Tag Archives: Jake Beckley

“There is a Heap about Baseball that I do not Know”

4 May

After Ted Sullivan blamed Joe Nealon’s father for his failure to secure the first baseman for the Reds, James C. Nealon was not going to let his accusations stand, and sent a letter in response to Sullivan’s letter to The Cincinnati Enquirer:

“The public has always permitted, and will always permit a man who has lost the object he was seeking to compensate himself for the loss is excusing his failure by some worthy and absurd explanation, or by throwing the responsibility of the failure on someone else.”

Nealon said he was forced to respond because Sullivan “falsely placed myself and my son in an unenviable light.”

Nealon said he only cared about his son going to the club with “the best and most congenial associations,” and initially, many people he trusted told him Cincinnati was the best option.

He said Sullivan was the reason he and his son changed their minds.  Nealon said he checked train schedules and determined that Sullivan—who left Cincinnati on October 28—could have arrived in California no later than November 3, yet he did not hear from the Reds representative until after the contract was signed with Pittsburgh on November 6.

Nealon also said while he received a telegram from August Herrmann, Cincinnati Reds owner, with the offer of “a certain sum more than any other club,” he never shared that information with the Pirates Fred Clarke, and that the combination of being insulted by the Reds making their offer just about money and Sullivan not arriving in time made up his mind, and as a result:

 “I advised my son to sign a contract with any club he desired.”

After Sullivan arrived in San Francisco, Nealon said:

“He admitted to me that it was all his fault, yet he seeks in your paper to advise the public that it was the fault of my son and myself…I would rather (Joe) fail then to commit a dishonorable act, and I do not want the people of Cincinnati to believe his entry into the major league was associated in any manner with unfairness or unfair dealing.  Mr. Sullivan knows it was not.”

Joe Nealon wrote a letter to The Pittsburgh Post, and said he understood that when he joined the team in Hot Springs. Arkansas:

“There is a heap about baseball that I do not know.  I am eager to learn, however, and will gladly go under instructions.”

joenealon2

Joe Nealon

Even after the beginning of the 1906 season, the stories about what influenced Nealon to sign with the Pirates would not go away.  In May is was reported that it was Jake Beckley, former first baseman for the Reds and Pirates who influenced Nealon to accept Clarke’s offer.  Nealon told The Pittsburgh Press that Beckley had nothing to do with his decision, and continued to blame Sullivan who he said did not “keep faith” with him and his father.

Nealon appeared in every game, hit the Pirates first home run of the 1906 season on May 5, tied Harry Steinfeldt for the league lead in RBI, and led all NL first basemen in total chances and putouts.

At the end of the season it was widely reported that Nealon would not return to the Pirates for the 1907 season.  After the team lost five straight games in September and slipped to third place, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss went on a tear to a wire service reporter—The Philadelphia Inquirer, under the headline “Barney Dreyfuss Lets Himself say Things” said:

“(Dreyfuss said) if his team doesn’t win second place for him he will keep their noses to the grindstone barnstorming for him until their contracts have run out (on October 16)”

Dreyfuss told the reporter:

“One of the things that ails our team is that there are too many capitalists on it.  The boys know that they do not have to play ball for a living, and sometimes that may affect their playing.  There is only one of the old players on the Pittsburgh team who is playing as a means of livelihood—that’s (Tommy) Leach.  The other could give up the game anytime.”

Nealon left the team immediately after the final game in Cincinnati and did not participate in the tour.  The San Francisco Call said he was done:

“Nealon, who became a great favorite in Pittsburgh and all over the league circuit, has had several grievances against Pittsburgh, and it was announced some time ago that the big San Francisco lad had declared himself in no unmeasured terms that he did not have to take the worst of it from anyone connected with the club, nor would he more than one season.”

The Call said Nealon became disenchanted in Pittsburgh when Dreyfuss attempted to trade him and “other Pittsburgh players” to the Brooklyn Superbas for Harry Lumley and Tim Jordan “although Captain Clarke had guaranteed him a full and free tryout for a year.”

Nealon returned to San Francisco to play winter ball, but he failed to make a trip to Stockton for the first game.  The San Jose Evening News said:

“Many San Joseans who took the trip to Stockton…were disappointed in not seeing Joe Nealon…the big first baseman, met with an accident Saturday evening.”

While racing to catch the train to Stockton, Nealon tripped and fell into a stone wall.  He broke two bones in his left hand.”

In December, the Pittsburgh papers reported that Nealon had declared himself “Completely healed,” in a letter to Barney Dreyfuss.

By February The Pittsburgh Press was assuring readers:

“Reports from the West have Joe Nealon in the best condition of his career.  Just keep your eyes on this big fellow this season; he is going to be a winner in every sense of the word.”

Despite the high expectations, Nealon was a disappointment to the pirates when he reported to  West Baden, Indiana in March.  The Press said:

“If the fans at home could see big Joe Nealon now they would not know him.  With his sweater on he looks like a three hundred pounder.”

Nealon actually weighed 216 pounds, roughly 20 pounds heavier than he was in 1906.

Additionally, The Pittsburgh Post said Nealon was experiencing stiffness in his left hand.

The Press announced that Nealon had gotten down to his playing weight and that his had had healed just in time for the opening of the season, but a knee injury sliding into second during the Pirates third game sidelined him for nearly two weeks, and according to The Post included a visit to John “Bonesetter” Reese, the Youngstown, Ohio doctor who treated many major leaguers.

Nealon was hitting just .217 in June when The Washington Post noted that two California Thoroughbreds—Nealon and Joe Nealon—both bred by friends of Nealon’s father, and both stakes race winners in 1907, were having decidedly better years than the first baseman.

Nealon steadily improved his batting average but had already fallen out of favor with fans and in the papers.  Rumors persisted that the Pirates were trying to trade for Fred Tenney of the Boston Doves.  By September, The Press said:

 “There is suspicion among the Pittsburgh players that Tenney may be secured as first baseman…to succeed Joe Nealon whose work this season is said to have been below standard.”

When Harry Swacina was purchased by the Pirates from the Peoria Distillers in the Three-I League that same month, the Pittsburgh correspondent for The Sporting News said:

 “He is an improvement over Joe Nealon in every department of the game.”

The New York Sun summed up the consensus view:

“Joe Nealon came out of California with the reputation of being a better first baseman than Hal Chase was, but in making a big league reputation Chase simply lost his fellow Californian.”

Swacina hit just .200, but got most of the playing time at first base in September, Nealon finished with a .257 average.

joenealon

Nealon

The Press speculated in November about who would play first base for the Pirates in 1908:

“Most of the fans have eliminated Joe Nealon from the competition all together, for it is an open secret that both President (Barney) Dreyfuss and Manager (Fred) Clarke were displeased with the way the young Californian acted this year, and it is presumed that no further time will be wasted with him, but that he will either be traded or released outright.”

In December, Nealon ended any remaining speculation by announcing his retirement—two weeks before his 23rd birthday. The Post said:

“The big Californian has quit the professional diamond for all time and will become a partner in business with his millionaire father…But for the intercession of Fred Clarke, it is said he would have been asked to retire about mid season, alleged infractions of the club’s rules and his general attitude of indifference being criticized by the local management.”

Nealon went to Hawaii in December with a team of West Coast stars—including Bill Lange and Orval Overall— formed by Mique Fisher and told reporters he would play weekends in San Francisco in 1908.

After returning from Hawaii, Nealon made his retirement official in a letter to Dreyfuss.  The Press said:

Joe writes that he is helping his father  who has a contract to erect a large public building in California…he asks, however, that his name be kept on Pittsburgh’s reserve list and wishes his teammates the best of luck.”

Nealon went to work with his father and appeared in 62 games for the Sacramento Senators in the California State League in 1908—hitting .372; as late as July he was hitting .436.  Nearly every Pacific Coast League time tried to sign him that summer, but The Oakland Tribune said:

“(Nealon) declared positively to the writer yesterday that he would not play ball, except as he is doing now, and Joe said there was not enough money in any of the Coast League treasuries to make him change his mind.”

Despite his protestations, nearly every team on the West Coast sought to sign Nealon.  Charlie Graham, Owner of the Sacramento Sacts made an offer that The San Francisco Call said led Nealon to tell a friend he wasn’t sure he could refuse.  He eventually did refuse, and instead signed to play for the Oakland Commuters in the California State League. The Call said he was the highest paid player on the West Coast.

Nealon captained the Oakland club, and hit .274 in 138 games.  How Nealon differed from his teammates and most players was probably best illustrated during a bench clearing brawl between Oakland and the Stockton Millers in June.  The Oakland Tribune said:

“(E)very man on both teams, with the exception of Joe Nealon, was mixed up…Nealon simply walked about the field and sat on the bench while the trouble was going on, and if anyone should ask right quick what player showed the only good judgment on the field the answer would be Joe Nealon.”

Nealon announced his retirement again, a week after his 25th birthday.

Nealon’s father had just helped elect San Francisco’s new mayor, Patrick Henry McCarthy, The Tribune said Nealon was “slated for a fat political job.”

Nealon was appointed deputy in the San Francisco County Clerk’s office in January.

On March 28, The Tribune said:

“(Nealon) is lying on death’s door in his home in San Francisco, suffering from typhoid fever.  Several physicians have been at the bedside of the ill athlete almost constantly for the past few days, and although they hold out but slight hope for his recovery, they state that his splendid physique may enable him to pull through.”

Nealon died five days later.

 

Baseball’s “Fountain of Youth”

16 Apr

John Brinsley “J.B.” Sheridan wrote for several St. Louis newspapers and The Sporting News from 1888-1929.

In 1917 he asked in The St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

“How is it that two young chaps come up together, one lasts a year or two, the other keeps on playing until he meets his sons and the sons of his pals coming up?”

Sheridan noted that Bobby Wallace was 43-year-old and in his twenty-fourth season–albeit as a reserve who appeared in just eight games for the Cardinals–while contemporaries like Jimmy Collins were out of the game for nearly a decade.  (Sheridan failed to mention or notice that Wallace was three years younger and started his professional career at age 20 while Collins began his at 23):

“Wallace has had a great career in baseball.  Only one man, A. C. (Cap) Anson has played longer than Wallace in the major leagues (Sheridan didn’t mention Deacon McGuire who also had Wallace beaten in years of service with 26—but he only played a total of 20 games in his final eight “seasons”) Anson did twenty-seven seasons, but had he not been his own manager he would not have done so many.  The old man could hit to the end, but for the last ten years of his major league career Anson was so slow and stiff that it is doubtful if any manager, other than himself would have employed him.”

Booby Wallace

Booby Wallace

Sheridan neglected to mention that “slow and stiff” Cap Anson managed to play in more than 1100 games in those last ten seasons when no manager “other than himself would have employed him,” and hit better than .330 in five of them–and would contradict himself on the “slow and stiff” part later in the same article.

He said, “Jack O’Connor did twenty-two years in the majors and was useful to the end.” (O’Connor only hit better .250 twice in his last ten seasons, never appearing in more than 84 games during that period)”

Despite the many misstatements, Sheridan’s article included interesting character sketches of several 19th and early 20th Century players (the veracity of those sketches can be judged with the above misstatements in mind).

“O’Connor was a really wonderful man.  He always retrained his diet during the playing season, but gave it full rein during the off season.  O’Connor had some appetite, too.  Usually he put on 20 pounds of extra weight every winter and regularly took it off every spring.  O’Connor must have taken off 500 pounds of flesh in the twenty-two years of his baseball playing.  He ate and drank like Gargantua during the winter, but denied himself like a monk in the spring, summer and fall.

(Napoleon) Lajoie, who did his 20 years [sic 21] in the majors, was like Wallace and (Jake) Beckley, an iron man.  (Lajoie) came from Breton peasant stock…The Bretons lived off the rocks and fishing grounds of Brittany, beaten by Atlantic spray long before the dawn of history.  No wonder then, that Lajoie is a hardy man (who) needed no conditioning in his youth.  He threw a couple, hit a couple and was ready for the fray.”

Sheridan said O’Connor’s former battery-mate Cy Young was “another physical wonder” despite being “rather soft and inclined to obesity later in life.”

“Cy never cared much for beer, the beverage of the old-time ballplayer, but he did not mind a little ‘red eye’ now and then In fact, the old boys say the farmer could pack more whiskey about him than any man they had ever known.”

As an example of Young’s prowess Sheridan said O’Connor told him a story about a night out in Boston:

“I drank beer while Cy drank whiskey. Drink for drink with me, but the last thing I remembered that night was that Cy put me to bed.

“I got up the next morning looking for sedlitz powder and something cooling.  I got the powder and I went into the breakfast room to get a grapefruit.  Then I saw Young behind a big plate of beefsteak with onions.  I turned and ran for the fresh air…Cy ate the entire steak, all the onions, a lot of bread and butter, stuck a strong cigar in his mouth and joined me on the sidewalk.

“What made you quit so early last night, Jack?  I was just getting’ goin’ good, when you said ‘Let’s go home I’m sleepy.’”

Jack O'Connor

Jack O’Connor

Sheridan compared Young’s career to that of Bill Dinneen:

“Dinneen came into the game seven [sic–nine] years after Young, was Cy’s teammate for four years [sic–five and part of a sixth] then dropped out (Dinneen played three more seasons with the St. Louis Browns, but his career was over after 12 seasons at age 33)

“Dinneen ate too well, and what ballplayers call the ‘old uric acid’ got him in the arm.  Yet Dinneen was one of the finest physical specimens that ever played ball.

“Some big fellows look strong but prove to be soft and unenduring.  Jack Chesbro was one of these.  Chesbro had three great years as a pitcher, and then broke down.  Jack was a soft-boned boy, with bad ankles and could not stick the route.

“Some men hold out in arm, legs and bone, but lose the keenness of vision essential to good batting, Willie Keeler, was one of these.  Keeler’s legs were good to the end and his arm worked all right, but his eyes went back on him and he had to quit…(Art) Devlin was one of the three great third basemen of his time.  He was a star, but endured only a few years.  Bad Digestion stopped him when he was at the height of his fame, and when he should have been good for many more years.”

Sheridan claimed to know the secret of a ballplayer’s longevity: the waters of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

“Each January 1 for twenty-two years saw (Young) at Hot Springs…O’Connor and (Jake) Beckley were always at Hot Springs, too.  These three men never missed a season at the Arkansas resort, while they were playing ball…Fred Clarke, too, was a great advocate of Hot Springs as a training resort, and the Pirates always fitted in there when Clarke was manager.  That took (Honus) Wagner, another long liver, there too.

“Anson always took a season at Hot Springs.  It is pretty well established that the Arkansas resort is the location of Ponce de Leon’s famous “Fountain of Youth.”  It may or may not be a coincidence, but the fact remains that Young, O’Connor, Beckley, Anson, Clarke, Wallace and Wagner, men who played from seventeen to twenty-two years of major league baseball, have all been frequenters of or habitues of Hot Springs.”

Cy Young, third from left, with Bill Carrigan, Jake Stahl and Fred Anderson at Hot Springs in 1912

 Cy Young, third from left, with Bill Carrigan, Jake Stahl and Fred Anderson at Hot Springs in 1912

The St. Louis sportswriter was certain the springs were a magic “Fountain of Youth, “and said he was only aware of one exception to his rule:

“Every iron man of baseball, except Lajoie, has been a yearly visitant.”

“He was Greater than Ty Cobb ever dared to be.”

15 Aug

Hall of Famer Jake “Eagle Eye” Beckley still holds the all-time record for putouts and total chances for first baseman, more than 100 years after his career ended.  He also hit .308 for his career and his 244 triples rank fourth on the all-time list.

However, it appears he wasn’t a great source on who was the greatest player ever.

Jake "Eagle Eye" Beckley

Jake “Eagle Eye” Beckley

In 1915 Beckley told a Kansas City reporter that he had played with the greatest player ever.  Over the next year the quotes appeared in many newspapers including The Washington Post and The Pittsburgh Press:

“You can have your Ty Cobbs and your Benny Kauffs, I’ll take Billy Sunday for my ball club right now, and I said the same thing back in the nineties.”

Beckley said the ballplayer turned evangelist was as good as any player he’d seen:

“He’s fifty-two years old today, but he’s running bases and sliding every day in that pulpit just as he did back in the old days.  If he’d stayed in the game Cobb never would have been famous.

“He was greater than Ty Cobb ever dared to be in three departments of the game.

“Everybody thinks Cobb can run bases.  I’d spot him a second against Billy Sunday and then watch Bill score first.”

Sunday was the first player to circle the bases in 14 seconds.

“They think Cobb covers outfield territory.  They should have seen Sunday in his prime.

“And throw—say he could throw from center field just as easily as Tris Speaker.”

Beckley had several excuses for Sunday’s weaknesses as a hitter:

“Batting was where Sunday was weak, but in another year or so he would have overcome that weakness.  E was just that kind.

“He had more fight in his heart than any man I ever saw.  He was learning more about the art and science of batting every day.

“You see, Billy Sunday broke in under a handicap.  Pop Anson picked him up because of his speed and not because of his baseball ability.  He was fast, but when he started in a bat was strange to him.

“He fanned so many times his first year (18 in 55 plate appearances) he must have been busy when the season ended.  But when he came to our ball club (Pittsburgh Alleghenys 1888) he was improving and improving fast.”

Sunday’s “fast” improvement resulted in .236, .240 and .258 batting averages from 1888-1890.

Beckley concluded that Sunday’s “calling” was the real reason he never became a good hitter:

“But he didn’t give enough attention to his batting.  He used to spend a lot of time before the game in the clubhouse always reading the bible or studying.”

Sunday walked away from baseball after the 1890 season to accept the position of assistant secretary with the YMCA in Chicago; he became one of the nation’s most popular evangelists and died in 1935.

Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday

Beckley played until 1907, collecting 2934 hits during his 20-year career.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971, more than 50 years after he died in Kansas City at age 50.

“He was Not Crazy as Reported”

18 Jul

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.

Erve Beck

Erve Beck

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

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.