Is The Hall of Fame Forgetting Something (Part Three)

By Bill Carroll
Updated: February 12, 2010

NEW YORK — Sadly the legacy of great players with bad personalities is a long one and extends to one of the Negro Leagues foremost talents. During his prime John 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; when he wasn’t swinging his 38-inch bat, hulking 230-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.

A terrific hitter, the right-handed Beckwith was a great player and battled fellow Negro League third baseman Jud Wilson for supremacy at that position during the 1920s. Quite possibly, he may have also been better all-around than even Hall of Famer Pie Traynor during this same period, though it’s hard to say definitively.

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.”

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 followed Pete Hill as manager and moved himself to third base to fill the void left by the Henry Blackman, who tragically 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 unsuccessful, 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.

Unfortunately he was a hard drinking malcontent who at times did not give maximum effort.

Chaney White’s career lasted from 1919-1936 and he played LF and CF for the :Hilldale Daisies (1919-1922, 1928, 1930-1932), Chicago American Giants (1920), Atlantic City Bacharach Giants (1923-1929), Washington Potomacs (1924), Wilmington Potomacs (1925), Quaker Giants, Homestead Grays (1930), Philadelphia Stars (1933-1935), Baltimore Black Sox (1932), New York Cubans (1936)

He batted from the right but threw with his left and White was, for a time, one of the, most feared baseball players in the Negro Leagues. Catcher Larry Brown said White “was built like King Kong, but he could run like Jesse Owens, cut my shin guards off once.” Hall of Famer Judy Johnson called him the top run-scorer in baseball because of his speedy, daring base running.

He was a .328 hitter in the Negro Leagues, and was considered a good outfielder with excellent range but a weak arm. He played with the 1926 and 1927 Eastern Colored League champion Bacharach Giants, and stole five bases in six attempts in the 1926 Black World Series.

He was a solid 5’10 and almost 200; he was also a very hard-nosed player and at times called the “Tan Ty Cobb.” He once opened a wound on catcher Larry Brown’s leg above the knee that required eight stitches to close, and in another play at home plate, he cut the chest protector and shin guards off Josh Gibson.

A star center fielder on the Eastern Colored League champion Bacharach Giants of 1926-1927, White was an aggressive player at bat, on the bases, and in the field. Using his excellent speed and spikes-high slide, he was a terror on the bases.

He was reputed to run 100 yards in 10 seconds, and once circled the bases in 14 seconds on a sprained ankle. And no less an expert on the Negro Leagues than J.H Lloyd named him the left fielder on his all-time team.

By contrast Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport who was only a shade over 5-feet-4 and 152 pounds, but was like a miniature Ichiro, Davenport could hit for average and power, had a rifle arm, and could run like a scalded dog.

By 1937, Davenport was one of the best outfielders in baseball and was selected to his first of five East-West All-Stars games. In five classics Ducky went 3 for 15 with 3 runs scored. He was a top player from 1935-1952.

Ducky hit as high as .350 a few times and led the Cuban Winter League in batting in 1946-47 with a .332 mark.

In one game that season Davenport belted 6 hits for the all-time Cuban single game record. Davenport’s batting helped lead the Almendares team to the Cuban pennant.

The integrated team was managed by Adolph Luque and featured an array of Black and white stars including Buck O’Neil, Henry Jessup, Avelino Canizares, Jonus Gaines, Pedro Ramos and Max Lanier.

“Double Duty” Radcliffe thought so much of Davenport that he put him in the outfield on his all-time all-star roster with Turkey Stearnes, Willard Brown, Cool Papa Bell, Chaney White and Red Parnell.

Another outstanding fielder was Spottswood ‘Spot’ Poles who in his professional career that lasted from 1909-1923 he played for several teams the: Harrisburg Colored Giants (1906-1908), Philadelphia Giants (1909-1910), New York Lincoln Giants (1911-1914, 1917, 1919-1923), Brooklyn Royal Giants (1912), New York Lincoln Stars (1914-1916), Hilldale Daisies (1917, 1920), [military service (1918-1919)], New York Bacharach Giants (1919), Richmond Giants (1923)

A 5-foot-7, 165 pound fleet-footed, slightly bowlegged, sharp-hitting center fielder during the dead ball era, Spot Poles usually batted in the leadoff position to utilize his incredible speed, which was comparable to that of “Cool Papa” Bell. Once in spring training he was clocked at less than 10 seconds in the 100-yard dash.

A left-handed batter, who occasionally switch-hit he watched the ball all the way to his bat and consistently hit for a high average.

He was also a good bunter but, despite a stocky build and arms described as “massive” for his size, he had only moderate power. In the field he had excellent range, good hands, and an accurate arm.

An intense competitor, he was confident but not cocky in his baseball ability.

Run producers loved to hit behind Poles, who was the prototypical lead-off hitter in the Negro Leagues. Known for his time with the New York Lincoln Giants, Poles hit .398 or better during his first four seasons with the team from 1911-14. He ended his 15-year career with a .400 average.

Poles was just as good with the glove. He had excellent range and prevented runners from taking the extra base with his accurate arm. One can’t help but wonder what Poles might have done in the Major Leagues. He hit .594 against big-league pitching, and he once collected four hits in a barnstorming game against Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander.

At age nineteen, he began his professional career in 1909 as the center fielder for Sol White’s eastern champion Philadelphia Giants. Poles soon settled in as the leadoff batter, playing two years with White’s charges, before following his skipper to the New York Lincoln Giants when the team was organized in 1911 by Jess and Rod McMahon, and Sol White was appointed manager.

During his initial season with the squad, Poles demonstrated his incredible speed by stealing 41 bases in only 60 games. He also demonstrated his proficiency with a bat, and over the first four seasons with the Lincolns, Poles hit for averages of .440, .398, .414, and .487 against all levels of competition, which included a 1913 game when he faced Grover Cleveland Alexander and rapped three straight hits off the Hall of Famer.

That season the Lincolns soundly defeated Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants in the championship playoffs, and owner Jess McMahon boasted that the Lincolns could beat any team, including the best major-league ball clubs.

In 1915 the speedster jumped to the rival New York Lincoln Stars for a season, but returned to the Lincoln Giants the following year. Twice previously, Poles had left the Lincoln Giants briefly, but each time he returned during the same season.

The first time was in 1912, when Poles and John Henry Lloyd, who had succeeded Sol White as manager, had a dispute, and Poles jumped to the Brooklyn Royal Giants but returned later in the season.

The second temporary break in his service with the Lincoln Giants came in 1914, when the Lincoln Stars were first organized by the McMahon brothers, and he played with the Stars in the early spring but was back in the Giants’ fold in May.

He returned to Philadelphia to join Ed Bolden’s fledgling Hilldale club. His Hilldale tenure was interrupted by World War I, and Poles joined the Army infantry and served his country with distinction, earning decorations (five battle stars and a Purple Heart) for his combat experience in France as a sergeant in the 369th Infantry, attached to the French Army.

While overseas he wrote Ed Bolden, expressing his desire to resume his baseball career with Hilldale upon his discharge from military service. When he did return stateside, however, Poles played with four different teams in 1919.

Initially he was with his old team the Lincoln Giants in the spring, but returned to the Hilldale fold when the regular season started. He left to assume the role of player manager with the Hellfighters, a team of black servicemen.

His stay there was brief, and he finished the season at Atlantic City with the Bacharach Giants. By the close of the season, the Bacharachs were the best team in black baseball. Rejoining the Lincoln Giants in 1920, he batted leadoff and was still a dangerous hitter, playing until 1923.

When he retired from baseball after 15 years, he was credited with a lifetime batting average of over .400 against all competition, and an average of .319 for four winters in Cuba, including the 1913 Cuban winter season, when he recorded a .355 average.

While in Cuba he often played exhibitions against the Phillies, Athletics, and other major league teams, and is credited with a .594 average against major league competition.

Regardless of the paucity of complete statistics, eyewitnesses corroborate his greatness. New York Giants’ manager John McGraw listed Poles, John Henry Lloyd, Cannonball Dick Redding, and Smokey Joe Williams as the four black players he would pick for the major leagues if the color line were not so firmly entrenched.

Paul Robeson, a renowned athlete and actor, was more emphatic in his praise, and once grouped Poles with Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson as the greatest black athletes of all time.

Poles retired following the 1923 season.

He was able to continue in baseball as a coach, managing an integrated semipro team called the Harrisburg Giants. He was an enthusiastic teacher, counting future major-leaguer Brooks Lawrence among his protégés.

In one game, when he was in the vicinity of sixty years of age, he proved he could still hit, when he entered a game as a pinch hitter and lined a base hit through the right side of the infield.

NEXT: Standout catchers and other Negro League greats.