Jacob Peter Beckley was born in Hannibal, Missouri, on Aug. 4, 1867, to Bernhart and Rosina (Neth) Beckley. A lefty, he was just a teenager when he started playing semi-professional baseball. For two seasons he split his time between the Leavenworth (Kansas) Oilers and a team in Lincoln, Nebraska. Although he played outfield and second during the first season, he was moved to first the second year and there he stayed for the rest of his professional career.
Then his contract was sold to the St. Louis Whites. Midway through his rookie season (1888) he was purchased by the Pittsburgh Alleghenys for $4,500.
One and a half seasons later, he and eight of his teammates switched to the Pittsburgh Burghers, a team in the newly-formed Players’ League (PL). Because Players’ League only lasted one season, Beckley spent the next five and a half seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In 1896, Beckley was traded to the New York Giants. He was released the following season and signed as a free agent with the Cincinnati Reds. The next season, while playing against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 26, Beckley hit three home runs in the same game. That record was held until Ken Williams matched it in 1922. Beckley stayed with the Reds for seven seasons, until he was purchased by the Cardinals in 1904. He was still with the Cardinals when he retired after the 1907 season.
Beckley was known for a couple of things that aren’t allowed anymore. One was the hidden-ball trick. He would take a second ball onto the field hidden in his clothes, throw it to an outfielder, and watch the runner head for second. The pitcher would then throw the game ball to second for an easy out. Another of his skills was the ability to bunt using the narrow end of the bat.
Although unmarried throughout most of his career, Beckley wasn’t without a personal life. He married Mary E. “Mollie” Murphy in 1891. Unfortunately, she died of tuberculosis seven months later. Her death affected his game and his batting average suffered, but he managed to make a comeback the following season. He remained single until after his retirement when he married Georganna Rupp.
But it wasn’t his twenty years as a player that earned Beckley national recognition or the nickname “Eagle Eye.” It was his stats. His batting average was .343 his rookie year. He had a .308 lifetime average, had hit .300 or better in 13 of his 20 seasons, and was baseball’s all-time leader in triples at the time of his retirement.
Retiring from baseball did not end Beckley’s career. He became a player/manager for Kansas City in the American Association in 1908-1909, Bartlesville in the Western Association in 1910, and Hannibal in the Central Association in 1911. Beckley umpired in the Federal League in 1913. He also served as a baseball coach at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.
In 1971, 52 years after his death, Beckley was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Cincinnati Reds inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2014.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News for over ten years. She has covered the War Between the States, U.S. history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.email@example.com.