Ervin Thomas “Erve” “Dutch” Beck hit the first home run in the American League; on April 25, 1901, the second day of the season, as a member of the Cleveland Blues; Beck homered off White Sox pitcher John Skopec at Chicago’s South Side Park.
It was a highlight in a short, promising career, like many at the turn of the 20th Century, destroyed by alcoholism.
Beck was considered the best young player in Toledo, Ohio when he joined the Adrian Reformers in the Michigan State League as a 16-year-old in 1895, then for the next five seasons he was the star of his hometown Toledo Mud Hens in the Interstate League. For the two seasons in Toledo for which complete records survive, Beck hit .298 in 1898 with 11 home runs and, a league-leading .360 with 15 home runs in 1900.
Earning the Nickname “Home run Dutch” in the Toledo papers, Beck was credited with 67 during his five seasons with the Mud Hens; he would remain the team’s all-time career home run leader until 2007 when Mike Hessman (currently with the Louisville Bats in the International League) hit his 68th as a Mud Hen.
Beck also had a brief trial with the Brooklyn Superbas in the National League in 1899, hitting .167 in eight September games.
It’s unclear exactly when Beck’s problems with alcohol began, but according to fellow Ohioan Ed Ashenbach (alternately spelled Ashenback by several contemporary sources), a minor league contemporary who wrote a book in 1911 called “Humor among the Minors”, it was well-known during Beck’s career that he was “addicted to strong drink,” and as a result suffered from “hallucinations.”
Ed Ashenbach (Ashenback)
Before the 1901 season, Beck, whose rights were held by the Cincinnati Reds, jumped to the Cleveland Blues in the newly formed American League; the twenty-two-year-old hit .289, and accounted for six of Cleveland’s twelve home runs.
Beck jumped back to the Reds before the 1902 season and received rave reviews early in the season. The Cincinnati Tribune seemed to like him more at second base than veteran Heine Peitz:
“Erve Beck looks more like a second baseman than anyone who has filled the position since (Bid) McPhee went into retirement (in 1899). He covers the ground, seems to know where to play and is capable of swinging the bat with some effect.”
His teammate, pitcher Frank “Noodles” Hahn claimed Beck hit the ball “harder than (Napoleon) Lajoie.”
Beck hit better than .300 playing second base in May but went to the bench when Peitz, who was filling in behind the plate for an injured Bill Bergen returned to second.
In June first baseman Jake Beckley missed a week with an injury and Beck filled in there; The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Ren Mulford said:
“(Beck) played the bag in splendid style…In handling ground balls Beck is as good as Beckley, and he is a better thrower… Beck gave another display of his versatility by plugging up a hole in right field. He made one catch that was a lollapalooza…Most players would have lost heart when benched as Beck was, but he remained as chipper as a skunk during his term of inactivity, and gladly accepted the opportunity to get back into the swim. Beck is a phlegmatic soul, who takes life, as he finds it without a growl.”
In spite of a .305 batting average in 48 games and the great press he received, Beck was released by the Reds in July. Whether the release was simply because he was the odd man out with Peitz, Beckley and right fielder Sam Crawford healthy or as a result of drinking is unknown.
Beck was signed almost immediately by the Detroit Tigers where he took over at first base after Frank “Pop” Dillon was sent to the Baltimore Orioles. He hit .296 in 41 games but was again released at the end of the season.
Beck would never return to the big leagues.
In 1903 he .331 for the Shreveport Giants in the Southern Association, he jumped Shreveport the following season and played for the Portland Browns in the Pacific Coast League. He returned to the Southern Association with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1905. After starting the 1906 season in New Orleans, he was released in July and signed by the Nashville Volunteers; his combined average with both Southern Association teams was .211.
Beck’s drinking was, according to Ashenback and contemporary newspaper accounts, common knowledge by the time he wore out his welcome in Nashville in August and was sold to the Augusta Tourists in the South Atlantic League.
That stop would last for only one game.
The 27-year-old, four years removed from the American League, played first base for the Tourists on August 6. Augusta second baseman Ed McKernan said, “It was evident when he reported there was something amiss with him,” and claimed Beck chased “an imaginary flock of geese away from first base” during the game.
The following day, according to The Augusta Chronicle, Beck “created a sensation in the clubhouse…causing all but two of the players to leave the house.” As a result, Augusta released him.
The following day The Chronicle said:
“(Beck) ran amuck this morning and created great excitement on the street.
“While in a room on the third floor of the Chelsea hotel the big infielder suddenly began to see things and sprang from the third story window to the ground below. Only two intervening telephone wires and a rose bush saved his life.
“He then darted down an alley and hid himself in a store. He was finally captured and came quietly back to his room with a policeman and (Tourists outfielder Frank) Norcum.”
The Sporting Life assured their readers that Beck “was not crazy, as reported, but only suffering from the effects of a (drunken) spree.”
McKernan said “During his convalescence…Beck would smilingly avow his determination to abstain from strong drink.”
There were varying reports regarding the extent of his injuries, and it’s unknown whether he was physically able to play after the fall, but Beck would never play professionally again.
He returned to Toledo where he operated a tavern and appears to have been unable “to abstain from strong drink;” he died in 1916 of Articular Rheumatism complicated by Hepatic Cirrhosis.