John Beckwith (TRADING CARD DB)

May 22, 1921: Chicago Giants’ John Beckwith hits first home run over fence at Redland Field in Cincinnati

This article was written by John Fredland

Broad shouldered, round faced, moody, Beckwith was one of the first in that long line of black power hitters beginning with Louis Santop and Josh Gibson of the old Negro leagues and continuing down to Mays and Aaron of the modern major leagues. Some who saw him say Beckwith was the mightiest of them all.” — John Holway, 19761

 

John Beckwith (TRADING CARD DB)As insurgent sluggers drove out baseball’s Deadball Era, denting fences, scoreboards, and record books with Babe Ruth-inspired, hell-for-leather swings, some legacies from the days of spitters, split grips, and scientific ball lingered on. Waning small-ball relics in 1921 included an unspoiled Midwestern frontier, out of range for even the game’s strongest bats. Through more than nine years of big-league games at Redland Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds, no batter had ever cleared its fences with a home run.

An ascendant star in a new league turned the page. With the Negro National League’s Cincinnati Cuban Stars sharing Redland Field in 1921, John Beckwith of the Chicago Giants homered over the left-field fence on May 22, stealing headlines in a 14-2 loss to the Cuban Stars and sweeping in baseball’s new age in Cincinnati.

John Christopher Beckwith had debuted with Joe Green’s Chicago Giants, then an independent club, in 1919. A season later, the Giants were charter members of the Negro National League, competing as a traveling team without a dedicated home field.2 Barely past his teenage years, Beckwith emerged as a power threat; the Chicago Whip called him “the lad whom the fans around the circuit consider as the heaviest clotter in captivity.”3 “For power he was the hardest hitter I ever saw,” remembered Script Lee, who pitched against Beckwith in the 1920s. “I’d say Babe Ruth and Beckwith were about equal in power.”4

The Giants were road-bound again in 1921. After opening with a win over the Columbus Buckeyes on April 30, with Beckwith contributing a double, a run scored, and outstanding defense at shortstop, and tying the Buckeyes a day later, they lost four of five games to the St. Louis Giants.5 A week away from league play followed,6 then Cincinnati for their first swing at Redland Field.7

Built in the footprint of the Palace of the Fans, its predecessor as the Reds’ home ballpark, Redland Field’s left-field foul line extended 352 feet from home; right field was 400 feet.8 Straightaway center measured 420 feet.9 The fences stood as high as 18 feet — and remained, for many years, unreachable for hitters at the sport’s highest level.10

The Reds first played at Redland Field (later known as Crosley Field) in April 1912, squarely within the Deadball Era.11 No National Leaguer hit more than 14 home runs in 1912, no team hit more than 47, and nobody cleared the fence at Cincinnati’s home ballpark that season — or in any of the next eight campaigns, including the 1919 World Series against the Chicago White Sox.

Heinie Zimmerman, NL home-run champion in 1912, played 84 games at Redland Field without homering.12 Gavvy Cravath led or shared the league lead in homers every season but one from 1913 to 1919; 13 all he managed in 82 games in Cincinnati was two balls bounced into the stands, good for home runs under the rules at that time.14 Dave Robertson, who tied for the home-run lead in 1916 and 1917, and Cy Williams, also tied in 1916 and on top in 1920, were likewise fenced in at Redland Field.15

Even the 1919 Reds, who won nine more games than anyone else in the NL, scored more runs than all but one league foe, and fielded Hall of Fame-bound Edd Roush and frequent year-end leaderboard member Heinie Groh, counted no “outside the park” home runs among their season total of 10 homers at Redland Field. So remote were the fences that even near-miss foul balls — like the one that Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Hinchman hit in 1915 or 1916 — were remembered years later.16

The Cuban Stars, like the Giants an itinerant Negro National League team in 1920, began playing at Redland Field in 1921, fitting in games between Reds’ home dates.17 Through their first three weeks of competition there, Negro National League batters had no more success against Redland Field than their White counterparts, none of whom homered during the Reds’ first 12 home games in 1921.18

But baseball was changing, with home runs coming faster and farther. Babe Ruth’s 54 homers in 1920 had nearly doubled his year-old record total, and in mid-May of 1921 he was already running ahead of that pace. Veterans like George Kelly, Tillie Walker, and Ken Williams were all headed past 20 home runs apiece after years with mostly single-digit outputs.

Ruth himself had slugged the longest home run at Washington’s 10-year-old Griffith Stadium on May 6, and then belted an even longer blast the next day. Early-season evidence suggested that even Redland Field’s distant boundaries were in play; Pittsburgh’s Clyde Barnhart missed the left-field fence by mere feet with a foul on April 15.19

The Giants opened their series at Redland Field with a 6-4 win on May 21, scoring three runs in the eighth to break open a pitching duel between Chicago’s John Taylor and Cincinnati’s Jose Leblanc.20 The Giants overcame four hits by Cuban Stars leadoff hitter and second baseman Ramon “Mike” Herrera, a native of Havana who played in 84 games for the Boston Red Sox in 1925 and 1926, demonstrating a permeable aspect of baseball’s color line during the 1920s.21

Cuban Stars left-hander Claudio Manela, a native of the Philippines who had pitched the last two innings of the opener, returned a day later and held the Giants scoreless in the top of the first. Cincinnati then jumped ahead with three first-inning runs off Frank Wickware.

Beckwith led off the second. He swung at one of Manela’s offerings and pulled it deep to left. The ball sailed over the left-field fence, about 20 feet inside fair territory.22 It touched down on the roof of a factory building on the other side of an alley behind the left field fence.23 Beckwith had the first over-the-fence home run in Redland Field history, and Cincinnati’s lead was down to 3-1.

The Saturday crowd, reported at both 2,000 and 5,000 spectators in newspaper coverage,24 was “so excited over seeing such a remarkable drive they showered Beckwith with coins,” the Cincinnati Post reported.25 “[W]hen the money tossing had ceased, the Negro slugger was about $65 richer.”26

The Giants scored another run in the fourth to cut the deficit to one run. They drove Manela from the mound in the fifth, but Lucas Boada entered and held Cincinnati’s lead. The Cuban Stars then surged for five runs in the bottom of the fifth to put the game away. Luther Farrell relieved Wickware during that inning, and Cincinnati racked up a pair of three-run frames late in the game to coast to a 14-2 rout. The Cuban Stars pounded out 17 hits overall, seven for extra bases. Valentín Dreke and Bernardo Baró had three hits each, and Matías Ríos added two triples.

But the day’s hottest topic was Beckwith and his landmark clout. The Chicago Whip reported that Beckwith came close to a second home run when he “attempted to loop one into the right-field bleachers and missed doing so by only two feet.”27 Local coverage in Cincinnati’s newspapers, as well as national coverage in the Chicago Defender and Chicago Whip, highlighted Beckwith’s feat over the one-sided outcome.

The Cuban Stars and Giants closed out their series, and the Reds returned home on May 29.28 On June 2, 11 days after Beckwith’s blast, Pat Duncan of the Reds became the second player to clear Redland Field’s fence, homering against Ferdie Schupp of the St. Louis Cardinals in Cincinnati’s 8-5 win.

The Yankees, bound for their first pennant in franchise history, visited Redland Field on July 25 for an exhibition game.29 Ruth thrilled the crowd with two long home runs.30 One cleared the center-field wall, landing an estimated 450 feet from home.31 The other reached the bleachers in right.32 Thanks to Beckwith, Duncan, and the Sultan of Swat, baseball’s new era was underway at Redland Field.

Soon afterward, ballpark modifications made Redland Field’s fences more manageable.33 By 1954 Ted Kluszewski led the NL with 49 home runs, making him the only Red to lead the league during a full season in Cincinnati’s 48-year residence at Redland Field, by then known as Crosley Field.34

Beckwith continued to batter Negro National League pitching in 1921; his .371 average, .415 on-base percentage, and .559 slugging percentage made the league’s top five in each category. When the Giants dropped to an affiliated status for 1922, Beckwith joined Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants and was key to their third consecutive league championship.35 Beckwith’s professional career lasted through 1937. In 2020 sportswriter Joe Posnanski ranked him among the 50 greatest players not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.36

 

Sources

In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Seamheads.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material; newspaper game coverage in the Chicago Defender, Chicago Whip, Cincinnati Enquirer, and Cincinnati Union, which reprinted the Cincinnati Post’s coverage; John Holway’s 1976 SABR Baseball Research Journal article on John Beckwith; and SABR Baseball Biography Project biographies relevant to this game, especially Bill Nowlin’s biography of Ramon “Mike” Herrera and Lon Garber’s ballpark biography of Crosley Field.

SABR members Chris Hicks and Thomas Thress contributed essential research assistance with issues of the Chicago Defender. Cincinnati baseball historian Cam Miller did the same with the Cincinnati Union. Miller and Dr. Leslie Heaphy also provided insightful reviews of an earlier version of this article.

 

Notes

1 John Holway, “The Black Bomber Named Beckwith,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 5 (1976), available at https://sabr.org/journal/article/the-black-bomber-named-beckwith/.

2 Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 86; “Official Negro National League Schedule for May-June 1921,” Chicago Whip, April 23, 1921: 7.

3 Dave Wyatt, “Big Game Sunday,” Chicago Whip, October 2, 1920: 5.

4 “Holway, “The Black Bomber Named Beckwith.”

5 “St. Louis Giants Slaughter Windy City Pitchers: Mound City Boys Open the League Session Before Big Crowd[;] Team Work and Batting Thrill the Fans,” St. Louis Argus, May 13, 1921: 12; “St. Louis Giants Win Again From Chicago,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 10, 1921: 11; “St. Louis Giants Win on Charleston’s Rap for Homer in Eleventh,” St. Louis Star, May 13, 1921: 20; “St. Louis Giants Split,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 14, 1921: 6.

6 The Giants split two games with a White team in Muncie, Indiana, and swept two games from the Black Dayton Marcos. “Chicago Giants Put Bug on Us: Athletics Weaken in Ninth and Lose to Colored Athletes 8 to 2 — Leake to Pitch Today,” Muncie (Indiana) Sunday Star, May 15, 1921: 11; Bingle, “Shadmen Rally in Sunday Game: Locals Wallop Chicago Giants by Sensational Comeback After Losing Streak,” Muncie Evening Press, May 16, 1921: 5; “Chicago Giants Defeat Marcos,” Dayton Herald, May 18, 1921: 14.

7 “Giants Defeat Stars,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 21, 1921: 7.

8 Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of All Major League and Negro League Ballparks, 5th ed. (Phoenix: SABR, 2019), 89-90.

9 Lowry, 90.

10 Lowry.

11 Baseball’s “Deadball Era,” generally speaking, is considered to have lasted from 1901 to 1919. Dr. David J. Gordon, “The Rise and Fall of the Deadball Era,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2 (2018), 92-102.

12 Zimmerman led the National League with 14 home runs in 1912. He never hit more than nine in any other season of his 13-year career with the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants.

13 Cravath’s league-leading home-run totals ranged from 24 (in 1915) to 8 (in 1918). He hit 92 of his 119 major-league home runs in Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, his home field for most of his career and a haven for power hitting.

14 The American League changed its rules for the 1929 season to credit batters with doubles, rather than home runs, on balls that hit in fair territory and bounced over the outfield fence. The National League adopted the same rule after the 1930 season. Thomas Holmes, “Ban Is Put on Freak Home Runs Made by Bounces Into Stands,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 13, 1930: 12. Cravath’s first home run in Cincinnati, hit on August 2, 1913, appears to have involved a judgment call by umpire Bill Brennan. “Cravath’s homer was really only a three-bagger,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. “It was a beautiful drive to the farthest corner of right field, hitting the concrete wall and bounding back, so that [Jimmy] Sheckard was able to hold the runner at third. But the ball had disappeared for the fraction of a second in the run-way which leads out of the right-field bleachers, and though it bounded back instantly umpire Brennan ruled that it was a home run as the ball had gone out of his sight.” Jack Ryder, “Even Joe Couldn’t Set the Brakes: Reds Ate Out of the Hand of Eppa Rixey,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 3, 1913: 18. His second homer at Redland Field, on June 21, 1919, was judged “easily the longest drive ever made at Redland Field, at least since the new stands [on the site of the Palace of the Fans, former home of the Reds] were built in 1912”; it “was hit on a line to right-center, and carried so far that it went into the bleachers on the first bound at a point very close to the end of the seats, well down towards center field.” Cincinnati Enquirer coverage of Cravath’s 1919 home run noted that “[t]wo or three other home runs have been made on balls bounding into the stands” at Redland Field. Jack Ryder, “Phillies Cop the Last Battle of the Local Series at Redland: One Game Goes to Quakers, Who Break Long Losing Streak and Trim Reds,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 22, 1919: 20.

15 Robertson hit inside-the-park home runs at Redland Field in July 1916, August 1917, and May 1920. “Tesreau Subdues Matty’s Redlegs: Jeff’s Effectiveness and Giants’ Timely Hitting Result in 7 to 2 Victory,” New York Sun, August 6, 1917: 11; Jack Ryder, “Twice in the Same Place: Reds Drop Both Games to the Raging Cubs,” Cincinnati Enquirer,” May 4, 1920: 12. Williams had an inside-the-park home run in September 1913 and two more on consecutive days in April 1915.

16 In April 1921 Clyde Barnhart of the Pirates narrowly missed a home run at Redland Field. Pittsburgh’s Gazette Times observed, “Back in 1915 or 1916 Bill Hinchman … rattled a foul over the same section, it being the first time the ball was ever hit over the structure, according to Redland writers. From that date until the present no batter has been able to clear the lofty and distant rampart until [Barnhart] this afternoon.” Charles J. Doyle, “Cooper Lands Victory Over Reds, 7 to 2: Rooting Helps as Team Wins Second Game,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, April 15, 1921: 9.

17 “Cuban Stars to Play,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 19, 1921: 7.

18 The Cuban Stars opened their home schedule with two losses in three games against the Indianapolis ABCs. They then hosted nonleague series against the Cleveland Tates and Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. “A.B.C.s Beat Cubans,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1921: 26; “Second Straight Win Registered by A.B.C. Team of Indianapolis Over Cuban Stars,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 2, 1921: 11; “Cubans Back Up Pitcher With Opportune Hitting and Beat Indianapolis A.B.C., 7 to 2,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 5, 1921: 14; “Make It Two Straight: Cuban Stars Take Forest City Team Into Camp, 6 to 2,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 16, 1921: 11; “Giants Trim Stars in Third Game of Series — Double Bill for Saturday,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 20, 1921: 7; “Giants Defeat Stars.”

19 Doyle, “Cooper Lands Victory Over Reds, 7 to 2.” Barnhart’s near-miss drew national attention. A column of news items in the New York Daily News noted it as “an achievement, even if it was foul.” John B. Foster, “Bunts and Bingles,” New York Daily News, April 29, 1921: 20.

20 “Giants Beat Cubans: Taylor Bests Le Blanc in Pitching Duel at Redland Field,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 22, 1921: 20

21 “Giants Beat Cubans.”

22 According to the Chicago Defender, Beckwith’s home run “cleared the left field wall by three feet and just several feet east of the large clock.” “5,000 See Beckwith Knock Ball Over Wall for Homer,” Chicago Defender, May 28, 1921: 11. The Cincinnati Post described the homer as “fair by about 30 feet and about 10 feet higher than the concrete wall.” “Breaks Batting Record: Beckwith Breaks Batting Record in Contest Between Chicago Giants and Cuban Stars,” Cincinnati Union, May 28, 1921: 1.

23 “Breaks Batting Record.”

24 The Cincinnati Post described “about 2000 persons looking on”; the Cincinnati Enquirer reported “[f]ive thousand fans at Redland Field.” “Breaks Batting Record.”

25 “Breaks Batting Record.”

26 The Cincinnati Post reported a collection of $65; the Chicago Defender had it at $25. “Breaks Batting Record”; “5,000 See Beckwith Knock Ball Over Wall for Homer.”

27 “5,000 See Beckwith Knock Ball Over Wall for Homer.”

28 “Boro’s Homer Wins for Cuban Stars Against Green,” Chicago Defender, May 28, 1921: 11; “Sensational Plays Feature,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 25, 1921: 13.

29 Jack Ryder, “More Honors Fall to Swat King: Ruth Hits Two Homers at Redland Field,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 26, 1921: 8.

30 Ryder.

31 Ryder.

32 Ryder.

33 The Reds moved home plate 20 feet closer to center field in 1927 and another 20 feet in 1938. Left field was ultimately 328 feet from home plate, right field 366 feet, and center field 375. Lowry, 89-90.

34 In 1970 Cincinnati moved to Riverfront Stadium in June, and Johnny Bench led the NL with 45 home runs.

35 “Rube Foster Re-elected President of Negro National Baseball League,” California Eagle, February 11, 1922: 6.

36 Joe Posnanski, “The Outsiders: The Best Baseball Players Not in the Hall of Fame,” The Athletic, December 9, 2020, available at https://theathletic.com/2245618/2020/12/09/the-outsiders-the-best-baseball-players-not-in-the-hall-of-fame-50-41/.

Additional Stats

Cincinnati Cuban Stars 14
Chicago Giants 2


Redland Field
Cincinnati, OH

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