Hannibal News

Old-time 'base ball' tournament Aug. 17 honors memory of Jake Beckley

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 11, 2019 12:01 am

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Hannibal is preparing to tip its cap to the most celebrated baseball player in the city's history -- Jake "Old Eagle Eye" Beckley, a Hall of Famer who made his debut with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1888.

In a tribute to Beckley as part of Hannibal's yearlong bicentennial celebration, the city next Saturday, Aug. 17, will host an exhibition of old-time "base ball," as the sport was known in Beckley's era.

Three teams -- the Hannibal Nationals, the St. Louis Unions and the Mexico Ghosts -- will compete in a round-robin base ball tournament on the ball field at Huckleberry Park. Games start at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

"The games are going to be seven innings or 1 1/2 hours, whichever happens first," explained Henry Sweets, chairman of a bicentennial committee organizing the 1800s-themed base ball extravaganza.

The games are free and open to the public. Seating is limited, so Sweets urges visitors to bring folding chairs or blankets.

The purpose of the event is to give a bicentennial salute to Old Eagle Eye.

Jacob Peter Beckley was born in Hannibal on Aug. 4, 1867, and went on to a stellar career with four major league teams: Pittsburgh (1888-1896); New York (1896-1897); Cincinnati (1897-1903); and St. Louis (1904-1907).

His final plate appearance was on June 15, 1907, with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Beckley, who died in 1918 and was buried in Hannibal's Riverside Cemetery, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Aug. 9, 1971.

During his career, he set three major league records -- most games played at first base (2,368); most putouts at first base (23,696); and most chances at first base (25,000).

According to Herald-Whig news files, Beckley was recognized as one of the finest bunters ever to play in the major leagues. He amassed 2,930 base hits and compiled a lifetime batting average of either .308 or .309, depending on who one asks. His Hall of Fame plaque lists him at .309, but several sports researchers put him at .308 -- a dispute that rages to this day.

In any event, Beckley remains the inspiration for next Saturday's base ball exhibition, which promises to be entertaining for avid fans of America's pastime.

"Base ball, as it was played in the early 1800s, is somewhat different from our game today," Sweets noted. "First of all, no one wore gloves. You play with a stuffed leather ball that is a little heavier than the ball of today, and you pitch the ball underhanded."

The game's 1800s vocabulary was different as well.

"The batter is called the 'striker.' The pitcher is the 'hurler.' The catcher is the 'behind.' The outfielders are called 'scouts,' " Sweets said.

"There are also some rules that I think the fans will find very interesting as they watch the games being played."

For example, a ball caught on one bounce is still considered an out, and a ball hit down the first or third base line is considered fair as long as it hits in fair territory first -- even if it bounces outside the line before reaching the base.

In addition, the "base tenders" at first, second and third must play within two steps of their bases, while the "roaming infielder" can position himself wherever he feels is most beneficial to the defense. The outfielders, meanwhile, must play straight-away for every batter, thereby eliminating the severe shifts for pull hitters commonly seen today.

"Some of the rules are just enough different that people are going to be sitting there scratching their heads," Sweets said. "There are some things that are going to need some explanation for the crowd."

Because of that, the umpire at Saturday's exhibition will review some of the 1800s rules before the start of each game. "Then after each play, he will announce the result of that play," Sweets said.

A monument honoring Beckley was erected along Hannibal's Main Street on Aug. 12, 1971 -- three days after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The monument, which at times became overgrown in weeds, was relocated to Clemens Field in 2016 by the owners of the Hannibal Cavemen.

According to Sweets, the bicentennial committee originally hoped to use Clemens Field as the venue for Saturday's base ball tournament. However, persistent flooding this spring and summer killed the grass, triggering the move to Huckleberry Park.

"The field (at Clemens Field) is just unplayable," Sweets said.