Erve Beck

Erve Beck: The Prince of Forgotten Firsts

This article was written by David Nemec

This article was published in SABR Deadball Era newsletter articles

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the April 2018 edition of the SABR Deadball Era Committee newsletter. 

Erve BeckOn April 24, 1901, the American League’s inaugural day as a major league, Cleveland Blues second baseman Erve Beck collected the loop’s first extra-base hit when he led off the top of the ninth inning with a double off Chicago’s rookie sensation Roy Patterson, in an 8-2 loss. Even though Cleveland lost again the following day to the Windy City entry, 7-3, and eventually finished a dismal seventh, Beck added to his growing collection of Famous Historical Firsts when he banged the AL’s first home run, a solo blast off John Skopec. In addition to his numerous Famous Firsts, Beck also at one time held the professional baseball record for the most doubles in a season — 71 for Toledo in 1900. Known as one of the best bad-ball hitters of his day, the right-handed batter and thrower was especially lethal on pitches up around his neck, but his strength was countered by a stubborn inability to avoid stepping away from the plate on low curves, an observation about him that was first noted by the July 31, 1897, The Sporting News.

A lifelong resident of Toledo, Beck was born in that northwestern Ohio city on July, 19, 1878. His family and school history are still sketchy, but the likelihood is that he never made it through high school since his first pro game came at age 16 in 1895 for the Adrian Reformers of the Michigan State League. Among his teammates that season were two fellow pro neophytes that he would later face in the major leagues, pitcher Bill Carrick and the immortal Honus Wagner. In his debut Beck went a nifty 2-for-5 and clubbed his first of 85 home runs as a professional. Owing to the financial collapse of several teams in the eight-club loop, the Class B Michigan State League season was terminated prematurely in early September leaving Adrian alone in first place, three-and-a-half games ahead of the second place Lansing Senators.

The following year Beck signed with his hometown Toledo Swamp Angels under owner-manager Charley Strobel and was quickly tagged with the nickname “Lizzie” for an unknown reason. At 5’10” and 168 pounds, he was seemingly on the slender side, but Sporting Life in its April 12, 1902, issue described him as: “a compactly built fellow, who seems possessed of great strength.” Though Beck’s .371 BA in 1896 not only won the Interstate League batting crown but also was instrumental in sparking Toledo to the loop pennant, perhaps because he was still just 18 at the close of the campaign, he was viewed as too young yet to play against stiffer competition and remained in Toledo the following year.

On May 9, 1897, during at game at Toledo’s Casino Park, while everyone in attendance watched in horror as a squall of wind capsized a yacht in the bay outside the ball yard, Beck leaped the outfield fence along with teammate Melville Smith. The two then grabbed a boat and rowed out in time to rescue Professor Mathias, a prominent Toledo musician and teacher, a heroic act that only amplified his mounting baseball laurels. Though Beck’s batting average slipped to .343 in 1897, he again carried Strobel’s Toledo club (now known as the Mud Hens) to a repeat Interstate League flag. In mid-September, unbeknownst to Beck, as per The Sporting News of September 25, 1897, Phillies manager George Stallings, in need of a second baseman, came to a Toledo game to scout Beck, only to spurn him when he got into a row with a spectator and was ejected for vile language. Stallings instead purchased the less volatile Kohly Miller, a second baseman on New Castle, a rival Interstate League team, who proved a poor choice and was released by the Phils after just three games.

Following the 1897 season, Beck was sold to the National League Cleveland Spiders along with several Toledo teammates. In January 1898 accusations flew in Midwestern sporting papers that the sale was a ruse staged by Strobel to avoid losing any of his key players in the annual draft to teams of a higher classification. Strobel vehemently denied that Toledo’s transaction with Cleveland was a sham deal and offered to show papers to prove it but then undercut his credibility by saying, “I would rather take my men and throw them into the lake than to stoop so low as to take $300 (the draft price for Interstate League players that year) apiece for them.” In the July 23, 1898, The Sporting News, it finally emerged that at close of the 1897 season Toledo released the players it most wanted to retain to Cleveland, which reserved them for 1898 in return for the one Mud Hen it really wanted, pitcher George Kelb, and then released all of them but Kelb in spring of 1898 to Toledo. The clandestine arrangement between Toledo and Cleveland was similar to one that Cincinnati had with Indianapolis of the Western League, and though both The Sporting News and Sporting Life decried the practice, as did baseball writers in most major league cities, it was quasi-legal in a time before minor league teams openly became affiliates of major league clubs.

As a result, by 1898 Beck had begun to feel he was trapped in Toledo and responded by slumping to .297 as the Mud Hens lost the Interstate pennant by half a game to Bill Armour’s Dayton Old Soldiers. By the end of that season, though barely out of his teens, there were also intimations that Beck was developing a serious problem with alcohol. When he rebounded in 1899, his fourth straight year with Toledo, to hit .320 and top the Interstate League in hits, home runs, total bases, and doubles, on peripatetic baseball scout Ted Sullivan’s recommendation Brooklyn manager Ned Hanlon purchased the young second sacker for $1,000 and ordered him to report to Hanlon’s Superbas that year as soon as Toledo’s season ended. In Beck’s major league debut on September 19, 1899, at Brooklyn after the Superbas had sewn up the National League pennant, he played second base and went 0-for-4 in a 4-3 loss to Chicago’s Jimmy Callahan. After an eight-game trial under Hanlon in which he hit just .167 with no extra-base hits, Beck became Toledo property again, when it developed that Brooklyn had remitted only $150 of his purchase price and refused to pay Toledo the rest. While Strobel celebrated Beck’s return to Toledo, Sullivan predicted that Brooklyn had made a bad mistake, as Beck would prove in the next 10 years to be one of the greatest hitters in the game.

Few disputed Sullivan when Beck won his second Interstate League batting crown in 1900 and set a new pro record for doubles with 71 that lasted until Lyman Lamb slammed 100 two-baggers for Tulsa of the Western League in 1924. Cleveland skipper Jimmy McAleer happily grabbed Beck to join with three former National League stalwarts — first baseman Candy LaChance, third baseman Bill Bradley and shortstop Frank Scheibeck — and form what promised to be one of the American League’s better infields in its maiden major league season. The Sporting News noted in its first issue in 1901 that upon learning that he would finally be earning big league money, Beck revealed to his fellow employees at his job that winter at the Byrnes Bowling Parlor in Toledo that he’d secretly married his sweetheart Mamie Hilsenbock about a year earlier.

Soon after the end of the 1901 season in which he hit a solid .289 and led the Blues in homers and RBIs, Beck made another, less joyful revelation: There was no way he would sign with Cleveland again after he learned that McAleer was leaving the team and he would have to play under its new manager, Bill Armour. The ill will was mutual — the two had a contentious history dating back to 1897 when Armour managed the Dayton Interstate League team — and despite Beck’s strong rookie numbers, Armour, an enemy of players troubled by alcoholism, made no effort to retain him. No sooner had Beck jumped to the National League, signing with Cincinnati for $3,000, than Armour hired Frank Bonner to replace him. Bonner became a benchwarmer when Cleveland, for legal reasons, was made the happy recipient of the Philadelphia A’s star second sacker Nap Lajoie shortly after the 1902 season began. Meanwhile, Beck, after opening the season batting fifth for Cincinnati and logging the first home run in the Reds’ new Palace of the Fans park on Opening Day, April 17, off Jack Taylor of the Chicago Orphans, injured his knee, cutting his range at second base. After being tried unsuccessfully both at first base and in the outfield, he was released in mid-July even though he was among the team’s leading hitters at .305. Sporting Life reported on July 22, 1902, that his walking papers officially came the afternoon before the Reds headed off to St. Louis, but he “heard the whisper ‘23’ when they handed him the screw number several days before and started for the East to join Grandpa (Frank) Dwyer’s luckless Tigers, who have quit eating raw meat and are now down to a milk diet.” On arrival Beck signed with the Detroit American League club, replacing injured rookie first baseman Pete Lepine. By the time Lepine recovered, a Motor City observer wrote: “Detroit fans have taken so kindly to Erve Beck that they would hate to see him relegated to the bench.”

Though Lepine never regained his job, Beck failed to impress Detroit brass enough to be retained despite hitting .296 for the seventh-place Tigers after falling below .300 in his major league coda on September 27, 1902, at Detroit when he played first base and went 0-for-4 in a 2-0 loss to Cleveland’s Gus Dorner in the second game of a season-ending doubleheader. After working that winter in a Toledo lumberyard, he joined Shreveport in 1903 and led the Southern League in hits. Beck’s .331 batting average also lead all SA players with 400 or more at-bats, although Little Rock’s Jim Delahanty was officially awarded the hitting crown by dint of his .383 mark despite just 345 at-bats. Beck’s bad knee continued to plague him, however, especially since speed had never been one of his assets.

Beck played for Portland of the Pacific Coast League in 1904, also acting as team captain, and then returned to the Southern League in 1905 as the first baseman and captain with New Orleans. The following season, after being released, first by New Orleans and then by Nashville, Beck played one game with the Augusta Tourists of the SALLY League on August 6, 1906, and then abandoned pro ball although still just 28 years old. He returned to Toledo where he worked in a tavern for the remainder of his short life. Beck died at his home on 717 George Street in Toledo on December 23, 1916, after being bed-ridden for more than two months with a combination of hepatic cirrhosis and articular rheumatism. Given its insidious nature, the latter condition in all likelihood began to haunt him even as he was reaching the zenith of his baseball career and probably contributed heavily to his beginning to drown his pain in alcohol at an early age. In any case, after leaving the game he loved, Beck’s athletic endeavors were limited for the remaining 10 years of his life to bowling.

Beck is best remembered for hitting the first home run in American League history. Most of his other feats are recognized only by early-day baseball researchers and mavens. One that had previously gone unnoted by all except Toledo baseball historians came to light fairly recently. In 2007 when Mike Hessman, the current reigning minor league career home run king, slammed his 68th jack in a Mud Hens uniform, Toledo sportswriters, after digging deep through their files, observed that he had just surpassed Beck, who had last worn a Toledo uniform over a century earlier, as the franchise’s all-time home run leader. Hessman’s Toledo record blow earned him the nickname “King Hessman,” which stuck with him ever afterward.

Of even greater significance, on May 23, 1901, in a battle between two of the weaker clubs in the American League, Beck played a prominent role in what still remains the greatest ninth-inning two-out rally with the bases empty in major league history. Visiting Washington, an eventual sixth-place finisher, led Cleveland 13-5 with two down in the bottom of the ninth frame. Senators rookie southpaw Casey Patten had been operating on cruise control for most of the game after his teammates pummeled Blues starter Bill Hoffer, MLB’s last rookie 30-game winner six years earlier with Baltimore, for five runs in the second inning. Patten began the final inning by retiring the first two Blues before suffering a minor blip when three straight hitters singled to deliver Cleveland’s sixth run. After Bob Wood, the next batter, was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Patten began to waver, surrendering a two-run double to shortstop Frank Scheibeck.

When centerfielder Frank Genins drove in the Blues’ fourth run of the inning, reducing Washington’s lead to 13-9, Senators manager Jimmy Manning had seen nearly enough. He squirmed on the bench only until Patten ran the count to 2-1 on Truck Eagan, playing second base that day in place of Beck, who was out with a minor injury, and then brought in another rookie southpaw, Watty Lee, in relief. Lee proceeded to walk Eagan and reload the bases. Cleveland manager McAleer then called Beck off the bench to pinch hit for Hoffer, who had hurled the entire game to that point. Beck promptly sent a rocket to deep left field that grazed the glove of Pop Foster before rattling off the fence and clearing the bases. Beck’s double cut the margin to 13-12. Moments later right fielder Ollie Pickering drove in Beck with a seeing-eye single through the left side of the Washington infield to tie the score that prompted many in the Blues’ sparse crowd of 1,250 fans to race deliriously out on the field in the mistaken belief the game was over. Once the field was finally cleared again for play, left fielder Jack McCarthy, whose innocuous two-out single had begun the rally, came to bat for the second time in the inning. Lee magnified his predicament by wild-pitching Pickering to second base. McCarthy’s second single of the inning then scored Pickering with the walk-off run in a 14-13 triumph. The folowing day, the Washington Post reported the “Cleveland players were carried to their dressing rooms by the frantic crowd … after the Garrison finish, and one that is seldom witnessed.” Remarkably, despite 27 runs of combined offense, the game was finished in under two hours.

While Beck’s talents would almost undoubtedly have brought him a longer stay in the major leagues were it not for his progressively worsening rheumatoid condition and the bad imprint he made on Stallings in 1897, which cost him a chance to join the Phillies at age 18 and fill a weakness at second base that lingered until Nap Lajoie nailed down the job, there were other problems that plagued him. Never more than an adequate fielder or base runner, he became a liability everywhere but at the plate after damaging his knee in 1902. There are also other hints that he might have been something of a management issue besides his ejection on the day Stallings chose to scout him, the enmity he incurred with manager Bill Armour, and his appearance with four different teams in just two and a fraction major league seasons.

For one, Beck narrowly escaped a grievous injury shortly after leaving baseball as per the August 10, 1907, Sporting Life, which related: “Erve Beck, the ball player formerly with Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit and Cincinnati, and last year in the South, was shot at recently in Toledo by a man who claimed Beck threatened him. The shooter’s aim was poor, and the bullet hit a bystander in the back. The wound was not serious. The principals were discharged in Police Court.” The previous year, the July 7, 1906, Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle reported that Beck “created a sensation in the clubhouse” after his lone appearance with the Augusta club yesterday, scaring most of his teammates into fleeing the place and the team to summarily release him. The following day, while under the influence, he jumped from the third floor window of the Augusta hotel where he was residing but landed in a rose bush and was able to skip down an alley and into a vacant store front before being caught by a policeman and a Tourists teammate and hauled back to his hotel room. Reporting on the incident, Sporting Life assured its readers Beck was not crazy or dangerous but merely on a drunken spree. There evidently had been many of them by then. At issue is only whether his rheumatoid ailments led to his frequent bouts of overimbibing or the latter more commonly exacerbated the former.

DAVID NEMEC is a leading authority on the 19th century and early-Deadball Era game. This article is expanded from his bio of Erve Beck in Major League Player Profiles, 1871-1900, Vol. 1 (University of Nebraska Press, 2011).