“Mr Beck looked around with a wild light in his eye for somebody to hit. He couldn’t see any specific target so he threw perhaps the best fast ball he had thrown this season up against the right field fence. He really had a lot of stuff on the ball, the pent-up, disappointed rage of months.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 5, 1934
This piece was written as the basis of a ‘workshop’ episode of Eric Roseberry’s On Baseball Writing podcast. You can hear the piece being edited by Patrick Dubuque and Jason Wojciechowski here.
Walter William Beck pitched over 1000 innings across twelve major league seasons. His career numbers are unremarkable: a 4.28 ERA & 3.8 bWAR, with a 38-69 record. Beck came up and pitched an inning as a 19-year-old in 1924, but had some significant gaps in his major league experience, including two seasons after his debut, and two four-year breaks from 1929-1932 and 1935-1938. The Decatur, Illinois native pitched in the minors throughout this time, and was still doing so in 1950 at the age of 45, several years after his major league career concluded.
In 1933, he had his only real full season as a major league starter, providing 257 respectable innings for the Brooklyn Dodgers, although he also gained the dubious distinction of joining the 20-loss club. That season established Beck in Brooklyn’s starting rotation for 1934, setting up the moment that would define his career.
After three months of poor performance, Beck was pitching for the Dodgers in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1934. It did not go particularly well: the box score indicates that Beck got just two hitters out, walked three, uncorked two wild pitches and allowed three earned runs in the process. Brooklyn manager Casey Stengel had seen enough and came out to remove Beck from the game.
Today, the most a pitcher might do to object to their removal from a game is to stay on the mound and argue. Beck, filled with that “pent-up, disappointed rage of months”, went just a little further: he turned and hurled the ball out into right field, where it “boomed” off the tin right field wall of the Baker Bowl.
It was also said that Hack Wilson, either daydreaming, exhausted already from chasing the hits Beck had been giving up, or suffering from his “afternoon hang-over“, did not realise that the ball had simply come from Beck’s moment of petulance. He fielded it and threw a perfect strike to second base. To cap off the tragically slapstick incident, Stengel was said to have returned to the dugout to find Beck furiously kicking a water bucket, to which the Dodgers skipper exclaimed “Stop it! You’ll break a toe and then I won’t be able to sell you.”
The story of the incident would be told again and again over the remaining years of Beck’s career, and beyond. It also left him with a rather memorable nickname: “Boom-Boom”.
It’s unclear whether that arose from Beck’s own throw hitting the wall, the consecutive sounds of the ball hitting the bat and then the wall, or, as Eagle columnist Tommy Holmes wrote in 1938, his own team-mates muttering the word “whenever they saw the glitter in Beck’s eye that indicated he was going to throw a big, fat pitch”. On that fateful day in Philadelphia, the frequency with which Beck threw his “boom” pitches was so great that it naturally turned into “boom-boom”. Just to confuse the origin story a little more, Holmes would later contradict his own account by offering the second explanation.
Holmes’ inconsistency is indicative of the potentially apocryphal nature of this story, and indeed many others like it. Writing in the Journal of Sports History in 1992, Professor Lowell Blaisdell of Texas Tech University debunked Wilson’s involvement altogether, noting that nowhere in Holmes’ original account did the throw get mentioned. Blaisdell suggests that Hack made that throw at another time entirely, and over time the two stories became one, reinforcing the stereotypes of both players: Wilson as the talented star who frequently failed to live up to his full potential, often as a result of drink; Beck as the hapless journeyman who keeps returning to the mound despite a general lack of success.
Speaking to Orange Coast magazine in 1979, former journalist and major league executive Arthur E. “Red” Patterson attributed the Boom-Boom nickname to another occasion entirely, in which a journalist temporarily covering the Dodgers beat assigned Beck the moniker after another typically lacklustre outing. Patterson said that Beck then found out and came close to attacking the wrong writer in a rage, assuming it was the handiwork of the team’s usual beat writer, who had been ill that day.
If many aspects of the stories seem fanciful, it certainly does underline the fact that Beck was primarily known for being a hitter’s dream. His ERA coming in to that game was 8.44 and although that had gone down by the end of the year to 7.42, he pitched just a handful of games the rest of the way. At the end of 1934, he had given up 50 runs – 47 earned – in just 57 innings.
I did not discover Boom-Boom Beck as a result of this story, or indeed the nickname itself. While uncovering the evidence of John Smoltz’s invincibility through the medium of the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I also wanted to find out which pitchers have been unfortunate enough to suffer the longest losing streaks. Since 1913, here are the pitchers who have appeared in the most consecutive losses:
There is something remarkable about the fact that Beck came to the mound 46 consecutive times and never once got to celebrate a win. We’re not talking about his own personal win-loss record. For this period of almost three years, when Beck played, the team lost.
With Boom-Boom suiting up for the hapless Philadelphia Phillies, a season of victory was not to be expected in 1941. The extent to which Beck lost is still fairly remarkable. 25 games into the season, Beck had appeared in just a single victory all year, a 6-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on May 20th, in which he pitched a single scoreless inning. The rest had all been defeats, including a brutal June 11th loss to the Cardinals in which Beck pitched all ten innings, eventually falling to a 3-2 defeat. He would then give up four runs to the Cards without recording an out in his very next start.
Beck finally dragged a second victory out of this disaster season in an August 11th complete game against the Boston Braves, the only National League team who were remotely close to being as bad as Philadelphia. That is to say, they only finished 19 games ahead of the 43-111 Phillies, who were an incredible 57 games behind Beck’s old team, the pennant-winning Dodgers.
From then until June 23rd, 1944, Beck did not appear in a victory. He didn’t win with the Phillies, who were somehow no better in 1942, and when they did ‘improve’ (to 64-90) in 1943, Beck barely made an appearance. He then switched leagues and found himself on a much better team, the Detroit Tigers. Beck then lost eight more games in a row before finally being able to celebrate on July 1st, 1944 following a 3 1/3 inning save in an 8-4 win over the other Philadelphia side, the Athletics. It was almost ten years to the day since he threw that ball away in frustration.
Beck was not particularly good during this record-breaking stretch, but nor were most of these losses anything to do with him. He was frequently brought into games that were long since decided, especially with this hapless Phillies team. Of the 26 games he appeared in during 1942, the Phillies scored more than one run just 11 times.
Boom-Boom was simply the kind of pitcher who got used in games his team was losing, and usually losing convincingly. He wasn’t good enough to hold down a regular starting role, but he also played well enough at lower levels that he kept finding his way back into major league jobs.
Beck’s teams went 55-207 in games he appeared in: that’s a 26.6% win rate. In other words, being Boom-Boom Beck was like pitching for the 2003 Detroit Tigers, or indeed Stengel’s notorious 1962 New York Mets, over five full seasons.
This seems like something which would get a pitcher down and yet, aside from the frustration referenced in the original quote, there isn’t much discussion of how this affected Beck himself. His near 30-year run as a professional is clear evidence that Beck was not inclined to give up the game. In the introduction to Rudy Marzano’s The Last Years of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Marzano claims that Beck “enjoyed [the nickname], knowing the fans were really on his side because he wasn’t that bad a pitcher.” Tigers great Tommy Bridges called Beck “lovable” when the two played together in the twilight of Beck’s career.
On the other hand, novelist and short story writer Nelson Algren portrays Beck as a stubborn character who was the hardest thrower in the major leagues yet had nothing else to his arsenal, a repertoire that simply resulted in the ball coming back off the bat just as hard as it came in. The way Algren tells it, Beck’s stubbornness, propensity to drink, and inability to get hitters out were inextricably connected.
This picture of Beck is a far closer match to the Boom-Boom who hurled the ball away, although Algren’s account should be taken with a grain of salt, given that he claims Beck pitched for the Cubs; the closest he got geographically to pitching for Chicago were his minor league stops in Bloomington, Illinois, and Milwaukee.
One explanation is that Algren was merging the real Beck with the fictional character who was the source of his previous nickname, Elmer the Great. Elmer was the egotistical, vain subject of a Ring Lardner play and film who apparently shared such characteristics with Beck. It’s even possible that Algren may have been confusing his memories of Beck and another pitcher who was saddled with a derogatory nickname, Lynn “Line Drive” Nelson, who was pitching for the Cubs when Beck became Boom-Boom.
Algren does supply a wonderful quote from an unnamed manager: “He looks like a twenty-game winner between line drives.” Given Algren’s primary medium and the Cubs error, this may be a fabrication too, but it’s not hard to imagine Stengel saying it.
There is a conspicious absence of any knowledge that Beck didn’t appear in a win for almost three years. There’s a good chance that no-one actually noticed. The Phillies were already bad, Beck spent so much time bouncing between the majors and minors, and record-keeping was not impeccable. There was no ELIAS, or STATS, or Baseball-Reference. While there’s mention of Beck’s win-loss record in each individual season, at no point does anyone appear to have noticed that he simply never won from mid-1941 to mid-1944.
The legend of Boom-Boom has comfortably eclipsed the reality of Walter Beck, the pitcher. The story of that game in July 1934 has been frequently reproduced and altered over the years, featured in columns of entertaining baseball stories, or books about entertainingly useless players. Little else about his career or Beck himself is easy to find, yet multiple versions of that story are ubiquitous. The glee with which his ineptitude is recounted is somewhat reminiscent of the recent JaVale McGee-Shaquille O’Neill feud over Shaq’s repeated mockery of McGee’s basketball bloopers.
When Beck wasn’t being treated with disdain by both opposition batters, his own team-mates, fans, and indeed the media, he was frequently released and constantly looked in danger of being out of the majors for good.
And yet, in late September of 1944, he was credited with keeping Detroit in pole position for the pennant. The Tigers would lose the AL pennant in 1944 by a single game. Beck didn’t give up a single run in any of his final five appearances that year, and yet it didn’t matter. He never pitched for a pennant-winning team. In 1945, at the age of 40, he had the best season of his career. Beck pitched 110 2/3 innings for the Reds and Pirates (who still released him halfway through the year), posting a 2.68 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 1.5 bWAR, almost half his career total.
A story which was fundamentally about Beck’s frustration with the game and his own performance has become his defining characteristic, yet the moment came 11 years before his major league career was over. Did Beck himself know that he was on a potentially historic losing run? Did he neglect to mention it for fear that he’d be stuck with another, even less complimentary nickname?
One has to wonder how much the nickname itself cost Beck major league time, and indeed influenced his role. No-one wants to bring in Boom-Boom when the game is on the line. He missed four full major league seasons the year after he picked up the name and only got another shot at the age of 34.
Boom-Boom also sounds like it should come after a punchline; I can’t even tell for sure if Beck ever thought it was funny, if he was as angry about it as some stories suggest, or was simply indifferent. There’s no denying the tale of that 1934 game is a terrific story that should be preserved, and having survived for 80 years, Boom-Boom is going to stick forever. I’m going to try to remember Walter William Beck as something other than just Boom-Boom: the player who persevered as a major leaguer even after losing 46 consecutive games.
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