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John Beckwith

John Beckwith

Career: 1916-1938
Positions: ss, 3b, c, of, 1b. 2b, p, manager
Teams: Montgomery Grey Sox (1916), Chicago Union Giants (1916), Chicago Giants (1916-1923), Havana Stars (1917), Chicago American Giants (1922-1923), Baltimore Black Sox (1924-1926, 1930-1931), Harrisburg Giants (1926-1927), Homestead Grays (1924, 1928-1929, 1935), New York Lincoln Giants (1929-1930), Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, Newark Browns (1931-1932), New York Black Yankees (1933-1934), Newark Dodgers (1934), Palmer House Indians (1936), Brooklyn Royal Giants (1938)
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Born: 1902, Louisville, Kentucky
Died: 1956, New York, New York

The right-handed pull hitter was a powerful and consistent hitter whose slugging prowess was extraordinary. Despite facing a severely overshifted defensive alignment, he maintained high batting average and proved that nothing could stop his prodigious blasts out of the ballpark. Two of his most memorable tape-measure drives still generate awe. In Cincinnati he was the first player to hit a ball over the roof and completely out of Redland Field (1921), and in Washington, D.C., he hit a ball over the left-field bleachers that struck an advertising sign, 460 feet from home plate and 40 feet above the ground.

When he wasn't swinging his 38-inch bat, hulking 220-pounder could play any position on the field. He began his career as a shortstop-catcher, progressed to a third baseman-shortstop during his prime seasons, and was a third baseman in his waning years. While demonstrating his prodigious power, the free-swinger tried to pull everything to left field and developed a vulnerability to sidearm curveballs, increasing his frequency of strikeouts.

His temperament and basic approach to the game contributed to his making the rounds of a variety of teams during his twenty-two-year career. Beckwith began playing baseball in the Sunday School leagues in Chicago as a youngster, and turned professional in 1916 as a catcher with the Montgomery Grey Sox before playing with both the Union Giants and Chicago Giants later in the year. Except for a short tour of duty as captain of the Havana Stars the following spring, he remained with Chicago through 1921, when he hit .419, second best in the Negro National League.

Soon afterward he was signed by Rube Foster and, playing on the corners and hitting .302 while batting in the fifth and sixth spots in the order, he helped the American Giants win their third straight Negro National League pennant. The next season he hit .323 but, after less than two full seasons with the American Giants, he got into trouble with the law and left Chicago. Traveling East, Beckwith joined owner Cum Posey's Homestead Grays in 1924. But after proving to be unreliable and lacking in self-discipline, he was unconditionally released by Posey in midseason. He was quickly signed by the Baltimore Black Sox to fill a weak spot at shortstop and shortly after his arrival was made captain, with the team's success the remainder of the season being attributed largely to his presence. His versatility was one of his strong points, but his hitting prowess was the attribute that really set him apart from other players of the day. Ben Taylor considered him to be a "demon at bat," and Beckwith's stats (.452 batting average and 40 home runs against all competition and .403 in league play) corroborate this assessment. Beckwith followed in 1925 with a .402 average while finishing second in home runs.

That season he displaced Pete Hill as manager and moved himself to third base to fill the void left by the death of star third sacker Henry Blackman, who died while still in his prime. By late July Beckwith lead all Negro Leagues with 22 homers but shortly thereafter was suspended for severely beating an umpire and avoided arrest only by leaving town before a warrant was served. In August, engaged in a contract dispute, he quit as player-manager of the Black Sox without notice.

Rube Foster wanted to sign him for the 1926 season but Baltimore refused to release him, even after Foster offered star pitcher Juan Padron and two other players as compensation. Beckwith applied to the Negro National League commissioner to let him play in Chicago, where he owned a poolroom and where he was spending his time since quitting Baltimore. His efforts to relocate in Chicago were unfruitful, and in the spring of 1926 he was back with the Baltimore Black Sox.

However, his stay was short, and soon after Ben Taylor took over from Pete Hill, who had resumed the managership, Beckwith was traded to Harrisburg in midseason. Despite the turbulence generated by his personality, he managed a composite .361 batting average for the season. With the Harrisburg Giants in 1927 he hit .335 and again finished second in home runs for league play, while being credited with 72 home runs against all levels of competition. Back with the Homestead Grays again in 1928, he had 31 homers before the end of June and is credited with 54 home runs for the year.

The following season, the Grays joined the American Negro League and Beckwith hit .443, second best in the league, while slamming 15 home runs. In 1930, playing with the Lincoln Giants, he won the unofficial eastern batting title with a .480 average and hit 19 home runs in 50 games against top black teams, despite missing almost two months with a broken ankle. Playing against all levels of opposition, he was credited with an almost unbelievable .546 average for the year. The Lincolns had an outstanding team that season but lost the playoff for the eastern championship to the Homestead Grays. Beckwith returned to the Black Sox late in the season, and in 1931, while splitting his playing time between the Sox and the Newark Browns, he hit .347.

Winding down his career during the Depression years with a series of teams as his skills eroded, he ended his career with a stupendous .366 lifetime batting average in Negro Leagues competition, and a .337 average in exhibitions played against major leaguers.

The numbers he accumulated during his career are impressive but, unfortunately, his contributions to a team with his natural ability were offset by negative intangibles. Beckwith was moody, brooding, hot-tempered, and quick to fight. Combined with a severe drinking problem, and an often lazy, unconcerned attitude about playing, his character deficiencies often negated his performance value. Sometimes he would play in an inebriated condition or exhibit meanness on the field. On one occasion, when Beckwith's error cost a game, pitcher Bill Holland tossed his glove in disgust and, in the clubhouse after the game, Beckwith responded by knocking the pitcher unconscious.

After his playing skills began to erode, he dropped out of the lineups of top teams but hung on as manager of a team of dubious quality, the Crescents of White Plains, New York. When he left baseball entirely, he worked briefly as a policeman in New York, but eventually reverted to activities on the other side of law enforcement that involved loose women, dice games, and bootlegging.

During his prime Beckwith was regarded as one of the top players by his peers, and he possessed sufficient versatility afield to play almost any position. However, he did not excel at any position, and his team value, lessened by his temperament, was often considered suspect.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.