RIP to Glenn Beckert, an All-Star and Gold Glove second baseman who was part of one of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Cubs teams of all time. He died on April 12 in Florida at the age of 79. Beckert played for the Chicago Cubs (1965-73) and San Diego Padres (1974-75).
Unless you are from Chicago or have spent a lot of time among Cubs fans of a certain age, it may be hard to fathom how revered the 1969 Cubs team is. For decades, that team was the only thing worth mentioning when it came to Cubs baseball, at least until the 1984 squad. But pretty much anyone who played on that ’69 team has achieved legend status among Cubs fans, and not just the Hall of Famers like Banks, Williams, Santo or Jenkins. Anyone, from a Randy Hundley to a Glenn Beckert to a Paul Popovich would enjoy a sizable crowd of autograph seekers at a Cubs Convention. While that team was before my time, I’ve heard enough about them to appreciate the mark they left on the city.
The Cubs issued the following statement about Beckert:
“Glenn Beckert was a wonderful person who also happened to be an excellent ballplayer. He was a mainstay at second base for the Cubs for nine seasons from 1965-73, earning a spot on four All-Star teams and a reputation for one of the toughest at-bats in the league as evidenced by his low strikeout rate. Glenn more than held his own playing alongside future Hall of Famers and won a Gold Glove for defensive excellence at second base in 1968.
“After his playing days concluded, Glenn was a familiar sight at Wrigley Field and numerous Cubs Conventions, and he always had a memory to share of his time on-and-off the field with his beloved teammates. We offer our deepest condolences to Glenn’s daughters, Tracy Seaman and Dana Starck, his longtime partner Marybruce Standley and his many, many friends.”
Glenn Beckert was born in Pittsburgh on October 12, 1940. His first home run — well, one of his first — came while he was playing with the Yanks of the Perry Adams Little League. He was 11 years old at the time, and the news made the local papers. He’d regularly get chosen to appear on youth all-star teams. Before he’d even signed a professional contract, he had played on amateur all-star teams in Forbes Field and Yankee Stadium.
After excelling at Perry High School in Pittsburgh and Allegheney College in Meadville, Pa., Beckert was an in-demand prospect. By his senior year of college, he had a lifetime .487 collegiate average and was a three-time member of the all-Presidents Athletic Conference infield. The Yankees offered him a bonus contract over the summer of 1961. He did not accept it, but his father had accepted travel and subsistence expenses from the team for a tryout. Because money changed hands, Beckert was declared ineligible from college sports in December of 1961. The ruling cost Beckert his role as forward on the Allegheney College basketball team as well as shortstop on the baseball team in his senior year.
Beckert ended his layoff from competitive sports when he signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox in May of 1952, which came with an $8,000 bonus. The Sox sent him to the Waterloo Hawks of the Class-D Midwest League. In 81 games there, he hit .280 as a shortstop and third baseman and knocked in 40 runs. Beckert’s career with the Red Sox came to an end in the first-year player draft in November of 1962, when the Cubs paid Boston $8,000 for his contract.
The Cubs invited Beckert to their spring training camp in 1963, but he was expected to be farmed out for more experience. The team sent him to the Wenatchee Chiefs of Wenatchee, Wash., a team in the Northwest League. In his first full season, he batted .288, and then he hit .277 for the Salt Lake City Bees of the AAA Pacific Coast League in 1964. By the time the 1965 spring training camp rolled around, he was ready to step up to the major leagues.
The Cubs had established corner infielders with Ron Santo at third base and Ernie Banks at first. The middle infield, though, was a tossup, particularly since the death of Ken Hubbs a couple years prior left a gaping hole there. Beckert was moved to second base, and the shortstop role was first given to Roberto Pena. Before long, though, rookie Don Kessinger would take over, giving the Cubs a solid double play combination for years to come.
Beckert was the Opening Day second baseman and leadoff hitter on April 12, 1965. He struck out in his first two at-bats against the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson before getting an infield hit off reliever Ron Taylor. His bat needed a little longer to adjust to the major leagues. He hit .239 in his first season, which would be the only year that he dropped below .250.
Beckert raised his batting average to .287 in 1966 and began a streak of remarkably similar seasons. Year after year, Beckert would have a good and occasionally great batting average. He hit a lot of singles, didn’t walk much and struck out even less. In the seven seasons that would be considered his peak (1966-1972), he slashed .293/.325/.360 and averaged 23 doubles, 4 triples and 3 home runs. He walked an average of 27 times in 615 plate appearances, but he fanned a mere 24 times, on average. There were three seasons in that span where he had more doubles than strikeouts.
Beckert won his only Gold Glove award in 1968, when he appeared on defense in 154 of the Cubs’ 155 games and had 19 errors in 836 chances for a .977 fielding percentage. He also took part in 107 double plays. At the plate, he had one of his better seasons, as he finished 7th in the NL with a .294 batting average and 3rd with 189 hits. He led the major leagues with 98 runs scored.
Cubs manager Leo Durocher, never at a loss for words, compared his second baseman to the likes of Jackie Robinson and Eddie Stanky.
“Like Robinson, Beckert beats you in so many ways. He hits, steals a base, does it on defense. He always hustles. Even when he bounces to the pitcher and is out by 20 feet he goes to first hard,” he said.
“He’s smart like Stanky, always trying everything he can do to get on base,” the manager added. “He’ll knock a building over for you. He doesn’t give you 100 percent. He gives you 125 percent.”
Beckert found his niche in the Cubs lineup batting second. His lack of walks may be attributed to who he was hitting behind — three future Hall of Famers.
“If Santo and Banks and Williams are hitting the ball hard, then I know I’m going to see a lot of fastballs,” he explained, pointing out that pitchers don’t want to risk him getting on base via the walk with the sluggers coming up. They’d rather give him something to hit. “Even [Juan] Marichal, who’s a great curveball pitcher, will give me fastballs.”
Beckert made his first All-Star Team in 1969, joining the rest of the Cubs infield and catcher Randy Hundley. That ’69 Cubs is legend for coming so close to making the postseason. Beckert did his part to help the team with another Glenn Beckert year: .291/.325/.341 slash line, 24 walks and 24 strikeouts, better-than-average defense at second base. He missed almost a full month of the season with a fractured thumb. Call it the Cubs’ second-place finish the Billy Goat Curse or the Black Cat Curse, but Beckert had a more realistic explanation:
“I just think we didn’t have enough bench strength,” he said after his retirement. “We had eight players who had to be in there every day. We didn’t have the guy who could come off the bench, do the job and give a regular a few days of rest. We were just too tired in September.”
Beckert had his best all-around season in 1971, when he finished 3rd in the NL with a .342 batting average. He also finished 8th with 181 hits and 3rd with 156 singles. His .986 fielding percentage at second was the best of his career. The Cubs finished in third place, and their window of opportunity was closing. Banks was at the end of his career, the Cubs’ other stars were past 30 years old, and the pitching staff was a bit of a mess after Fergie Jenkins. Beckert himself was starting to suffer from minor injuries that kept him out of ballgames. After appearing in every game in 1968, he played in more than 140 games just one more time in his career.
Beckert got off to a slow start in 1972 and was hitting .230 at the end of May. A good June raised his batting average more than 30 points, and he was named to his fourth and final All-Star team. He injured his knee and was placed on the disabled list at the end of August. Beckert returned and ended the year hitting .270, but that was more than 10 points below his career average.
Beckert started the 1973 campaign with a 26-game hitting streak, and he hit .359 during that span. A rough, injury-filled second half dropped his season batting average to .255, and he slugged just .290, with 13 doubles among his 95 base hits. Utility infielder Paul Popovich ended up logging significant time at second base as Beckert spent his final month with the Cubs as a pinch-hitter. He needed offseason heel surgery because he was unable to play in the field regularly.
By the end of 1973, the Cubs were determined to break up their aging team. Beckert was sent to San Diego in exchange for outfielder Jerry Morales. Santo, Jenkins, Williams, Kessinger and Hundley would all follow him out the door before too long.
“The toughest part of the whole thing will be missing the friendships I’ve made here. But I still plan to make my home in Chicago,” he said at the time.
The Padres at the time had filled up their roster with several former All-Stars at the end of their career, like Willie McCovey and Matty Alou. Beckert played in 64 games while backing up starting second baseman Derrel Thomas. He was injured at the end of April with traumatic arthritis in his right ankle. The pain flared up again, and he missed the entire month of June and most of July as well. He hit .256 when he was able to play and hoped for a comeback year in 1975. He played in 9 games for the Padres in ’75 and went 6-for-16, but the Padres released him at the end of April. Beckert charged that he should have been put on the disabled list due to injuries, which would have entitled him to salary and benefits. An arbiter eventually awarded him $35,000 in back pay from the Padres.
Beckert’s batting eye was still sharp, given his .375 average in 1975. He said that the Kansas City Royals contacted him about a job as a right-handed pinch-hitter, but he was tired of the pain that came with being an active player with arthritis. He decided to retire at the age of 35.
In his 11-season career, Beckert slashed .283/.318/.345, with 1,473 hits. Never a power hitter, he had 196 doubles, 31 triples and 22 home runs. He walked 260 times and struck out 243 times, and he led the National League in at-bats per strikeouts five times in his career. His high point was in 1968, when he struck out once per 32.2 at-bats; his 21.4 career average is 91st all-time.
Beckert spent some time announcing with the Padres during his times on the DL, and he did a little work on the mic when he retired. He also had some business ventures with Santo and worked at the Board of Trade after his retirement. He became a regular participant at Randy Hundley’s Fantasy Camps and Cubs Conventions, where the ’69 Cubs players were welcomed like conquering heroes.
Beckert suffered near-fatal injuries, including a fractured skull, falling down a flight of stairs in 2001. He was also diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. He was unable to attend Cubs Conventions in recent years, and his frequent conversations with his Cubs teammates became rarer.
“We talked so many times,” Kessinger told the Sun-Times. “‘Beck’ was a great teammate and a friend, and he has been on my mind the last little while.”
Beckert was roommates with Santo on the road for nine years. For most of that time, he never knew that Santo was diabetic and needed insulin injections. When Santo was finally elected, posthumously, into the Hall of Fame, he said that it was a great honor for himself and the other players on the team who never had a chance at the Hall.
“In the final innings of your own life, it makes the day better,” he said.
For more information: Chicago Sun-Times