HANNIBAL — Despite being a native son and baseball Hall of Famer, there is an element of mystery surrounding Jake Beckley in a town that Mark Twain made noteworthy.
Perhaps its because Beckley played baseball in a time before the Internet, television and radio. It could also be that Beckley has been dead for over a century and had no children to carry on his memory.
Even at the time of his Hall of Fame induction 50 years ago, there were few memories of the batter who compiled a career .308 batting average.
Beckley has been lost to history with no living link to the player who went from playing baseball on the sandlots next to the Mississippi River to being one of the top players of the late 19th century.
One thing that is not mysterious is that Beckley racked up 2,938 hits, more than Barry Bonds, Ted Williams or Babe Ruth compiled in their careers.
Society for American Baseball Research biographer David Fleitz described the player nicknamed “Eagle Eye” as a very good hitter who had good doubles and triples power.
“The 1890s were a high-average era and many players you never heard of hit .300 or more,” Fleitz said. “Beckley never won a batting title like (Cap Anson, Ed Delahanty, Hugh Duffy, Honus Wagner or Nap Lajoie), so he was not quite on their level. But he was very good.”
The left-handed swinging Beckley played for several area semi-pro teams as a teenager when former Hannibal teammate Bob Hart recommended his manager sign him to play in the Western League for Leavenworth, Kansas.
After playing for several minor league clubs, Beckley was sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenies of the National League. He batted .343 as a rookie and played excellent defense at first base for Pittsburgh.
Beckley played two years with the Alleghenies before departing to the rival Players’ League in 1890 for a higher salary. After the league folded, he would rejoin the National League with Pittsburgh, who were rebranded as the Pirates.
Beckley had his finest season of his career for the 1894 Pirates, batting .345 with a .934 OPS and 122 RBIs.
The Pirates traded Beckley to the New York Giants in 1896, after he produced five seasons with a .300-plus batting average and three 100-RBI seasons with Pittsburgh.
Beckley’s tenure in New York only lasted about a year and was released in 1897. He would soon sign with Cincinnati and have a mid-career resurgence, batting over .300 in six of the seven seasons he played with the Reds.
Beckley earned a reputation as a good baserunner, stealing 315 bases in his career.
Players during the dead-ball era were expected to try to steal bases, regardless of their speed.
“People stole a lot more bases back then,” Fleitz said. “Advancing a base on a fly ball out sometimes was counted as a stolen base, too. We don’t know how often he was caught stealing, but there were a lot more of those at that time, too.”
Pitching also was much different than it would be later in the 20th century or in today’s game. Several rule changes such as moving the mound back 10 feet, the arrival of the pitching rubber, the introduction of the catcher’s box and foul balls becoming strikes came during Beckley’s playing career.
Fleitz said it was likely only a handful of pitchers threw over 90 miles per hour in Beckley’s era.
“Cy Young and Christy Mathewson were great pitchers, but it looks like the general talent level was much lower than it was later on,” Fleitz said. “Pitchers had fastballs and curves, but sliders did not exist then and knuckleballs did not come in until 1910 or so. Spitballs became (the) rage in about 1904, so Beckley might have seen spitballs later in his career.”
Mathewson would end up beaning Beckley in the head during a game on May 8, 1901. Batting helmets would not be introduced into baseball until several decades later, so Beckley had no protection.
The Quincy Daily Journal reported that Beckley’s wife, Georganna Beckley, was hysterical in the stands after the beaning and attempted to run out on the field to aid Beckley.
“Jake Beckley, the Reds big first baseman, had a narrow escape from serious injury in yesterday’s game as a result of his stopping one of Christy Mathewson’s speediest balls with the back of his head,” The Daily Journal reported. “For fully fifteen minutes Beckley was unconscious, but when he came (up), he felt no ill effects of the blow.”
Beckley would only miss two games before retuning to the lineup and finished the 1901 season with a .307 batting average.
Beckley joins the Cardinals
Prior to the 1904 season, Beckley was purchased by the Cardinals and spent the final four seasons of his major league career in St. Louis.
Beckley led the Cardinals with a .325 batting average in his first season with the club, as the team’s oldest regular starter at age 36.
Late in the 1904 season, the Cardinals ended a home series against the Cubs and had a couple off days before a trip to Cincinnati to play the Reds. Beckley convinced the Cardinals to play an exhibition game in Hannibal against a local amateur team on Sept. 8, 1904.
“The team owners filled off days from the major league schedule with games in smaller towns against minor leaguers or even amateur town teams,” Fleitz said. “I come from Toledo, and it was a big story in 1928 when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig brought the Yankees to play in Toledo against the local team, the Mud Hens. The Yankees had an off day on a road trip from Cleveland to Detroit, so they filled it with the exhibition.”
WIth the exhibition game tied 3-3 in the seventh inning, Beckley came to bat with two runners on. Beckley faked a bunt and instead hit a home run to please the home crowd and put the Cardinals up 6-3 over the Hannibal nine, which would be the final score.
Cardinals player/manager Kid Nichols, who would end up going to the Hall of Fame as a pitcher, was quoted by the Hannibal Courier-Post prior to the game.
“I may pitch an inning or two to satisfy the crowd, but that will be all,” Nichols said. “The team is badly crippled and I have been doing so much of the pitching here of late that I am in no condition to do any work today. I am well pleased with Hannibal and I think you have a nice little city here.”
Beckley broke two records with the Cardinals, setting the all-time marks for most games played at first base and most putouts by a first baseman.
To this day, Beckley still holds the all-time record for putouts with 23,755. He held the record for most games played at first base until 1994, when Eddie Murray surpassed him.
“He was a pretty good fielder, but he had a poor arm,” Fleitz said. “So, I don’t think he was (as good as) Keith Hernandez, but he was a solid fielder who piled up the putouts because he lasted a long time.”
Beckley made his final appearance with the Cardinals on June 15, 1907, going 0-for-3. He would be released days later, effectively ending his major league career.
Like Ernie Banks and Ken Griffey Jr., Beckley never played on a pennant-winning team. The closest Beckley came was in 1893 when the Pirates finished in second place and five games behind first-place Boston.
“In the 1890s, it seemed that Boston and Baltimore were the super teams and the others were left behind,” Fleitz said. “Boston won the league (from) 1891-93, Baltimore (from) 1894-96 and Boston again in 1897-98. Then Brooklyn bought the best players on the Orioles and won in 1899 and 1900. Jake was never lucky enough to land on one of those clubs.”
Return to Hannibal
After Beckley’s release from the Cardinals, he played two and a half seasons for the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. He also served as a playing manager during his final season with Kansas City in 1909.
Prior to the 1911 season, a local committee in Hannibal raised $3,000 to lure Beckley to manage the Hannibal Cannibals of the Central Association.
The Quincy Daily Journal reported that Beckley signed a $3,000 contract to be a player/manager of the Cannibals for the 1911 season on Feb. 18, 1911.
“Jake Beckley is the same old fellow,” the Daily Journal reported. “When seen this morning, he stated that he was certainly glad to visit Hannibal again and that he hoped the fans of the Bluff City would give their hearty cooperation to baseball in Hannibal next season.”
Beckley’s sole year of managing the Cannibals did not go well, with Hannibal finishing dead last in the Central Association with a 45-81 record.
The Cannibals were nearly folded during the 1911 season amid financial struggles by the ownership group. Beckley retired from baseball following the 1911 season and the Cannibals ceased operations after the 1912 season.
The Quincy Daily-Herald reported on Oct. 6, 1919 that White Sox pitcher Dickey Kerr, who won two games in the 1919 World Series, was part of the 1911 Cannibals but never appeared in a game.
“Dick Kerr ... hero of Friday’s World Series game, formerly played with Hannibal, according to Dee Walsh and Ollie O’Mara, baseball stars who played in Quincy yesterday and (were) formerly located in Hannibal,” the Daily-Herald reported. “Kerr was signed by Jake Beckley, now deceased, in 1911. He wasn’t able to do much on the club, as Beckley had a full pitching staff. Kerr lives in St. Louis and is a boxer as well as a pitcher.”
The White Sox left-hander was most well-known for being one of the clean players on the 1919 “Black Sox” team that threw the World Series to the Reds.
Like Beckley, Kerr would also have connections with the Cardinals, becoming a scout and minor league manager for the organization during the 1940s.
Kerr would become a mentor and friend of Stan Musial during his tenure with the Cardinals organization, encouraging the future Hall-of-Famer to switch from a pitcher to a hitter after Musial injured his shoulder playing center field on Aug. 11, 1940.
“I became discouraged and was afraid Dickey would tell me to forget about baseball,” Musial told the Sporting News on May 18, 1963. “Then Dickey gave me the big pat on the back I needed — and just at the right time.”
Musial went from being one of the Cardinals top pitching prospects in 1940 to making his major league debut as an outfielder in September 1941. The rest is history.
Hall of Fame induction
Beckley passed away on June 25, 1918 of heart disease at the age of 50 in Kansas City and was survived by his second wife Georganna, his mother Rosena Beckley and two sisters at the time of his death. He was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Hannibal.
Although Beckley had nearly 3,000 career hits and the all-time record for putouts by a first baseman, he was an afterthought in the Hall of Fame voting. “Eagle Eye” combined for a total of two votes in two prior appearances on the ballot in 1936 and 1942.
With former Giants and Cardinals great Frankie Frisch heading the Veteran’s Committee, Beckley was one of seven players selected to the Hall of Fame. Beckley was posthumously inducted on August 9, 1971 in a class that also included Satchel Paige.
Baseball Hall of Fame senior curator Tom Shieber described the Veteran’s Committee as a special election outside of the vote from the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
“Instead of having numerous baseball writers vote on various players, it’s a smaller select committee that discusses players that have dropped off for whatever reason and (no longer) on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot,” Shieber said. “It’s a form of re-examining the career of certain players.”
A Hannibal Courier-Post article by Ed O’Neill reported that during the week of Beckley’s Hall of Fame induction, that the city of Hannibal held a Jake Beckley Day and unveiled a granite monument of him on North Main St., close to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.
“Terry Moore, a St. Louis Cardinal great and one of the National League’s fine center fielders of three decades ago, will do the unveiling honors,” the Courier-Post reported. “Moore, a Collinsville, Ill. resident, who operates a bowling alley in St. Louis, is already enshrined in the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in Busch Stadium and is a possible candidate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.”
O’Neill wrote another article about Beckley on May 15, 1971 with a local story from John Welch, whose father-in-law, Dan Hurley, played baseball as a youth with the future Hall-of-Famer in vacant lot on the south side of town owned by Mrs. O’Leary. When the boys would hit a ball into her garden, Mrs. O’Leary kept the ball and the game was over.
Many years later when Beckley played for St. Louis, his old friends would journey to see him and the Cardinals play.
“Hurley and some of his friends were attending the game one day and when Beckley came to bat, one of the fellows yelled, ‘Hit one into Mrs. O’Leary’s garden.’” O’Neill wrote. “Beckley responded, hitting one out of the park. When he had circled the bases, he approached the grandstand and peering into the crowd shouted, ‘Where are those Hannibal hoosiers?’”