, 1906.

19 As per the Washington Evening Star and Sporting Life, January 26, 1907.

20 As reported in the Daily Illinois State Register (Springfield), January 20, 1907, San Jose Mercury News, February 3, 1907, and elsewhere. The Hoosiers went on to post an 8-5 record for head coach Jake Stahl.

21 On February 3, 1910, St. Louis traded Beebe and infielder Alan Storke to Cincinnati in exchange for second basemen Miller Huggins, outfielder Rebel Oakes, and right-hander Frank Corridon. The Reds had long been after Beebe, but a proposed May 1908 trade for him had fallen through when Reds infielder Hans Lobert balked at going to St. Louis.

22 On November 12, 1910, Cincinnati sent Beebe, Lobert, outfielder Dode Paskert, and pitcher Jack Rowan to Philadelphia in exchange for outfielder Johnny Bates, third baseman Eddie Grant, and pitchers George McQuillan and Lew Moren.

23 As reported in the Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, July 20, 1911.

24 As reported in the Boston Herald and Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot, August 19, 1911, and elsewhere.

25 See e.g., the Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 6, 1916, and the Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times-Leader, January 2, 1917. Newsprint chronicling Beebe comeback in 1916 had him reiterating the Clark Griffith adage that “A pitcher never knows anything until his arm goes bad. Then he has to make his head do what formerly had been accomplished by his muscles.” Milwaukee Journal, July 30, 1916.

26 After the 1911 season, the minor leagues were reordered, with the Eastern League renamed the International League and given the newly created designation of Class AA, one notch below major-league level.

27 According to the Fort Worth Telegram, July 16, 1916. Like many ballplayers, Beebe had shaved a year off his age. During his playing career, it was believed that he had been born in 1880, not 1879.

28 As reported in the Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1916.

29 As per the Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1916, and the Washington Evening Star, September 1, 1916.

30 According to The Oregonian (Portland), April 10, 1917. Buffalo had placed Beebe on the suspended list after he refused to sign the proffered 1916 contract and retained a reserve clause-based hold on Beebe’s services.

31 Daily Illinois State Register, July 30, 1916.

32 Ibid.

33 Beebe’s shutout came in the second game of a June 26, 1916, doubleheader. In the opening contest, the Cleveland Indians became the first major-league team to play with numbers on their uniforms.

34 See, e.g., “Comeback Sensation of the Year,” Sporting Life, July 6, 1916; “Do They Come Back? Here’s One Now,” San Diego Union, July 8, 1916; and “Veteran Beebe Scores Come-Back,” San Diego Evening Tribune, July 18, 1916.

35 As reported in The Oregonian, December 22, 1916, and elsewhere.

36 Rockford (Illinois) Republic, July 15, 1920.

37 See The Oregonian, January 7 and 24, 1917. See also, Jackson (Michigan) Citizen Patriot and Bellingham (Washington) Herald, February 16, 1917.

38 As per the 1920 Reach Guide, 277.

39 As reported in the Denver Post, May 2, 1919.

40 See the Denver Post, March 14, 1920, and April 30, 1922, and the 1921 Reach Guide, 210.

41 As reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Daily Illinois State Journal, and Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, March 22, 1921.

42 Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press, December 14, 1922; Canton (Ohio) Repository, December 30, 1922.

43 Evansville Courier and Press, February 10, 1924.

44 No occupation for the 60-year-old Beebe is specified in the 1940 US Census and he listed himself as “retired” on his World War II draft card form. A notation on Beebe’s error-filled October 1957 death certificate listed his occupation as a “salesman.”

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