The well-traveled Beckwith dazzled Negro League fans during the 1920s and early 1930s with some tape-measure home runs that drew comparisons with the mammoth shots off the bat of Josh Gibson.
"Nobody hit the ball any farther than him -- Josh Gibson or nobody else," Negro Leagues mainstay Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe said in a BaseballLibrary.com article.
Beckwith was a 230-pound right-handed hitter who swung a 38-inch bat. When he made solid contact, the only question was how far the ball would travel. In 1921, as a 19-year-old rookie with the Chicago Giants, Beckwith became the first player -- white or black -- to hit a ball over the laundry roof beyond Cincinnati's Crosley Field.
But that wasn't Beckwith's longest homer, according to Hosely Lee, who pitched against Beckwith. Hosely claimed that Beckwith, playing at Washington's Griffith Stadium, hit a ball over the left-field fence that went approximately 460 feet from home plate and 40 feet above the ground.
"John was known primarily for three things: his power, his versatility and his temperament," Negro Leagues historian James Riley said. "He was very strong and could flat-out hit."
Beckwith played a variety of positions with a variety of teams. Despite his size, he was used most frequently at shortstop.
"Like a Pete Rose, he was adequate at several positions, but didn't really excel defensively," Riley said. "His bat was the main thing."
Beckwith played with the Chicago Giants, Chicago American Giants, Baltimore Black Sox, Homestead Grays, Harrisburg Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, Bacharach Giants, New York Black Yankees, Newark Dodgers and Brooklyn Royal Giants. Although he topped the .360 mark in six seasons, Beckwith never won a batting title. He finished second behind Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston on two occasions and once behind Chino Smith.
Beckwith's temper has been cited as the main reason why he bounced around so much.
"He wasn't easy to handle," Riley said. "Very strong-headed. But because he had talent, the managers were willing to go the extra mile with him."
Beckwith's fiery temper was illustrated when, according to BaseballLibrary.com, he once punched out teammate Bill Holland, a pitcher. The incident occurred after Holland threw his glove when Beckwith's fielding error cost him a game.
But pitchers who played with Beckwith generally appreciated what the slugger could do for them offensively.
From 1921-31, Beckwith hit under .322 only twice. A notorious pull hitter, Beckwith managed to get his hits despite a severe defensive shift. In his last appearance documented by a newspaper box score in 1934, Beckwith went 1-for-3 against Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean.
"He was always in demand due to his hitting ability," Riley said. "He was definitely a force in the lineup for a lot of years."
Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less