John Beckwith

Beckwith was a 230-lb righthanded slugger who smashed some of the longest and most memorable home runs in Negro League baseball during the 1920s and early 1930s. A pull hitter who swung a huge 38″ bat, he hit against a severe fielder shift that did little to curtail his effectiveness. In 1921, as a 19-year-old rookie with the Chicago Giants, he became the first player, white or black, to hit a ball over the laundry roof behind Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. His longest blast, according to Hosely Lee, who pitched against Beckwith in the Eastern Colored League, came at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, which had the longest leftfield fence in the majors at the time. Beckwith’s home run hit an advertising sign, approximately 460′ from home plate and 40′ above the ground, behind the leftfield bleachers. Negro League great Ted Radcliffe said of Beckwith, “Nobody hit the ball any farther than him – Josh Gibson or nobody else.”

Beckwith played several positions, yet, despite his great size, appeared most frequently at shortstop. The core of his career spanned 1921-31, for which time only partial statistics are available. Only twice during those years did he hit less than .322, but though he topped the .360 mark six times, he never won a batting title. He finished second three times – twice to Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, and once to Chino Smith. In 1925, he hit .419 to Charleston’s .430. He won two HR crowns, with nine in 1930 and seven in 1931, but lost two others to Charleston by one HR. He batted .398 as a rookie in 1921, and in 1924 batted .417 for the Baltimore Black Sox of the Eastern Colored League, hitting 40 HR against league and non-league competition. In 1927, he hit 12 HR in league competition, but reportedly hit an astounding 72 for the whole year. In 1930, with the N.Y. Lincoln Giants, he is said to have batted .546, including a documented .494 (40-for-81) in 20 league games.

Beckwith was temperamental and had the reputation of being somewhat lazy and mean. He once punched out teammate Bill Holland, a pitcher, who had thrown his glove when Beckwith’s fielding error cost him a game. Because of his fiery disposition, he was traded often. In his last appearance documented by a newspaper boxscore (1934), he went 1-for-3 against Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean. He played a handful of games from 1932 to 1934, and supposedly finished his career in 1938 with the Brooklyn Royal Giants, though no records of his last four years exist.

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