This article was written by John Holway
This article was published in the 1976 Baseball Research Journal
Hank Aaron may be baseball’s new Babe Ruth – but will he ever hit them as far and as hard as another mighty slugger only now being resurrected from the mists of baseball’s past, a black Bunyon from Louisville by the name of John Beckwith?
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.
There was one big difference between Beckwith and Aaron. Although both were quiet and introverted, Beck, unlike Hank, had a reputation for being rough, even in his era, the 1920’s, when black ballplayers had to be tough to survive.
“He wasn’t a rowdy guy,” says one old teammate, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, “but he didn’t take any foolishness. He would fight in a minute if somebody did something to him.”
And could he hit the ball!
“Of course John Beckwith hit the ball farther than anybody,” says Holsey “Scrip” Lee, who pitched against him in the old Eastern Colored league in the late 1920’s. “For power he was the hardest hitter I ever saw. I’d say Babe Ruth and Beckwith were about equal in power. Beckwith weighed about 230 pounds and used a 38-inch bat, but it looked like a toothpick when he swung it.”
Lee recalls one Beckwith blast in a post-season game against New York Yankee pitcher Roy Sherid in Baltimore about 1926: “Beckwith hit the ball as far out of the park as he was in it. They say Ruth and Gehrig never hit the ball that far in their lives.”
The longest Beckwith poke of all, Lee believes, came in Washington’s old Griffith Stadium, which taunted right-handed hitters with the longest left field wall in the major leagues. Behind the wall the bleachers rose at a sharp angle, and above the last row stood a sign extolling a local sausage company, perhaps 460 feet from home and about 40 feet high. Beckwith hit the sign.
Beckwith, big and brown, was the first person ever to hit a ball over the laundry roof behind Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. He did it in 1921, when he was only 19 years old.
Yet Beckwith was fated, it seemed, always to be second fiddle. Like Sam Crawford or Lou Gehrig, who played in the shadows of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, Beck always seemed to be upstaged, first by the flamboyant Oscar Charleston, later by the Herculean Josh Gibson. Yet in the seven years for which we have final or partial statistics, Beckwith rocked Negro league pitching for a lifetime batting average of .408. He hit over .400 no less than four of those years, between 1921 and 1929, yet three of those years he finished second – twice to Charleston, and once to Chino Smith. He finished first in 1930, but he had to hit .546 to do it! And twice he missed the league home run crown, each time losing to Charleston by a single homer.
Beck was born in Louisville in 1902. Moving later to Chicago, he caught on with Joe Green’s touring Chicago Giants as a catcher, later moving to shortstop to make room for rookie catcher Frank Duncan.
In the years to follow, Beck would play almost any position – first base, third base, even pitcher. They put him anywhere to keep that big bat in the line-up.
By 1921 Beckwith had moved on to the black big time, to Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants, where he hit a rollicking .419 but was second to Charleston’s .425.
Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, then playing sandlot ball in Chicago, recalls: I’ve seen him hit a ball out here in the American Giants’ old ball park. There weren’t too many balls hit over that fence. Left center field was 390 feet, and he cleared it with room to spare. Nobody hit the ball any farther than him – Josh Gibson or nobody else.”
In 24 games against white big leaguers Beck hit an estimated .320. He faced his first white big league opposition in the autumn of 1923 – and immediately smacked a homer over the centerfield fence off Dave
Danforth of the Browns to give Beck’s team a 7-6 victory. The next day St. Louis’ Elam Van Gilder held Beckwith hitless, but in the third game Beck erupted against Ray Kolp with two hits – a double and a triple -though his team lost 11-8. That same year, against the Detroit Tigers, Beck collected two hits against Bert Cole and George “Hooks” Dauss. He doubled and scored the game’s first run, then singled in another to help his club gain a 5-5 tie.
In 1924 Beckwith listened to the call of the new Eastern league and jumped to the Baltimore Black Sox, where he teamed with Jud Wilson to form a frightening murders’ row. Wilson hit .402; Beck topped him with .452, though he played only 24 league games, about one half a full schedule. Beck’s 40 homers (league and non-league) tied him with Charleston for best in the East. That fall Beckwith and Wilson joined forces again to play the Philadelphia A’s. Beck slammed a homer and single in the opener against Eddie Rommel, though the A’s won 4-2. In the nightcap he slugged a homer, double and single against Bob Hasty to give the Black Sox the victory 8-7.
The following year Beckwith produced another .400-plus year, hitting .4 19, only to see Charleston beat him out with a .430. Charleston also edged him for the league home run crown. Charley got 14 in 52 games; Beckwith, out for a month of the season, hit 13 in 41 games.
A year later, 1926, Beckwith and Charleston were playing on the same team, the old Harrisburg Giants. With Rap Dixon, Fats Jenkins, and Rev Cannady, the Giants had a truly formidable hitting club. Their pitching was weak, however, and they could finish only second, behind the Bacharachs. No statistics were published, but Baltimore fast baler Laymon Yokely winces at what he recalls as “the longest home run I ever saw. Beckwith hit it up in Newark stadium. It went through the smoke and out of sight.”
In 1927 Beck hit .338 and again just missed the home run crown, hitting 17 over the fence; Charleston and Martin Dihigo each hit 18. Again the Giants finished second to the B’s. Unofficially, in both league and non-league games, Beckwith was credited with 72 homers that year, a truly Gibsonian total. Moving to the Homestead Grays in 1928, he hit 54.
There was, however, one difference between Beckwith and Gibson, who joined the league in 1930. In spite of his sometimes astronomical batting averages, pitchers say Beckwith was an easier man to pitch to than Josh. While Gibson could hit almost any pitch to any part of the playing field, Beckwith’s power was pulling the inside pitch. Thus fielders played him to the left side, and pitchers were careful to keep the ball on the outside.
It doesn’t seem possible that a man could hit them that far and not like to play baseball. But Beckwith had a reputation for being lazy. He was also mean – what the players used to call a “touch pig.” One winter in Los Angeles big Beck hit a long one over the fence to give pitcher Bill Holland a 1-0 lead. A few innings later he booted a ground ball with two men on which lost the game 2-1. Holland tossed his glove in the air and stomped off the mound. Beckwith stomped into the clubhouse right behind Holland and punched him in the face. As they say, Beckwith could be mean.
Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, another great black slugger, demurs “John Beckwith was one of my favorite ballplayers,” he says. “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.”
The club they played on was the New York Lincoln Giants, where Beckwith hit .443 in 1929 but again failed to win the batting championship. Teammate Chino Smith beat him with a .467. That October in Baltimore, Beckwith faced Howard Ehmke, the Athletics’ World Series pitching hero, and rapped him for three hits in five at bats, including a homer.
Then in 1930 John Beckwith finally finished first. There were no league statistics that year, but the Lincolns published their own figures for home games, probably including semi-pro contests as well as games against the big league black clubs. They showed Beckwith hitting no less than .546, easily the best on the club, even though he was out for seven weeks with a broken leg.
The records on Beckwith grow dim after that. He played for a few years with the Black Yankees, successors to the Lincolns, and finally ended his career in 1934 with the Newark Dodgers. In his last known appearance in a box score, Beck smashed out one hit in three at bats in an exhibition game against 30-game winner Dizzy Dean.
Beck left baseball after that and faded into obscurity. According to one report he ended up running crap games and bootlegging. Compared to some of his contemporaries, who went on to play in their 40’s and 50’s, he had a rather short career. But no one who saw him play will ever forget those tremendous home runs he hit when he was in his prime.